Why We Should Let Boys Be Boys (A Criticism of Cultural Transformation)

In Sweden, preschools are working aggressively to deconstruct traditional gendered norms. The Seafarer’s Preschool in Stockholm, Sweden, made waves for its avant-garde strategy of teaching girls to be more aggressive and boys to be more feminine. Teachers, “cleared the room of cars and dolls. They put the boys in charge of the play kitchen. They made the girls practice shouting ‘No!’” Other Swedish preschools have encouraged boys to massage each others’ feet, and little girls to open windows and scream out of them.

The New York Times reported, in a glowing story on Seafarer’s Preschool, that, “Science may still be divided over whether gender differences are rooted in biology or culture, but many of Sweden’s government-funded preschools are doing what they can to deconstruct them.”

How you feel about this probably depends on which of two camps you fall into regarding masculinity.

Camp 1: The Transformation Model

This model, common among the political Left in the West, sees traditional masculinity as a problem to be solved. And to be fair, men are both the perpetrators and the victims of many societal ills. In the United States, men commit 90-95% of sexual assaults. Men make up over 91% of inmates in jails and prisons. Regardless of the efficacy of their solutions, the well-meaning proponents of the transformation model have identified real and pressing issues.

Advocates of the transformation model also insist that gender is largely a cultural construct. Change the culture, and you can change how boys and girls express themselves. Change the culture enough, and you can make girls far less traditionally feminine and boys far less traditionally masculine. Hence, Swedish preschools. According to the New York Times article, “(Swedish) state curriculum urges teachers and principals to embrace their role as social engineers, requiring them to ‘counteract traditional gender roles and gender patterns.’”

The American Psychological Association recently threw its weight behind this model. In their, “APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Men and Boys,” the authors suggest that “traditional masculinity ideology…has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict,” as well as, “negatively influence mental health” and, “physical health.”

How does the APA define, “traditional masculinity ideology?” As a constellation of behaviors including, “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.”

In short, the APA argues that many of the traits that men and boys exhibit are bad. It’s not much of a leap from there to the Swedish preschool model that says these traits must be pruned away.

Camp 2: The Channeling Model

Contrast this with the channeling model, which says that while there are of course substantial differences among individuals, boys and men do tend to see the world differently than girls and women. We tend to have different innate drives and our brains work different ways. Rather than trying to fit each child into a mold, we should help children of all genders to grow up strong and healthy and in tune with what makes them tick. This includes the millions of boys who enjoy achievement, adventure, risk, etc.

The channeling method says that masculinity, like femininity, isn’t inherently good or bad; it just is. How we teach young boys to use it is what really matters.

As one example, you might think that violence is always bad. Until you’re walking with your girlfriend late at night and someone appears out of a dark alley and tries to rape her. Then defensive violence is essential.

The transformation model and the channeling model both sound good in theory. They’re both pushed by well-meaning people who want the best for boys and for girls.

The problem is that the transformation model doesn’t work. Let’s see how and why.

Problem #1 With the Transformation Model: It Tries to Prune Masculinity

For an example of what this looks like, look at schools in the United States. K-12 schools are increasingly adopting the, “drill and skill,” methodology, wherein students sit still and imbibe information from teachers or textbooks for 8 hours per day.

Disregarding whether or not, “drill and skill” is good methodology, there’s no denying that it’s easier with girls than boys. Boys are just more rambunctious. They have more trouble sitting still, are more likely to question authority (and are less polite about it), and want to be more physically active.

If you see boys’ rambunctiousness as a problem to be solved, then what do you do? Increasingly the United States is turning to medication. According to the CDC, boys are more than twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. A large enough dose of Ritalin will curb the rambunctiousness from boys and make them sit still.

This view takes masculinity in boys as inherently destructive, and tries to transform boys (including through medication) until they act more passive in the classroom.

