What Makes Boys Violent




USA WEEKEND, April 14-16, 2000

What makes boys violent? We do.

A renowned child-behavior expert argues that, despite recent headlines, our sons are not natural-born killers.

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 natural aggressive, potentially toxic and, in some cases, doomed to be not tomorrow's miscreants, but today's killers?

As I have travelled 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 reason 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 are 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 our 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 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 the 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 ostracised, ultimately fostering academic failure and intensifying their emotional distress. At extreme, this creates a suicide rate for boys that is four times that of their female peers.

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 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 message 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 instead.