Like father like son: How boys become boys

Like father like son: How boys become boys

Ruby, Jennie

Like Father Like Son: How Boys Become Boys

In the movie Mission Impossible Tom Cruise is up against bad guys. They find out he has a wife. They seek to manipulate his weakness: the fact that he cares about her. They kidnap her and tell him they will kill her if he doesn’t comply with their scheme. He says, with steely eyes, “Go ahead and kill her.” Even the bad guys are cowed by the coldness of this statement, and the tide is turned, and he wins.

In Star Wars the evil Empire captures the hero by taking advantage of the fact that he cares about his friends — they set a trap for him by torturing them. In James Bond movies — the rage among seventh grade boys right now — the “kidnap his girlfriend and hold her at gunpoint” scenario happens over and over. Anything a man cares about is seen as a weakness in these films, and not seeming to care is a route to power and dominance. You care, you lose; you convincingly seem not to care, you win.

These scenarios are quite prevalent in male-oriented action movies, and are often treated in a highly dramatic way. Movies with these scenarios make tons of money. Why is this type of scenario so popular? I think it is very poignant for men, because a major feature of masculinity in our culture is that men are supposed to be stoic, and their refusal to acknowledge or give in to their feelings is a source of power for them.

There are well-known stereotypes of men and women in our society. Men are tough, unexpressive, individualistic, less easily hurt, more rational, naturally aggressive. Women are more delicate, expressive, social, emotional, less rational, and either not aggressive or express their aggression in nonviolent ways. The stereotypes serve a system of male dominance. Through a pattern of aggressiveness and imperviousness to emotions men retain their socially dominant position. To sustain a society that is male dominant, children must be raised to fit, for the most part, these definitions or stereotypes. They must be raised to act out these roles, and they must be raised to believe in them.

What follows are some observations and some research that examine how one of these roles, masculinity, is reproduced and passed on from fathers to sons.

1 “Dad, it’s Wednesday. Can I have my allowance?”

“Well, I don’t know. Don’t you owe me money?”

“Mom, its Wednesday. Can I have my allowance?”

“Sure dear. Just run get me my purse.”

2 In a grocery store, a four-year-old boy is momentarily lost. Behind him, his father peeks over a display and sees him. The father sneaks forward and Rrrraaaaaahhhhh! grabs the boy from behind. The boy is startled and starts crying. “What’s the matter, asks the father, “Are you a big cry baby? Can’t you take a joke?”

In a grocery store, a four-year-old boy is momentarily lost. Behind him, his mother peeks over a display and sees him. The mother says, “Tommy! Get over here right now!” The boy looks up with relief and follows his mother back to the cereal isle.

3 On a vacation trip the boy succeeds at water skiing the very first time he tries. He tells his mother back at the beach house. “You DID? That’s fabulous. Was it hard? I’m not surprised, because you are so athletic you can do any sport. I’m really proud of you.” The boy smiles and tells his aunt and his sister proudly about his success, and plans to go again the next day. Then he phones his father and tells him. His father responds with silence. Then, jovially, jokingly, his father says, “How about playing some basketball when you get home. I bet I’ll kick your butt.” The boy says, laughing, “No, I’ll kick your butt.” “Oh, I don’t think so, I’m going to mop the floor with you.” “Oh, yeah, well I’m going to cook your goose.” When he gets off the phone his mother asks, “What did your Dad say about your water-skiing?” “Nothing.” “What do you mean, nothing. Wasn’t he proud of you?” “Oh. Mom, for pete’s sake, water-skiing is no big deal. Anybody can do it. I don’t want to go tomorrow.”

Masculinity is constructed through tiny vignettes that occur over and over in a boy’s life. The normal relations between boys and their fathers serve to mold the boy into the shape of manhood. And should there be no father in the picture, the work is done by “male role models,” peers, rap and rock music, movies, television, video games, and virtually every person a boy comes in contact with.

The work of creating masculinity consists of divorcing the child from his feelings, encouraging aggression and self-punitiveness, and creating disdain for weakness and femininity. It appears that this work is done more by fathers than by mothers. Studies have shown that “fathers differentiate between sons and daughters more than mothers do.” Although mothers do treat male and female children differently to some extent, fathers do so to a greater extent.(1)

The first scenario cited above is mild joking that would not be seen as any kind of problem by most people. The father humorously teases his son about the allowance before finally handing over the money. But the effect is actually to dis the son’s asking for something and to cast into question, even if only momentarily, the boy’s right to expect something. The effect is to jerk the son around. The boy has to learn that if he lets on that if he lets on that he wants his allowance too badly, or is hurt by the joking, he will be jerked around more. If he argues just the right way, while making sure to sound jovial and to hide the true sense of hurt that this teasing evokes, he’ll get his allowance after all.

