Why being a boy is such a pain

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Whatever you're feeling, even if you're dying inside, you can never tell anyone. Do that and you're finished."

This is what one 12-year-old boy told me during a workshop. His comments were echoed by many other boys interviewed (in the 10 to 14-year age group). It seems for boys to be boys that hoary old myth still applies: namely, real men must act as if they're detached from all emotions.

The workshop purpose was to research my new book Avenger which looks at psychological bullying, or as one boy dubbed it, "trying to get inside your head".

Boys could describe many instances of such "mind games". For example, after one boy was dubbed a "weirdo" he was deliberately excluded from a party to which every other boy in the class was invited. He also got the silent treatment for days. Others spoke of hate campaigns against an individual in which "bad rumours" were spread around the school about him.

Boys also possess a much keener sense of who their best mates are than might be commonly supposed. A number spoke of attempts to break up a good friendship by "making up stuff I'd never actually said".

However upset or angry you might feel, they said you must be careful how you react in public. "You've always got to act as if you're not bothered," said one boy. You certainly could never talk to a teacher or your parents about such emotional concerns. When I asked why, one boy said: "Too shaming." Another added: "It just makes you look completely weak."

Next I asked what was permissible. There were shrugs until one boy declared: "You can punch the walls of your bedroom."

This struck a chord with me. I can remember being picked on at school for several weeks. As a release, I would come home early and smash things up in my bedroom. Otherwise I just drifted about in my own world. There seemed to be no alternative. More than 20 years later nothing seems to have changed for boys. Of course, discussing emotional problems is not easy for either sex. Both are subject to peer pressure and the fear of seeming different, but at least girls are allowed to care.

A belief persists that if boys learn how to toughen up and deal with things "like a man" this will harden them against any future setbacks. Further, if boys are cosseted now, won't they be less able to deal with the conflicts of adulthood when they arise?

But this is a foolish argument. After all, we're not teaching boys how to deal with emotional problems. Rather, we're saying that such matters are best suppressed. No wonder some boys seem so bottled up and volcanic.

Further, the typical bully is not only contemptuous of other people's emotions, but has great difficulty in acknowledging his own. Surely, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging boys to shut down emotionally.

What also struck me is how isolated some boys are. A few did have a good mate they could completely trust. Boys most commonly confided in a grandparent.

It was just too embarrassing to tell a parent. "Nan's the one person who never gives me grief. I can say anything to her," one said.

Grandparents were special because of their "non-judgmental stance". But can't others also occupy such a role?

The mentor system is a really exciting development. It encourages older boys to look out for younger ones. Older boys get a sense of responsibility and younger ones can open up to someone.

Schools offer other opportunities for self-expression such as art, music, creative writing, and drama. Lunchtime (and after-school) book clubs also thrive in boys' schools.

Such developments help to change the culture. It is vital we challenge masculinity myths now. It is ludicrous to pretend that half the population is emotionless - and dangerous.

As one boy wrote to me: "The worst thing was not telling anyone how I felt.

The pain inside me just grew and grew."

Pete Johnson is a children's writer. His latest novel, Avenger, is published by Corgi Yearling

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