Recently while listening to a Radio Lab segment on American football I was struck by the realization that interest in youth sports seems to be declining among boys in America. The obvious reasons are sports safety, increased interest in more sedentary activities like video games and television as well as the lack of discipline in this current generation (a self-righteous argument that, it appears, most previous generations like to foster on the generation below them). Near the end though there was something that caught my attention. Jad Abumrad, the host, talked about the possibility that the current generation of children was attempting to send a message to the current one. That maybe, just maybe, these sports, that were highly invested on competition, were not how kids wanted to be. Maybe the children of today are saying they want to be with each other in a different way that isn’t so focused on winning or being better.
Previously in the show a young boy named, Parker talked about his reluctance to continue playing football because he felt bad about how he had acted toward another player. Parker, who is the descendant of former National Football League players, had decided that playing football was not the way he wanted to be with other children (he was considering a career in synchronized swimming). He described a moment where he made another kid eat dirt (his coach was yelling at his players to do this). Parker said that he felt really bad about this and instead wanted to have fun but not show off and prove he is better than others. It was quite an admonition coming from a thoughtful eight-year old.
It made me wonder about the paradigm shift that is happening now in science about the nature of humans. Or maybe you could say the lack of nature. There is this belief about boys and girls that goes something like this: “boys and girls are fundamentally different. Boys are born with testosterone and are more aggressive and less relational. Girls have more estrogen, are more relational and in touch with their feelings.”
Turns out these differences are not created when the sperm meets the egg but something that is nurtured by years of gendered stereotyping.
In her book, Deep Secrets, Niobe Way paints a heart-warming picture of the early adolescent relationships between boys. Way describes these loving relationships as critical to the boys’ well-being. It’s as if these relationships seem to fly under the radar in a culture that does not, or cannot, see them because of the inherent homophobic fear of what male to male comradeship may infer.
“Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be activity oriented, emotionally illiterate, and interested only in independence, these responses seem shocking. The image of the lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity and the symbol of independence and thus of maturity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet the vast majority of the hundreds of boys whom my research team and I have interviewed from early to late adolescence suggest that their closest friendships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies.”
However, by the point of late adolescence something else begins to happen. The ties of male bonding start to loosen and a shift toward female partnerships (for heterosexual males) begins to become the focus. The importance of male companionship is lost. What has changed?
It appears that the cultural norms have reared their ugliness and begun to force boys back into their cage of dampening down their feelings and limiting any chance of being seen as homosexual.
As boys become men, having close male friendships becomes linked to sexuality. Boys who had had close friendships in early adolescence claimed not to be “gay” when asked the same questions about friendships during late adolescence. Jason, however, adds at the end of the interview that he “wouldn’t mind” having a close male friendship like the one he had when he was younger.
The loss of all of this is the young man’s ability to be fully engaged with his own inner emotional world or develop the relationship skills to be with another. As the authors of Raising Cain point out:
“The majority of boys are not prepared to manage the complexities of a loving relationship because they’ve been shortchanged on the basic skills of emotional literacy: empathy, conscience, the vocabulary for meaningful emotional expression, and the idea that emotional interdependence is an asset-not a liability.”
This leads to a real deficit of happiness and satisfaction for both people attempting to navigate the challenging waters of marriage or long-term commitment. Men are faced with the troubling bind of, either losing relational connection, or becoming more emotionally vulnerable and losing their sense of manhood.
Yet this is not due to some genetic difference between men and women. According to Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist, the reality is that human beings are naturally empathic and relational. When we think of early homo-sapiens in their dangerous environments we consider their willingness to fight and destroy other animals as the key to their survival. De Waal’s research reveals that the real evolutionary adaptation is not creating spears and throwing them but the ability to band together. What kept us alive in these times was our willingness to work together. This togetherness is fostered by an empathic connectedness that allows humans to feel both their own experience and the experience of another.
This way of being in the world is our human birthright. American boys are losing this due to a hyper-masculine commitment to rationality and reduced emotional experience. This loss is overwhelming young men. It takes its toll in the form of relational turmoil and divorce among many other problems.
I have no idea if young boys are dropping out of sports to protest the overemphasis on competition. It appears that the rate of girls in sports is also dropping. I do think that there is a new sense of masculinity that is emerging. This new masculinity sees the power of being fully human and accessing both our emotional, physical and rational sides. It allows men to have close connections with each other and celebrates this without having to sexualize the closeness. It is a masculinity that is focused on integrity and living out our deepest values. This new form of manhood is accessible to anyone because it is not how we are, but how we choose to be, that is our destiny.