Contrast this to the feelings evoked by his mother’s “Sure, dear.” This response confirms that he deserves his allowance and has a right to receive it on time. He probably feels warmth and caring from this adult, and he feels that his wants and needs are respected. The fact that he tends to get this feeling more from his mother and not from his father teaches him something about differences between men and women. It teaches him about the outlines of patriarchy.

The second scenario is a straightforward instance of teaching the boy to hide his feelings. It actually feels bad to have someone sneak up behind you and scare you, especially if you are already feeling bad or nervous. Most adults don’t like this. But the boy is derided for having those feelings, and gets the message “Don’t show that you feel hurt or angry when someone does something obnoxious to you.” It also has the effect of teaching the child to do this sort of thing to others, thus perpetuating the kind of world where people jump out and scare you when you are nervous instead of the kind of world where this does not happen.

In the third scenario the mother praises the boy and builds up his confidence, but the father apparently feels competitive with the boy. He not only does not praise his son’s accomplishment, he changes the subject to an area where he feels he can beat the boy. Even though it is done in supposed jest, he is putting his son down. The boy learns he is never good enough for his father and that accomplishments his mother might praise are not important.

Some people would view these scenarios as toughening up the kid. It might seem like a positive thing to raise a child to not be startled easily or be bothered by teasing. But that is to assume that children are going to grow up into a world where people will tease them and purposely startle them and where the correct reaction will be not to care. In other words, we are assuming they will grow up in a masculinist society. For the most part, we don’t tend to raise our daughters this way. A lost daughter would typically be comforted, not frightened further on purpose.

Of course not all fathers act exactly this way with their sons and daughters, and not all mothers are loving and respectful. Yet the various ways fathers can be and the various ways mothers are average out into treatment of children that reproduces our masculinist society. Some fathers are harsh disciplinarians. They teach their sons to be hard on themselves and harsh toward others. Others may be emotionally distant and unavailable. They teach their sons that the way to be a man is to be distant and silent rather than emotionally warm and caring. Again, imperviousness rather than caring is communicated as the manly way. Other fathers may be warm and loving to their son but routinely show disdain for their wife’s “weaknesses.” They teach by example that women and the characteristics of women such as emotional expressiveness are to be disdained. While these boys may actually receive warmth and caring, they are still taught that the emotional vulnerability of women is a negative trait. One way or another, our society’s cultural beliefs that masculinity equates with uncaring and power, and femininity with caring and weakness is transmitted. In the movies as well as other places in our culture, he who cares the least has the most power. Learning not to care gives men power over those who do care.

Not only fathers do the work of creating masculinity: Peers also work on the project of creating both a tough social world and men who can survive in a tough social world.

“Hey Tommy, what are you, a WUSS?”

The interactions between school boys are full of such taunts. In fact, taunts and teasing make up pretty much all of their interactions with each other, according to my partner’s 13-year old son. Other neighborhood boys, aged 7 to 14, spend hours on the grassy strip in front of my house alternately taunting each other and wrestling each other to the ground. If a boy seems to be affected by the teasing, the others will go after him mercilessly. If he seems to care that they are being mean to him, he loses.

A boy is walking down the hall at school. Another boy purposely trips him so that he falls and smashes into the lockers. Others laugh. He gets up and moves on. A friend asks him, “Are you hurt?” With tears in his eyes he roughly says, “No, of course not.” My partner’s son who is reporting this to me gives this analysis: “I think that by having to pretend he wasn’t hurt, he was learning not to care if someone hurts him. I think that will make him not care if he hurts someone else.”

Masculine aggressiveness, masculine silence about feelings, and masculine disdain for emotions as weaknesses are created through the ways we raise boys. These characteristics of masculine men play a crucial role in sustaining male dominance in our society. Fathers play a major role in both modeling and directly teaching these behaviors, but the development of masculinity in boys is socially reinforced throughout our culture. What is socially constructed can be socially dismantled. As Father’s Day approaches, that is the work I think we need to get to. We need to dismantle the mechanisms that reinforce and reproduce the kinds of men who sustain patriarchy.

(1). Miriam M. Johnson, Strong Mothers, Weak Wives: The Search for Gender Equality, University of California Press, 1988.

Illustration (House with family)

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jun 1998

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