School had been challenging for Kimmi Berlin’s 7-year-old son.
Already at his age, he felt pressure to conform: to play more physically with other boys, to emote less and subvert his own happiness or pain, said Berlin, co-founder of Build Up Boys. The nonprofit group’s mission is to teach pre-K through eighth grade boys and their caregivers social and emotional skills to combat gender presssure.
“The energy he was expending trying to do it made him almost feel like a trapped animal,” Berlin said. “He couldn’t really get in touch with how he felt about anything because he was in constant panic mode.”
Then came the shutdown spawned by the coronavirus. Now, away from those pressures, he has been able to access his full range of emotions, whether that’s relief at being home or anxiety about what’s to come. “He’s totally come into his own,” Berlin said.
Before the pandemic hit, a national conversation about the narrow roles boys are forced to play had begun.
Books like Peggy Orenstein’s 2020 “Boys & Sex” chronicled the problems boys were facing: a simplistic view of masculine normalcy that cut them off from their full humanity, from interests and feelings and expressions that aren’t biologically masculine or feminine, but are culturally marked that way.
“Boys face negative long-term mental and physical health outcomes from the socialization towards emotional suppression,” Orenstein said. That is: Many boys start early on the path that leads to toxic masculinity.
Emotional literacy for teen boys
That’s why psychologist and author Michael C. Reichert has been conducting workshops in emotional literacy for teenage boys.
Before schools closed, he’d teach boys who signed up for his in-person groups of 40 to 50 teens to understand, acknowledge and express their feelings — something most had been reared to tamp down or ignore.
And then the world shut down and his workshops at a boys’ school outside Philadelphia went online. The emotional impact on his clients was intense.
“What I saw was a growing desperation on the part of these boys — 16, 17, 18 — to connect with someone who understands what they’re going through,” he said. “They weren’t finding it with their families. They were desperate to find it with each other.”
These boys — and young men — became more expressive, more emotional and more connected, even in a virtual setting.
Girls have been on the cultural short end of the stick in many ways, having to fight legal battles to fund their sports teams and educations equally, and prove that their brains aren’t naturally less suited to science. But boys face plenty of gendered pressures, too.
One in three boys has internalized cultural messages to be dominant, physically strong, violent, unemotional, denigrating to girls and seeing girls as sexual objects, according to a 2018 report, The State of Gender Equality.
Meanwhile, 82% of boys had overheard someone being insulted as “acting like a girl,” which meant crying or being sensitive or emotional, per the report. Much of that reaction is rooted in homophobia, the fear that a boy acting or dressing or looking “like a girl” will turn out gay. Such behavior, the report said, was “implicitly unbecoming.”
That pressure to be traditionally masculine has affected boys in every aspect of their lives, including in school. Reichert has chronicled how most boys are “relational learners” — meaning they learn better when they feel emotionally tethered to their teachers — as are many girls. “They really depend upon a connection with their teachers or coaches in order to engage,” he said.
It’s a finding that was hardly acknowledged a decade ago, and so boys who acted out or couldn’t focus were marked as “feral by nature,” Reichert said. Many people assumed boys’ behavior was rooted in biology, more than the relentless cultural messages they received.
“The way to deal with a boy who’s not performing or being a pain in the ass was to dominate him or punish him,” he said, when in actuality emotional connection is the straighter path to helping them academically. But in a world that tells boys not to emotionally connect, that was a huge challenge.
Now, some are seeing that cultural armor crack amid the pressure of the pandemic, which has wrought so much destruction and loss that it’s hard for anyone to not show emotion around it.
The pandemic relieves some social pressures
Perhaps, said Orenstein, the pandemic “relieved a certain kind of social pressure they felt to perform, because they’re in a more private space. They can drop the wall a little bit more.”
Zachary Frankel, 15, returned to the Boston area from boarding school in England in March. Like everyone, he has no idea what school will look like for him this fall, which fills him with the anxiety that’s so pervasive right now.
But because he’s quarantined with his parents, he can’t hide it — and that’s a good thing.
“It’s become more visible because we’re in such close quarters all the time,” he said. “If someone’s having an off day, it’s easier to see and it’s better to face it head on.” His family talks through those complicated feelings, as many are now doing, even publicly.
Sports stars like Michael Phelps and Kevin Love have opened up about the importance of tending to your mental health during this time of upheaval, or discussed their emotional struggles. Others have found the opposite: a chance to express their positive feelings, too.
Building a support community
Berlin, who started Build Up Boys earlier this year, already knew there was a need for boys to resist narrow definitions of gender before the pandemic.
Berlin launched the group in part to make space for her own sons, who hewed more to the emotional side and were often teased for it. As her family shelters in place, “my older son has been able to access his joy more,” she said.
There were dozens of organizations to build girls’ self-esteem and courage, and programs for older boys around violence-prevention and sexual consent. But few organizations taught young boys how to be respectful, empathetic and kind, and seek emotional connection with others, even while being active and playful.
“This is a human right,” Berlin said. “Every kid should be able to understand themselves emotionally.”
“The desperate straits of quarantine and Covid has legitimized boys needing each other more openly,” Reichert said. “It enabled them to get real about the kinds of topics that would have been much harder for some of them to talk about: domestic violence and other difficulties in their families; the pressures of performance; feeling like you don’t measure up.”
But being in touch with emotions doesn’t make it easy to navigate them. Reichert said the boys he works with are facing tremendous challenges.
“I was hearing them talk about being micromanaged by their fathers and others or having no chance to be with their peers and experience that consensual validation,” he said. “They’re dealing with all kinds of disruptions and disappointments, from not being able to get recruited for sports to SATs being postponed, to the complete disruption of their lives.”
But in naming those disappointments, he said, the boys were “talking more openly with each other about how much they needed each other.”
The boys participating in Reichert’s workshop can be kind and affectionate and concerned, he said, without fearing they’ll be reprimanded or rejected by their peers. They are learning that it’s not behaving “like a girl” to have those qualities — they are human traits that should belong to everyone.
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The question remains of whether this newfound emotional openness will follow these boys back to the classroom, once they return. But the pandemic, even with all the havoc it’s wrought, has presented an opportunity to see boys, their needs and struggles, in a new way.
“The extreme stress of Covid has revealed that the problem is not the boys; it’s the boyhood that we make for them,” Reichert said.
“If we create a different set of norms, make a different space, and see boys through opened eyes, we’ll see that they’re relational, emotional human beings,” he said. “Behind the mask is a beating heart.”
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different.”
Gallery photos excerpted from “The Heart of a Boy: Celebrating the Strength and Spirit of Boyhood” by Kate T. Parker (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2019.