The "Boy Code" - myths that create life challenges for boys

By Karin Niedfeldt, November 2006
Colorado State University Extension
Family and Consumer Sciences and 4-H Youth Development Agent, Chaffee County

In the last decade, girls have made tremendous gains in school and the workforce, while boys seem to be falling further behind. As brain research continues to clarify inherent gender differences, it also contributes to reflection about societal expectations that may be toxic to boys. Dr. William S. Pollack, a nationally known researcher and author of books about boys, coined the term Boy Code. By this he means the expectations our society has for boys, and the ways we act on those expectations every day, often without knowing it.

A part of the Boy Code includes the idea that testosterone levels reduce the potential for sensitivity. Other aspects of this include the code of silence, the concept that boys should hide their emotions except for anger, the idea that showing vulnerability means a boy is weak and will be teased, and the notion that boys should be strictly controlled and punished. Even toddler boys are expected to be independent and tough, and as they grow older, show no fear of violence, adhere to "macho" behavior, and believe that teasing others is acceptable behavior.

However, studies confirm that males are psychologically more fragile than females in many ways. Because the Boy Code says that boys can express only anger and aggression, these expressions can be a mask for other emotions that society says are not acceptable.

In addition, brain-based research shows basic gender differences, in particular in processing emotion. The female brain processes emotion more completely, using more of the senses than the male brain, and females typically verbalize emotive information quickly. Boys can sometimes take hours to process emotive information. This difference may affect a boy's ability to learn and his academic performance if he is not able to process emotional stress quickly. (Gurian, "Boys and Girls Learn Differently.") A boy may be struggling with loneliness or friendship issues, a death of a friend or close relative or beloved pet, a divorce in the family or other life-altering event, and several things can occur as a result. Because he has been taught not to show emotions other than anger, he may lash out in anger, when what is really needed is a close, caring conversation with a trustworthy adult.

Brain scans of males after a crisis show brain activity in the bottom of the limbic system (where emotion is processed), rather than in the four lobes at the top of the brain (where thinking occurs). So, contrary to popular belief, a boy's reaction to a crisis tends to be more emotional than logical. Pollack, in his book "Real Boys," says, "If we don't let our boys cry tears, they'll cry bullets." This means that boys may respond to their fragility by hurting themselves and others, even those they love the most. Keep in mind there are exceptions, some girls may react aggressively to stress and boys may be better learners after a crisis because they can shut off emotions, so brain differences and personalities also make a difference.

As parents, it is important to not rely on the masculine stereotype of "tough little boys." (Gurian, "The Good Son.") Recognize gender-based brain differences and how they affect boys. Teach your son empathy and respect for others. Help build self-esteem so that he can withstand peer pressure to conform to the Boy Code. Research demonstrates that there is a direct correlation between watching violent media and violent behavior. This is especially true with boys in a society where violence is more acceptable behavior. If you have a child who seems to be more violent than his peers, stop all violent television, movie and video game watching, including all cartoons, for two months and there should be a decline in violent behavior. Above all, love your son unconditionally, and promote bonding, nurturing behaviors.

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Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014