by Jaime Nisenbaum, Ph.D. posted with permission
Some call it the “boy code,” others call it the male code or the masculinity code. Regardless of its name, every boy and man in this culture learns the code and adheres to it in more or less extreme ways. There are many versions of the boy code, but overall they all share the same premises. Boys and men must: 1) be independent, self reliant, tough, and aggressive; 2) not express vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, hurt, or attachment to another person; and 3) avoid and reject all things that are deemed “feminine”.
Educators, sociologists, and psychologists are finding out that the restrictions that the code imposes on a boy’s emotional awareness and expression is causing severe problems for boys including increased school failure, depression, loneliness, isolation, and violence. Lower academic performance is one of the most visible symptoms of the problem that boys are facing: school-aged boys are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, five times more likely than girls to have conduct problems, and six times more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity
Some of these academic problems have its roots in the initial gap in verbal skills and reading readiness between boys and girls. Girls in average reach a higher degree of verbal and reading acuity earlier than boys. However, aside from these learning differences, emotional immaturity and the ensuing lack of social skills is a major contributor to boys’ academic problems. A significant detrimental impact of the boy code is that it curtails the age-appropriate emotional development of boys. For example, we expect boys to show self-reliance and independence at too young an age, which precludes them from further developing nurturing and healthy dependency bonds with their caregivers. These closer bonds are the foundation for emotional and social stability, and this premature disconnection from caregivers results in a major gap in their emotional maturation.
Another negative impact of the boy code on the emotional development of boys is that while research shows that, at birth, baby boys are more emotionally expressive than baby girls, by the time boys reach school-age, they have already learned to hide and feel ashamed of expressing vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, loneliness, and hurt as well as emotions that express their need for connection to others. When boys begin to shut off those vulnerable emotions in order to fit into the boy code, they start a relentless process of cutting off and disconnecting from part of themselves. When they do that, boys decrease their ability to be empathic, loving, and caring towards themselves and others.
Empathy, for example, is the ability to get into some else’s shoes, understand what they are feeling, and respond accordingly, which requires that we have access to our own feelings. If boys are taught not to be in touch their own feelings, how can they tune into the feelings of others?
Evelyn Schmechtig Cochran