Saturday, September 17, 2011

Boys Will Be Boys (Until They're Taught To Be Men)

Being the program advisor/coordinator of a women's leadership group has its benefits and its challenges.  Some of the benefits are the personal connections with young women around the college campus where I work, and the opportunities afforded to them, and to me, to meet prominent women in the community, country, and the world.  Of course, the greatest benefit is the feeling of great pride and love that fills my heart when I see confident, self-assured young women leaders around the campus who got their start with my women's group.

One of the challenges is that I am sometimes the recipient of attention and commentary that has absolutely nothing to do with who I am personally or even professionally.  I previously wrote about being labeled a feminist as if it were a negative thing in a post titled, "And Ain't I A Feminist?".  I understand that perceptions will develop out of my role as the leader of a women's empowerment group; after all, as I help empower young women, some men are bound to feel as if their power is being appropriated.  However, in the past few months I've noticed how, as a society, we have allowed gender perceptions to guide male/female interactions as if they were completely acceptable, without questions.

Specifically, during the summers as part of my counseling and advising role, our department hosts a multi-week program that assists incoming freshmen with the academic and social transition to college.  For the most part, we hire students in our program because they've gone through the experience and serve as leaders and role models for success.  A challenge came when a young woman who participated in my women's program had to get the attention of 120 of these post-high school/pre-college students who had just finished eating dinner (a formidable task only two days into the program).  I had always perceived her as soft-spoken and somewhat shy, yet she projected her voice, got their attention at once, and gave clear and concise instructions to the huge group she addressed.  As I was standing with some of the male students who were working with us as peer mentors, I stated, "Wow, look at her!  She's being so assertive!"  One of the boys, who is also a member of a similar type of men's leadership group on campus, stated, "That's because your group makes women angry."  I proceeded to correct him, letting him know there was a difference between anger and assertiveness.  Another young man, also a member of this men's group, stated, "We leave our group meetings feeling great", and made an "Ahhhh" sound.  The first boy decided to add on, "Yes, and your girls leave your meetings feeling angry and hating men."  He and his male peers proceeded to laugh together as if this was just the funniest thing anyone had ever said.  (For the record, we barely talk about men during our sessions.)

Just last week, our groups were represented at our campus student organization expo.  Of course, they were asked to set up next to each other.  As I stopped by to check on the women and how sign ups were going, that same young man came up to me to say that their group had signed up more people than our group did.  I congratulated him but reminded him that it was not a competition, and as I spoke up, I noticed that about two or three other men surrounded me, then started joking about ME, personally, imitating me as if I sounded like one of the Basketball Wives (which I do not take as a compliment).  Of course, this was hilarious to them.  Later on, back at my office, little boy number one continued with the "we're better than you, we signed up more people than you" mantra, to which I replied, "I understand that your insecurity makes you want to compete with us.  However, there's no competition."  I hoped that by this one small response, he would think about the reasons why he felt the need to continue to assert some kind of superiority.  I doubt it made a difference.

Don't get me wrong, I can joke around, and I do.  One of the reasons that two or three young men feel the need to "gang up" on me is because they all know I can take one out in about three words.  However, it made me think about what we allow boys to do, and why we do that.

"Boys will be boys" is one of those statements that is made with either disgust and resignation, or flippantly and blithely.  In conversations about these interactions with my male colleagues, they mentioned that some of these boys are immature, and, "you know girls mature more quickly than boys."  Although I understand there might be some kind of maturity gap between young men and women (and older ones for that matter), part of that gap exists due to a general acceptance in society not to hold boys accountable for some of their actions and comments.  The sadder aspect of the idea that "boys will be boys", for me, is that as a society, we're saying that we're not going to hold them to a higher standard, that they don't need the attention and focus we might give to girls in teaching them how to be "ladies".  We're saying that we won't hold them accountable, and in the process of letting them "be boys", we're not teaching them to be men.

Instead of writing off comments and actions as childish and immature, why don't we ask these boys, especially those who consider themselves leaders or role models, to question their reasons for making such comments?  When my students (regardless of gender) make poor decisions, I ask them why.  If their answer is, "I don't know", I don't let them get away with that.  They must sit and reflect on their decisions, their words, and their actions until they come to a new understanding of themselves.  They usually thank me for holding them accountable.  They grow from these experiences.

Let's not let boys be boys.  Let's teach them how to be men.  Not only will they be better for it, we all will benefit.