Photo Credit: Krisztian Matyas, Unsplash.com

Written by Michael Reichert, PhD
August 7, 2019

I lead an emotional literacy program at a boys school outside of Philadelphia. Though I’ve been a researcher and a clinician specializing with men and boys for many years, I often make a common mistake regarding the teenage males in the program.

Maybe, with our national conversation about men so dominated by a scout or scoundrel trope, I’m simply channeling the spirit of child sexual abuse investigations and domestic violence scandals. I find myself unconsciously sizing boys up, consigning them to one category or the other. 

But I should know better.

A few years ago there was a 12th grader in the group whom I’d largely overlooked—viewing him as another lax bro, another preppy jock—until we started discussing boys’ relationships with each other.

When I explained that young men are often mean and hard, laying out some of the reasons why, he raised his hand and asked if he could share his story. He talked about having been a bully in middle school and mistreating some of his classmates in the room. He was so honest that it was hard to listen, both because he was right—he had been cruel—and because he was so obviously pained by it.

As he spoke, he turned red with shame, broke down, and began to cry when I asked how he had hurt the boys he targeted. He talked about one classmate, in particular, he’d mistreated—a boy who’d finally fled the school seeking relief. By way of explanation, he described himself in middle school as terribly insecure, fearful that he wouldn’t be able to maintain his social standing, trying to fit in no matter the compromises required.

I admired how brave he was to let so many of his friends and classmates in on his personal moral struggle. I could tell he voluntarily endured the humiliation of public introspection because he wanted to restore his personal integrity.

Different Boy, Different Story

The year progressed and I moved on. I thought now and then about the boy, but he wasn’t front of mind again until spring when I began counseling a younger boy who was also a lacrosse player.

He’d had a threatening illness a few years before and was still recovering from his brush with death. He had difficulty with routine pressures, sometimes becoming emotionally overwhelmed, and his parents thought it might help him to talk to someone.

Being part of a team was the best medicine. Playing, even standing on the sidelines cheering, made him feel better. He wasn’t particularly cool or social, but he had a valued place on the team. He was one of the reserve goalkeepers—the player everyone counts on to keep the team in the game. He derived a sense of purpose and significance from contributing to the group effort. It kept him going.

He was a decent player–though not a starter–and loved playing so much he’d begun to imagine a future beyond high school. Problem was, he wasn’t very fast. He always came in last in the team’s runs. Competition among the players was merciless and he lagged far behind.

Then, as tryouts began for the all-important 10th-grade season, in one of our sessions he shared that the previous day, one of the top players had slowed down to run with him all the way to the finish. The boy was moved that a senior starter had noticed him and was willing to risk his own standing with the coaches to be a good teammate. The senior who’d slowed down was the former bully.

The older boy didn’t slow down just to show solidarity with a teammate or as a team captain just because it was expected. He slowed down because he wanted to be the man who did that. In owning up to where he’d gone off course, he recovered his ability to think for himself.

Boyhood into Adulthood

As I’ve worked with young men in wealthy and poor contexts, juvenile justice systems and clinical settings, I’ve observed how closely their character’s tied to their experiences of masculine socialization. Boyhood scholars have gained new insight into the intersection between male development and moral formation—it’s both revealing and, excitingly, optimistic.

By and large, good men aren’t hard to find. Under the right conditions, they’re being turned out in families, communities, schools, and churches, all the time. The magic takes place in boys’ relationships with their parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors—nurturing interactions which are internalized to form the habits of mind and heart we call virtue.

Character strengths aren’t the product of genetics. Nor do children learn grit, ambition, and compassion from lectures or from preaching. Instead, as they face day-to-day challenges and make decisions, leaning on supportive relationships, they incorporate life lessons into their emerging sense of self. As Marvin Berkowitz of the University of Missouri-St. Louis summarized, 

“The primary influence on a child’s character development is how people treat the child.

Scholars have also come to a better understanding of how things go awry. It isn’t a design flaw or some kind of deficit in male nature. Far too many male children experience a boyhood that disrupts their natural bend toward empathy, respect, and mutual regard. They are truly untethered, able to think only about their impulses and a frozen childhood need for validation.

Young men who are preoccupied by unmet needs can behave in ways that are antisocial.

But it’s a mistake merely to blame the problem on the individual man. Moral superiority slows down the reinvention of boyhood that’s needed to ensure that boys have sufficient opportunities to attach, be accountable, grow, and strengthen their character.

Separating men into scouts and scoundrels is certainly easier than figuring out how to provide each boy with the relational anchors he needs. But the messy truth is that most of us can be either scouts and scoundrels–depending on the circumstances–especially when we’re alone in the world.

The same smug distance that separates us from men who behave badly helps to maintain the illusion that we have no responsibility for the way boys become bad.

We must do boyhood better.

To hear more from Dr. Michael Reichert, listen to his One Idea Away Podcast Episode! 

Photo Credit: Krisztian Matyas, Unsplash.com