Problem #2: the Transformation Model Tells Boys Not to Be Themselves

One essential thing the LGBTQ movement has taught us is the importance of letting young people (and adults, for that matter) be themselves. The horror stories of teens forced into, “pray away the gay,” camps showed us that it’s far healthier to let your gay son be attracted to boys, than to try to force him to date girls. The stories of LGBTQ men and women coming out of the closet showed us that people live far better lives when they’re free to live out their innate desires, compared to when they’re forced to hide those desires out of a need to fit in.

We should remember these same lessons with young boys. As mens’ therapist John Eldredge writes in his bestseller Wild At Heart, most boys crave a battle to fight. They want a beauty to rescue. Males yearn to be tested to their core and to know that they have what it takes. In short, we’re often drawn to, “adventure, risk, and violence.”

These desires help explain why so many more men than women sign up for the military; why men are far more likely to run into a burning building if a pretty girl is nearby (the damsel in distress); and why we do things like submerge ourselves in ice baths that gives many men a reputation for having more balls than brains (to be fair, the Wim Hof Method is amazing).

We should let boys know that these desires are natural and normal. It’s okay for them to want to play with toy battle-axes and cowboy guns even if their female friends don’t want to join in; just like it’s okay for them to not like tea parties as much as their sisters.

The Dearth Of Meaning

What happens when we tell boys that these deeply-held desires are abnormal and must be pruned? 

Two things. First, you end up with a lot of men whose lives feel empty of meaning. These men feel dissatisfied pushing paper, but they’ve been taught that the things that give them meaning are wrong and shouldn’t be pursued. Deep down, they know they want to be the knight in shining armor battling the dragon and rescuing the princess; but when society has told them that fighting dragons and rescuing beauties is bad, they don’t know what to do with themselves.

This is one reason for the high rates of suicide and depression that men experience in Western culture. When you struggle to find meaning in your life, and you’re out of touch with your inner compass, it can be easier to fall into psychological malaise or to see life as hardly worth living.

Related to this: most men have a natural desire to achieve, which is deeply tied to both their masculinity and to their sense of purpose. We want to be high achievers in whatever we pursue.

There’s nothing wrong with this, when channeled in a healthy way. When this drive isn’t channeled, but is instead cut off or buried, you end up with a culture of men who struggle to achieve. This shows up in a failure to succeed academically, among other things.

High school graduation rates for men have stagnated for the past 50 years, hovering at about 80 percent. By contrast female graduation rates rose to 88% in 2018, 6% higher than boys’. Boys are more likely to be expelled from K-12 school, and substantially less likely to attend university (By the end of the 2021 academic year, about 60 percent of all college students will be women).

There are many reasons that boys lag behind girls in education, but one big piece of the puzzle is this: if you tell boys that achievement is bad, they’re going to be less likely to achieve.

Unhealthy Masculinity

Second, you end up with a lot of men who only know how to tap into their masculinity in an unhealthy way. Because they didn’t have healthy men in their lives to help them channel their masculinity in a healthy way, they turned to unhealthy role models: gangs, social media, bullying, etc. 

They didn’t have anyone to help them channel their aggression in prosocial ways, so they found petty crime as an outlet. They didn’t have a man to show them how to build a career of adventure, so they stifled their need for adventure until it suddenly burst out of them at age 45 and they left their wife and kids to go have wild sex with their secretary.

Eldredge points out that for many men, cheating on their spouses is less about sexual desire and more out of a craving for adventure. If you live your whole life behind white picket fences and the grey walls of a cubicle, a forbidden affair starts to feel like the only way to inject some life into your days. 

Problem #3 With the Transformation Model: Healthy Masculinity Is Good

Here’s the truth: strong masculine energy is like strong feminine energy. It’s essential for healthy individuals, healthy relationships of all kinds, and a healthy society. In the same way that stamping out femininity would be a mistake, trying to use cultural engineering to stamp out traditional masculinity risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

How does healthy masculinity (which includes many of the traits the APA criticizes) help society?

