Real Boys

Today's gender expectations are toxic to boys, says Michael Gliksman

Boys outnumber girls by 20:1 in juvenile justice facilities in Australia. Boys are less likely to complete their secondary education or proceed to tertiary education.

Boys are many times more likely than girls to suffer accidental death. Boys under 5 years of age are almost four times more likely than girls to be killed by their parent(s) or other carer.

Young males are between 4 to 7 times more likely to take their lives than girls, a difference which has emerged only in the last 30 years. In fact, much of the gender disparity in outcomes in health, education and welfare, of which the above is a sample, has emerged or worsened over this period of time.

At the same time, feminism has gone from strength to strength as a legitimate and timely response to gender imbalances in access to economic and political power. Feminism offers a framework for action and men deny themselves an effective voice by failing to recognise this. The first we could learn is to understand the crisis in political and sociological terms.

A number of social commentators and educators, mainly female, believe boys are toxic in school and in society in general and need to be civilised. The now almost totally feminised world of child care and education ensures boys receive this message loud and clear. They are not wanted but are at best tolerated, provided they adhere to female friendly forms of learning and behaviour.

The reality is that men and women together share gender based expectations that are slowly rendering society, school and home life toxic to boys. This results in boys' falling self-esteem, a sense of disconnection from society and a feeling that males have little contribute positively to society.

What's gone wrong?

Because boys look to men in their lives for role models, the ability to create positive change rests mainly with men. Men must demand women change their destructive attitudes towards boys but we will be in no moral position to do this until we also change our ideas of what defines masculinity. What are these attitudes and from where did they arise? Attitudes powerful enough to cross millennia and persist, even when their effect becomes manifestly destructive?

Once men hunted mammoth, fought sabre-toothed tigers, protected and fed our women and our young. Wars were fought to protect land, food and freedom, as well as for less noble motives. In all these endeavours, physical strength, courage and a capacity for self-denial made men the natural hunters and protectors. Boys hoped to grow to be the sorts of men they saw around them and as far as we can tell from the anthropological evidence, for most of human existence this gender based disparity was supported by women. It could not have survived otherwise.

The boy code

This value system once gave boys a clear path to manhood and a socially useful means by which they could acquire a sense of self-worth. It is a value system men and women still enforce on boys, even though its utility to modern Western society has passed. The only tigers we hunt now are metaphorical. Physical stamina and emotional denial are no longer as advantageous in the modern jungle of commerce and uncertainty. Even in war, physical prowess is becoming irrelevant.

Yet both men and women cling to outmoded attitudes which offer a false promise of self-worth to boys, by encouraging values and behaviours toxic to them in our modern society and which are now despised by a large proportion of that society. These attitudes are referred to by William Pollack in his wonderful book 'Real Boys' as The Boy Code.

Pollack discusses four features of socialisation to which boys are subjected from their earliest days, features that make up the Code.

The first is that men should be a sturdy oak. A man must never show 'weakness' and therefore, boys must not share pain or grieve openly. They mustn't be sooks.

The second is that men should give them hell. A man exhibits daring, bravado and action without thought of consequence. It is no mystery that boys are severely injured or die in accidents far more commonly than girls.

The third is that a man should be a big wheel, by achieving dominance and power over others and especially, over other men. Pollack contends that the ironic effect of such unrelenting competition with other boys causes many to turn away from academic or sporting pursuits to avoid the pain of failure, for the failure they then feel is of their entire sense of identity. No wonder boys are at a far greater risk of completed suicide than are girls.

The fourth and last feature is no sissy stuff. Pollack believes this is the most destructive code of all. If a boy (or man) expresses feelings, more often than not he encounters not empathy but ridicule, from males and females alike.

By prohibiting the expression of interdependence, warmth and empathy among males, boys are not only condemned to an emotional crippling, they are left with aggressive action as the only means of expressing their isolation, fear and despair. This is known in psychology as 'acting out' and is a major mechanism by which troubled boys come to the attention of police.

Disruptive behaviour in children, especially boys, is nothing new. What appears to be new is the increasing violence perpetrated by ever younger children and society's declining tolerance of it.

In most common law countries like Australia, the legal principle of doli incapax presumes that younger children cannot form a criminal intent. This protects younger boys who act out from the more punitive responses of the criminal justice system. But it doesn't protect them from harm.

