| Issue date: April 16, 2000
Teens & Safety Survey Results:
Special report on teens & safety
Katie Couric on the lessons of Columbine
One school's solutions to violence
Tipper Gore and USA WEEKEND's Teen Panel
tackle tough topics
Full Teens & Safety Survey results by question
Teens, we want to hear from YOU
5 students chosen for special honors
Back to Teens Index and survey
Where on the Web: School Safety
boys violent? We do.
A renowned child-behavior
expert argues that, despite recent headlines, our sons are not natural-born
Boys vs. girls
who responded to the USA WEEKEND survey are twice as likely
as girls to have been attacked at school and three times as
likely to have been in a fight.
deal with anger, boys are half as likely as girls to talk
to a friend. A third "try not to think about it."
By William Pollack
The heinous shooting spree at Columbine High just a year ago unfortunately
has been just one of a series of violent actions by boys in our
schools. In February, a boy as young as 6 shot and killed a classmate
in their Michigan schoolroom.
How can we believe anything other than the "fact" that boys must
be naturally aggressive, potentially toxic and, in some cases, doomed
to be not tomorrow's miscreants, but today's killers?
As I have traveled the nation talking to hundreds of boys from
Littleton, Colo., to the Everglades researching my books, I've remained
shocked to find that variations on this perspective continue to
hold sway over America. It is still embraced, not only by some parents,
but even some so-called experts and members of the media as they
try to unravel the complex reasons for boys' apparently aggressive
tendencies and for some of our sons' tragically violent rampages.
What I have discovered is strikingly similar to the findings of
USA WEEKEND's survey. Namely, not only are most boys peace-loving
and caring, but they're also afraid of violence. The myth of "natural"
or inevitable violence coming from our teenage sons is one of the
most dangerous we can believe about boys, for there is not a shred
of scientific or biological evidence to support it.
Though we know that boys are most likely to be the perpetrators
of violent crimes, they are also, importantly, the frightened victims
of those acts. According to the survey, while 1 in 4 students report
having been hit and nearly 3 in 10 report physical threats, boys
are twice as likely as girls to have been attacked and three times
as likely to have been in a fight. And while many teens report that
their method of dealing with anger is to "talk to a friend" in times
of pain and peril, boys are twice as likely as girls to "try not
to think about it." According to the survey, then, boys are more
likely to fall into an argument and get into a fight and less likely
to connect with an understanding adult to talk about their troubles.
And connection is key. But our "boy code" doesn't allow a young
male to share his fears. Not only do boys suffer personal pain when
they try to express their love, caring and sensitivity, but they
also are shamed and ostracized, ultimately fostering academic failure
and intensifying their emotional distress. At its extreme, this
creates a suicide rate for boys that is four times that of their
So, are boys just naturally too aggressive? Or do we "make" them
that way? Before you start to think that perhaps I live on another
planet, let me assure you that in my own research, just as in the
everyday experience of most parents, I see biological differences
in the behavior of boys and girls. Little boys, on average, tend
to be rougher in their play, more action-oriented or impulsive.
But this is a far cry from inborn violent aggression. It is not
biology that makes boys violent in America, for indeed they are.
Rather, it is we as a society in the messages we give, the range
of emotions we stifle within them and the myth of aggression we
saddle them with.
Boys are bombarded daily with professional wrestling, big-screen
male action "heroes" who solve their problems with AK-47s and an
ever-growing stream of hard-core violent video games -- all models
we foist on them as "healthy" adult masculinity.
Most harmful, however, is our misunderstanding of boys' genuine
emotional needs. We impose on boys what I call the male-gender straitjacket,
that narrow band of what's acceptably masculine expressiveness in
our society. The one boy emotion we accept as natural and "all male"
is anger, which often may lead to irritable action or rage.
We as a society unwittingly create the very aggression we wish
to avoid. Through the myths we continue to impose on boys and our
culture's narrow ideal of "healthy" masculinity, we fail to understand
that boys have the same true need for love and emotional connections
as girls. Boys yearn to express their vulnerable feelings.
It is our responsibility, especially as the caring adults vouchsafed
with protecting their safety, to reach out to them, before it is
too late. Instead of metal detectors, we need emotion "perceptors,"
"shame-free zones" -- where we can hear boys' "real voices" -- and
safe opportunities to let them express their pain.
We, as a society, reap what we have sown. For boys who are not
allowed to cry tears or share their fears may someday cry bullets
William Pollack, Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School professor, directs
the Center for Men & Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont,
Mass. He is the best-selling author of Real Boys: Rescuing our
Sons From the Myths of Boyhood. A new book, Real Boys' Voices
(Random House), is due in June. He serves on the National Campaign
Against Youth Violence, created by President Clinton after the Columbine