Raising Cain, Decoding the Boy

I was not a “normal” boy. I accepted this a long time ago, but that was before I was raising a boy of my own. At some point in the last three years, the hubby and I passed from having a baby, through having a toddler, and into the dawning realization that we are raising a son — with all implications that come with it in this country/culture. And we’re raising a son who’s already showing himself to be a very different little boy than the hubby or I were (he was no more a “normal” boy) than I was. So, when the hubby heard about the PBS special Raising Cain: Boys in Focus, we decided we’d better watch.

I have to admit to some trepidation on my part, mainly because of a knee-jerk reaction I have when someone starts talking about “normal boys” or “real boys“, because the boys who were deemed such where I grew up were the ones I spent a lot of time running away from. But it wasn’t about my long-passed childhood. The idea was to see if it held any information that might help us to be better parents to our son. We weren’t disappointed in that regard, and for the most part I think it holds something for any parents of boys. But there were a couple of issues that didn’t go down easily for me.

I won’t try to take on the general statement of the documentary that “America’s boys are in trouble.” If the data on test scores, violence among kids, etc., is true then they very well may be. I guess my issue is with the statement is that they’re not all in the same kind of trouble.

While the film (I haven’t read the book) really focuses on problems facing most boys, I guess I tend to focus on the problems a smaller minority of boys experience because of other boys. Of course, it may be that addressing some of the problems we’re told most boys deal with while growing up will take the pressure off the rest of them too. I read about those problems weeks ago in an article about the pressures of the “boy code.”

It’s there in the bulging arms and ripped abdomens of action figures.

It’s there in the sexual objectification of women in video games and popular music.

The Boy Code is not one fashion line worn by all boys or even most. Rather, it is a list of accessories that — when piled on — make a full suit of armor.

Show no fear. Avoid the honor roll. Stick to sports (boys’ involvement in other school clubs is falling nationwide, surveys show).

Oh yeah, whisper to other boy-coders about sexual exploits you’ve never had.

So what’s the harm? Nobody can knock strength, stoicism and masculinity, done right.

Well, not exactly. Without even getting into the political implications of our national obsession with the archetypes of the swaggering cowboy and the alpha male, it doesn’t take much to see how much pain the caricature above can cause to boys who are trying to live up to it and boys who just can’t.

For those who really are gay — or who feel guilty thinking they might be — he said many parents never find out about the teasing, or they offer this advice: “If you just act like a man, this wouldn’t happen.”

Experts estimate that gay boys are three to six times more likely than straight boys to commit suicide.

Dylan Theno was luckier than other boys: his parents knew how much he needed them.

Dylan was labeled gay in his Kansas town of Tonganoxie, population 3,600, where the code made every school day agony since seventh grade. His parents remortgaged their two-bedroom home to pursue legal options. And this year, at 18, Dylan went to federal court, a plaintiff stating for the record he is not gay and alleging that school officials did little to stop the harassment.

Two years earlier his mother found Dylan curled up in a ball on the couch, sobbing, shaking, begging to quit school. Cheryl Theno held him and resolved never to send him back.

“Dylan was slowly falling apart in front of us,” said his father, Alan.

And that boy was straight. I’ve written before about my own experience with bullying, and like the article says above when my parents found out about the teasing their first question was “Well, you’re not. Are you?” You better believe I knew what the “right answer” was. (To their credit, my parents did get me into counseling when I started talking suicide, which was where I first heard an adult suggest there might not be anything wrong with my being gay.) Dylan’s story (and mine) emphasize one point that Raising Cain makes and that can be said about any child: every kid needs adults who love them and accept them for who they are.

Where I kind of part ways with the experts behind the film are on some of the assumptions they make about the world boys have to navigate on their way to manhood. The film doesn’t shy away from bullying. In fact, it dedicates an entire segment to discussion the experiences of boys who have been driven from their schools by of bullying because of their pursuit of academic excellence, and who find refuge in a special school. There’s also a segment about another boy who choses a different path by eschewing sports and joining a heavy metal band.

Of course, the issues of boys who are gay, might be gay, or might be perceived as gay, aren’t particularly addressed. Maybe that’s because of limited time/resources in the film, but one statement made in the film about the microcosms of middle school and high school jumped out at me. It went something like this — every boy must face the status hierarchy and find a role within it that suits him — and it was couched in the context that parents really can’t protect their sons from that “status hierarchy.”

Later it acknowledges the “culture of cruelty” in which boys are discouraged from developing qualities like compassion and empathy. It struck me as significant that in both cases, the film seemed to back away from any direct challenges to the “culture of cruelty” and the “status hierarchy” themselves in favor of giving boys tools to navigate through them and hopefully come out better on the other side.

I’ll admit that perhaps it approaches the issue subversively, by recommending that parents and people who work with boys teach them that “emotional courage” is courage, help them learn to develop emotional attachments, and show them that there’s more than one way of being a man. There may be a point to that, if enough boys are taught the above, maybe the “culture of cruelty” and the “status hierarchy” will crack a little bit in the process, and boys like Dylan (and like myself, way back when) might have an easier time of it. Much as I’m inclined to charge at the barricades with flags a-flyin’, it’s possible there something to be said for quietly tunnelling under the wall.

I have to admit that the feminist in my automatically asks “Does everything have to be about men?” And the gay man in me tends to ask “Does everything have to be about straight men?” But for the parent in me, it’s about my son, and how I can help him grow up to be the best person he can be. In that sense, I came away from Raising Cain reassured that the hubby and I are on the right track with our son. However, I’ll probably still put Raising Cain : Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys on my reading list for the summer.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
This entry was posted in Books, Culture, Family, Gay Rights, Gender, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Raising Cain, Decoding the Boy

  1. Rachel S says:

    Unfortunately, I missed it.  But I know I have said this before, but you need to read the essay–"Masculinity as Homophobia" by Michael Kimmel.  He argues that the definition of hegemonic masculinity is so narrow that only the "studriest of oaks" are able to fit into the model of ideal men.  His definition of homophobia for the purposes of the article is–men’s fear of other men."

    I was very disappointed to see that their were no sociologists on the experts list.

  2. Rachel S says:

    I didn’t get to finish the last comment……

    I was very disappointed to see that their were no sociologists on the experts list, but I’m going to look out for it over the weekend.

    I find it very interesting when you and your spouse discuss how different your son is from yourselves when you were children.  I think most parents have a tendency to think their children will be like them.  I really like the fact that y’all really are open minded to having Parker be whoever he is going to be.  Sometimes our children are have our personalities and sometimes they don’t, which can be hard to acccept.  I think I would have a hard time if I had a very shy quiet child because it would be different from myself.  I’m not proud of feeling that way, but I do. You’re much more open minded than myself. LOL!

  3. Jaqua says:

    Isn’t Patriarchy funny?, how little boys become patriarchal men, how everything from toys, cartoons, video games etc are geared to create the problems that we have to address now, but yet still uphold the status quo of the patriarchal "norm"

  4. Julia says:

    The fact that you and your husband are aware of these issues puts you one step ahead of most parents. 

  5. Pingback: Daddy, Papa & Me

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