Legal drug epidemic

Over the past decade, a disorder known as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been spreading among our children like an epidemic. During that time the prescription of the drugs used to control this disorder, central nervous system stimulants chemically similar to the amphetamines which can be bought on the streets - kids do a great trade selling their medications to other kids and to adults - has increased tenfold.

These drugs have potentially dangerous side-effects particularly in overdose and the results of their long-term use are unknown. From prescription data, at least 8 times more prepubertal boys than girls are diagnosed with this disorder. A disproportionate number of these boys come from single female parent or other households lacking a positive adult male presence.

The drugs used to treat ADD/ADHD are often successful in modifying the behavioural expression of a young boy's anger and despair. But they do not address the contribution of social stressors to those emotions. Since boys tend to act out their anger and despair more readily than girls, the former bear disproportionately the burden of risk of being exposed to those drugs.

It is ironic that many of the people who felt understandable anguish at the drug induced death of the young teenager Anna Woods, are insisting that similar drugs be prescribed for their even younger sons.

In today's climate of isolated, economically and emotionally stressed single parent families, boys who act out represent a threat to the economic and emotional stability of the family unit. Controlling their behaviour by medicating them to achieve compliance may be an economic imperative, but it is not always a medical one.

Criminalising our boys

Older boys who act out are treated with even less consideration and compassion. Witness the events in the Northern Territory, where mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles fall disproportionately not just on Aboriginals but all male juveniles old enough to be charged with a criminal offence.

Boys are more likely to be suspected of criminal activities than are girls in the same setting. If suspected, boys are more likely to be charged with a criminal offence.

The Children's Court system in New South Wales has already been found to treat boys more harshly than girls convicted of the same offences, handing down stiffer sentences including custodial sentences at a greater rate than for girls convicted of the same crimes.

As much as actual differences in the rate of criminal behaviour, these anti-male sexist biases explain why there are twenty boys in detention for every girl.

Not only does the 'boy code' lead boys into acting out behaviours more readily than girls, our attitudes mean the behaviour will not be recognised as a sign of distress. It will generate a punitive response that worsens the situation, drugs our boys into submission and jails those who don't submit quietly.

Our blind, punitive response to their pain fuels the next generation of violent, abusive, self-destructive men who in turn, fuel the next. And so on it goes, unless we men choose to make a stand.

What can we do?

Recognising that there is a problem is a very good start.

Acting out in a young boy is usually a cry for help. Respond to it as such and help others around you do likewise. Don't allow chemical straightjackets or prison bars be anything than a last resort. Agitate politically to promote this approach.

Demand that 'family friendly' workplace practices be applied equally for fathers and take up the opportunity they offer to participate fully in the life of your children. Negotiate for such arrangements as part of your workplace enterprise agreements or individual contract. In this way you will demonstrate to your children as well as other men and women, a more balanced role for men in society.

Involve yourself in your children's school. Work towards promoting an inclusive, boy friendly - and male teacher friendly - environment in his place of education. Ensure the school has an effective anti-bullying program but that intrinsic to that program is the recognition that bullying itself is often a cry for help from a troubled or abused boy.

Boycott products advertised in an anti-male stereotypical manner. Write to the manufacturer or retailer telling them you are doing this and why. Feminists well know the power of advertising in promoting and maintaining harmful stereotypes as well as the power of an economic boycott to change the content of advertising. Our silence makes safe male bashing in the media.

Let politicians and the media know of your disapproval of anti-male sexist stereotypes and policies based upon them. Let them know you will vote on such issues. Again, feminists know well the powerful effect of such action on policy formulation and program creation.

Perhaps most important of all, resolve to treat your sons and male friends in a manner that will enhance communication, self-esteem and mutual support.

Examine your own behaviour as a role model. Whether you live with him or not, whether you like it or not, you are the most important and influential role model your son will ever have.

Michael Gliksman is a physician and clinical psychologist who has worked with abused and emotionally troubled children within the NSW public hospital system.


(1) Gliksman MD. Gender-based differences in the treatment of young offenders by the police and the children's court in New South Wales, Australia. Med Sci Law 1997;37:165-169.

(2) Australian Bureau of Statistics. Homicide and Related Offences. ABS 1997.

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