Boys success in emotion management

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Is this old article from the New York Times a study in how many things can one writer get wrong in one article? Or is it a study in modern psychology?

As most of my readers know by now, I don’t look at the world through pop psychology or the buzzwords of the day from the media.

So I will start with the principle that we need to digest this type of article with care and precision.

This article presents many conflicting issues with the Journalism 101 principle that all serious analyses need to have a personal story to make the reading tolerable. (They would say “interesting,” but I find so little journalism interesting. To me, journalism is often a study in formulaic writing. But I digress.) So, the main point of what happens to boys in their emotional development gets interrupted by a boy getting an injection, a vignette from a College Honors class, a lecture by a professor with a wayward frat-boy interlocutor, an interview with a researcher, and class offerings now available in Men’s Studies. Let’s put all those wandering digressions aside.

The article tries to make the point that boys to age 5 are more emotive than same-aged girls. These boys are more socially oriented than same-aged girls. The boys develop deep emotional bonds easily and regularly.

The article claims that by puberty we socialize this emotive personality out of them. This claim of socializing out emotiveness has utterly no academic support in the article. It is merely asserted as gospel truth. I question the validity of the claim. As I am growing persuaded that Karl Popper’s theory of science is true (i.e., science exists in only two places (1) hypotheses already proven false, like the 4 humors approach to medicine, and (2) hypotheses stated in a manner that can be found to be false through experimentation or observation), mere assertions don’t persuade me much.

Despite my doubts, the rest of the article is built on how to resolve this asserted problem that we are socializing out boys’ ability to handle emotions.

Hannah Arendt, a 20th century philosopher of whom I have only recently learned, suggested that violence in society rises when bureaucracy grows, due to fewer means of being able to successfully petition for relief from problems. Violence is seen as the only outlet.

If Arendt is correct, a reasonable corrollary is that humans funneled into unfulfilling avenues of life foster behavior that rebels against the funneling.

So, let’s imagine a boy in middle school on the morning of father visits. He is sitting in class listening to a female teacher talk about the Diary of Anne Frank. The teacher asks about the relationships and feelings of the different persons in the story. The boy tunes out. All the boys around him tune out. The fathers all reach for their cell phones (I resisted only by whispering to the father next to me to share in my observation). The girls gleefully raised their hands and participated. The teacher had to pull teeth to engage the boys. These boys were being funneled into a terribly boring presentation that connected with 0% of the male population in the room with nearly 20 male subjects and 50% of the 10 female subjects.

Given the horrid selection of literature that I have seen my son endure through middle school and high school, he has been heavily funneled to want to rebel against English Literature. Yet, in the six years since the Anne Frank incident, he has come home and quoted Shakespeare and discusses those lessons learned with passion each year, whether Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, or Hamlet. All other selected literature seem to make him depressive, with the exception of a brief excerpt from Don Quixote.

This funneling of students into uninspiring education tends to fit Arendt’s notion of bureaucracy funneling citizens and creating rebellion.

In the Times article, the problem is identified not as funneling problem, but as a problem of boys’ needing more emotional connection. Boys don’t want to show emotion. The only outlet is supposedly romantic connections to girls. Boys’ ability to grow emotionally is the cause of isolation, leading to shootings and assaults.

To me this analysis is upside-down. I think Arendt’s notion that I describe as “funneling” is very profound in our modern society. Boys are bearing the brunt of the problem. Boys are being funneled into school subjects that bore them to tears. Then boys are funneled to colleges, that bore them to tears. Boys funneled this way are acting out.

Before the advent of the ubiquitous extracurricularly involved kid, kids would come home after school, eat a snack, and play in the yard with neighbors. Video games are often blamed as the problem. The problem is not the game. That is a symptom. The problem is that few kids are home, but those few kids who are home are not given much chance to be outdoors with other kids. Baden Powell’s gang of boys never have a chance to form. Then we are surprised that they no chance to bond? Boys bond in action. Girls bond in talking.

Giving boys more chance to act like girls and talk more is another form of funneling. Boys need to learn how to deal with one another in backyard sports or whatever the modern version of cowboys-and-indians is. Boys will argue about ground rules, roles, boundaries, methods of play, etc. They will feel emotions. They will act on emotions. They will learn to manage the powerful emotions, increasingly fueled by testosterone as they age. Talking does not harbor testosterone well. Exhausted muscles and minds harbor testosterone miraculously.

So how does all this fit with scouting? Scouting is built for action and arguments on ground rules, roles, boundaries, and methods of play. Scouting is built to tire muscles and minds. Scouting is built to reflect on the day at the campfire on the lessons learned from testosterone-filled days.

But wait there is more. The Times article suggests that boys who participate in the arts, music, drama, and foreign language perform better in school and are more engaged. In other words, they have an opportunity to be part of a group that has shared interests and has the boy consider his role in the larger world.

As to these specific examples of activities and the extrapolition of meaning that I offered, scouting fits well. First, well-run campfires use lots of “drama” and “music,” if you call hokey skits and poor singing by such titles. Second, there is a strong group identity and shared interests with lots of considerations of the boy’s role in the larger world.

So in sum, I suggest that the problem in society is not that we don’t have boys emote enough or talk enough about their emotions. The problem is that we expect them to emotionally grow the same way that girls do and that we expect to improve the situation by having boys spend more time trying to emote like girls. I suggest that we keep our boys active and owning the program, then spend more time at the campfire with stop-start-continue conversations to discover lessons learned. Then spread the wealth to non-scouters. Grow the community of the campfire.