1) Sheepdogs

Writing in On Combat, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman points out that humans fall into three categories: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.

“If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath–a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.”

The soldiers who liberated Auschwitz in World War II were sheepdogs. The men and women who fought off their terrorist hijackers on Flight 93 on Sept 11, 2001 were sheepdogs.

As long as there are wolves in society–that is, as long as humans are humans–we should pray we have sheepdogs too. And while sheepdogs can absolutely be female, they tend to be male. All the social engineering in the world isn’t going to make women want to sign up to be Marines in the same quantities as men. More to the point, sheepdogs of either gender tend to be motivated by a drive for adventure, for risk, and–yes–for violence.

2) Women Want Masculine Men

University of Toronto Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson tells a story about two Google engineers who analyzed thousands of Harlequin romance novels in their book, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts.” These novels, which are generally written by women and largely read by women, represent a sort of distillation of what Western women crave when it comes to romance.

The engineers found that the heroes of these romance novels tend to fit into 1 of 5 archetypes:

– Vampire

– Werewolf

– Pirate

– Billionaire

– Surgeon

What do these 5 all have in common? First, as Peterson explains, they’re at the top of the dominance hierarchy. Contrary to what the APA says about a drive for achievement being bad, the heroes of womens’ fantasies tend to be high achievers.

Second, three of the five are incredibly dangerous. Very few women want a tame man. A man who has no capacity for violence holds little appeal. First, he’s boring. Second, he’s not safe. Most women want a man who can protect them when shit hits the fan. A man with no capacity for violence, tautologically, cannot do this.

3) Healthy Masculine Fathers Can Teach Their Sons Healthy Masculinity

In Wild At Heart, Eldredge argues that masculinity is bestowed by masculinity. It takes a father (or father figure) to help his son grow from a boy into a young man.

A society with lots of healthy masculine men can teach their sons what it is to be a man. They can teach them how to live a life of adventure without sacrificing their duty, how to treat a woman they love (including when and how to rescue her if she needs it), how to channel their innate aggression in prosocial ways rather than antisocial ways, and more.

If you remove the healthy masculine men from society, young boys will still find role models to help them understand their masculinity. The role models just won’t be helpful. That path leads to spiritually stifled, angry, restless men of the kind we’ve all become too familiar with.

Benefits of the Channeling Model

If the transformational model fails because it doesn’t let boys be boys or recognize the importance of masculine energy to a functioning society, the channeling model works because it does both.

Seeing masculinity as a force to be channeled, intrinsic to males (and some females) but neither good nor bad in its essence, helps us to see boys and girls as equally valuable…even when boys don’t behave exactly like girls.

This model also sees the profound good that healthy masculinity can do for society (just the way that healthy femininity can do profound good) and enables us to build a society that embraces both.

Finally, the channeling model helps us raise young boys who know and understand themselves, feel their own value, and have a sense of their God-given purpose. It helps us raise boys to embrace healthy masculinity rather than the malformed masculinity that’s more and more common in Western culture.

In this context, what does, “Boys will be boys” mean? It means that boys need to be boys. It doesn’t excuse sexual assault or aggressive violence. But it does mean that young men often differ from young women in terms of what they want and how they think. Rather than being seen as, “toxic masculinity,” these differences should be respected. 

Another way of putting this sentiment is, “girls will be girls:” girls should absolutely be allowed to join the military and fight on the front lines, but social engineering to try to force them into this way of life would be frowned upon. In the same way, boys should absolutely be allowed to throw their toy axes and violent video games in the trash and spend time playing dress-up if they want, but using social engineering to push them into this way of life is unhealthy.

Tapping Into Your Own Healthy Masculinity

If you want to cultivate your own healthy masculine energy, make peace with your shadow side, and feel more like a man than you ever have, my partner and I do offer 1-on-1 high performance coaching for men. If you’re interested, reach out today.

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