Teenage boys don't cry...

15th August 2003 at 01:00
...but should teachers encourage them to? George Adamson argues that emotionally stunted males need to be taught how to understand and express their feelings.

Teenage boys. To many they remain a mystery. Aggression, underachievement, poor effort or concentration, truancy, risk-taking, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, underage or casual sex and lack of regard for authority are all signs and symptoms of the pressures felt by today's young males. In many regards, we should learn to expect this behaviour, especially from the "vulnerable"; but unless we address its root cause we cannot expect our young men to function at the levels expected of them.

As so many educationists have said over the years, we must dissociate the person from the behaviour and then spend some time pondering on whether we actually contribute to it as parents or teachers. In other words, did we actually create the monster that so frightens us?

Society has created a state of being that enables girls to be who they are and rarely, these days, criticises any of their behaviour as "inappropriate". Girls can play rugby, drink a pint of beer, cry in public, express worries or concerns, achieve high standards of academic success, hug their friends openly in the street or playground, drive a lorry or lay bricks.

All of this they do without ridicule, being openly compared with another female, or being labelled as a result. I applaud the fact that girls can express themselves in whatever way they feel and follow their instincts and abilities as their life unfolds. What is clear, however, is the fact that we have lost the "traditional" definition of the word feminine.

As that definition alters, it goes without saying that the definition of masculine must change also. But has it? I think not. For the most part, it continues to mean what it has always done - in fact, as girls encroach on traditional "male" territory, it may even be taking on a harder, narrower meaning.

It remains difficult for many boys to be who they are. They remain emotionally trapped in a world that can be judgmental and damning. We allow girls to play with cars and dress up in boys' clothes, but if boys play with dolls or put on a dress people discourage them or even openly express concerns about their sexuality. Boys who cry during emotional or painful events can be ridiculed or stigmatised, while this response is simply expected of girls.

In short, we encourage girls to become fully emotionally literate while boys have most of their delicate emotional tools removed. How does a young man stripped of his emotional capacity deal with a relationship breakdown, the death of a parent, separation within his family, or failure? Compare this with how a girl would respond. Is it then surprising that the levels of anxiety and depression, not to mention suicide, are rising among young men or that we in schools sometimes have turbulent experiences with boys, particularly adolescents?

This emotional inability has serious implications, not least for academic attainment. Academic failure or underachievement may simply be a result of wishing to appear "masculine", of striving to be seen as "hard"; as "top dog", rather than top of the class. Quite simply, boys make use of the limited number of aggressive tools society has allowed them to keep to secure their place in the pack. Too often, academia isn't seen to have a part to play in this. This week's A-level results offer stark evidence of the drag on boys' achievement due to this emotional inadequacy, while girls forge ahead.

If we are to solve this problem, the emphasis must be on developing the emotional potential of young men. The emphasis can no longer solely be on knowledge, but must move to incorporate high-quality personal and social education, emphasising emotional intelligence for all.

A school's ethos and values, practices and procedures, policies and approaches must all be underpinned by positive, clearly defined processes for encouraging the emotional development of all its young people.

We must recognise the great impact that placing emotional development at the heart of school life can have on overall success. Without providing the full range of emotional tools and recognising the vital place our emotions play in all aspects of our being, we will continue to encourage the male monster that, at present, confuses us.

George Adamson teaches at The Duchess's community high school in Alnwick, Northumberland. The views expressed in this article are personal

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