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The Boy Code, Updated

boys running

In 1998, William Pollack, Ph. D. published Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Though we’ve chipped away at these myths, I believe the four-part code he described still stands strong where it counts: with the boys. It’s worth our time to revisit the code, to check our awareness of its existence and influence. To be aware is a victory. I’d also like to add a fifth pillar: Know the Code. While it’s fun to take the ski safety guidelines associated with that phrase and revise the language into a modern boy code, that's not what I’m going for. Rather, in our well-intentioned efforts to teach boys and men about “toxic masculinity,” I believe we unintentionally created another layer under the surface, kind of like a sewage system. More on that later. Let’s review.

No Sissy Stuff!

“Being a man means not being a sissy, not being perceived as weak, effeminate, or gay.”

We’ve come a long way on this one, both men and society. We haven’t come all the way, but we can celebrate progress. Being effeminate or gay is far more accepted than it was in 1998, and that is good. Though this pillar of the boy code may have eroded, it still stands. Sure, boys know that they should not be sexist or homophobic, but they also know that acting “like a girl” will move them further down the masculine hierarchy.

Men have adapted their language to the times. It’s not as beneficial to blatantly belittle women and gay men (there are still spaces, like certain locker rooms, where it is). As a result, we’ve grown more subtle and selective. We wait until we are with our close friends, until it’s “safe” to make a joke we can’t crack in public. For the most part, we’ve removed the hard F-word from our vocabulary. Instead, we might ridicule others by accusing them of committing gay sex acts. We may not say, “You throw like a girl,” but we will laugh and wonder if someone’s dad ever taught them to play catch growing up.

Boys still aspire to avoid the sissy stuff. When they look in the mirror before a match, they want to see a killer looking back at them. It’s still best to be feared, not loved––even though boys absolutely want and need love. In my work with boys, the number one problem they report with their peers, year after year, is always disrespect. Nonetheless, they join the gender police. Today, it’s commonly called “chirping.” ​When they break under the strain of the code, “When nonetheless they display ‘feminine’ feelings or behaviors, they are usually greeted not with empathy but with ridicule” (Pollack, 1998). And for the most part, the only way to deal with disrespect is to dish it out in bigger servings. It’s a painful and exhausting and relentless cycle.

I’ve taught Macbeth to my students for many years. The story never gets old to me, especially since it seems to spawn in new forms all the time. When I ask boys to compare Macbeth to history or popular references, they make impressive connections to Star Wars and The Lion King. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth follow masculine ambition to a tragic end. Lady Macbeth even wishes to “unsex” herself so that she has the manly cruelty necessary for murder and treason. Obviously, most boys don’t go to the extreme of Macbeth. However, their effort to follow the boy code is its own tragedy because they suppress their inner child––and often their empathy and goodness.

Risks are necessary. Without a doubt. It’s natural for kids to push the limits and to do a little field research in the subject of life. However, boys also learn that there is glory in not being “soft.” I often hear coaches refer to underperforming players as soft, and boys feel a tremendous amount of pressure to avoid that label. Boys who are not fearless are seen as defective, and they are shamed for natural responses to pain and fear. The issue is not the teaching of physical and mental toughness. It’s how the code requires the quelling of boys’ soft sides to achieve that end.

Jason Williams says the following in Cry Like a Man:

If we’re struck in the heart, our health, or our wallets, there’s no room for weakness. When we vent, we’re perceived as complainers. When we hurt, we’re wimps. When we’re tired, we’re being lazy. When we fight, we’re rebels. When we’re discouraged, we’re depressed. When we hesitate, we’re double minded, and when we cry, we’re soft. With all these predetermined judgments about us, it’s no wonder why so many of us “fake it to make it.”
From childhood through early puberty then into manhood, we’re conditioned to swallow our pain, expressing little but indifference and detachment about the chaos around us. It only makes sense that internalized stress and confusion build over time, creating a force that will eventually find a release hatch. (2019)

Like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, boys learn to harden all of their soft edges, and they lose themselves in the process. They also grow up unable to deal with softness, finding themselves struggling to connect during the moments of life that actually matter––love and death, hugging and crying, grief and joy. Meanwhile, for moments of existential irrelevance, like a peewee football championship, they get plenty of coaching on how they should rise to the occasion. Unable or unwilling to articulate their problems, boys grow up less likely to seek help, and more likely to simmer in dissatisfaction.

Be a Big Wheel

“Masculinity is measured by wealth, power, and status.”

Not much has changed here. Successful men are wealthy, powerful, and of high status. They drive nice cars, or at least manly ones (Enterprise gave me a colossal Ram pickup truck and someone told me my penis grew two inches). They tell other people what to do. Not the other way around. They are popular and powerful, and popularity and power promises lots of coitus with attractive women. Naturally. Boys still hear about big wheels in music and see them on TV. They fantasize about hitting the game-winning shot and hooking up with the most-desired girls and buying anything they want. Being a poor, ineffective nobody is not a possibility. Being powerless is not living at all. That outcome must be avoided at all costs.

Boys develop unrealistic expectations because of this pillar, and it sets them up for failure and frustration. They either fall short of big wheel status and are perpetually disappointed, or they try to look like a high roller on the outside when on the inside––no surprise––they are who they are. Over time, the ways in which boys can express wealth, power, and status have changed. You don’t have to be flashy and ostentatious. There are more under-the-radar pathways to the upper echelons of manhood. Still, those paths require boys to reach the top eventually, racing along the hamster wheel of productivity and prestige. There is no middle ground when it comes to being the best. Kids are in a constant pressure cooker. They need to succeed, and they are feeling it. At least 70% of teens believe anxiety and depression are a major problem among their peers (Pew Research Center, 2019).

We see this endless hustle play out in so many ways. Boys learn that anything short of victory is failure. Second place is the first loser, and losing should be met with anger and rebuttal. They learn that expensive things are the best things, and they need to own the best if they are going to be the best. They learn that power is power and more is more. And as we know from the timeless tale of Macbeth––which piles of research on human psychology supports––this leads boys to a perpetual state of wanting, of NOT ENOUGH. We can never find happiness if we always want more. The ultimate hustlers will call that statement weak, but it’s true. Andre Agassi famously spoke about how winning never felt as good as losing felt bad, how he felt nothing once he was named the best tennis player on planet Earth. In pursuit of our best self, some elusive identity beyond the horizon, we forget that the person looking off into the unfillable void is and always will be who we are looking for.

And we can’t forget that being a big wheel requires others to be smaller wheels. This gets back to chirping culture, which grows more sophisticated with age. Boys learn that reaching the top warrants a degree of ruthlessness. If you’re not willing to do what needs to be done, you won’t have what it takes to be a real man. What needs to be done may vary. It may be stepping over smaller people, or pushing aside weaker ones, or sabotaging threats, or declaring war against the opposition. Historically, we call it dehumanization, the process of depriving a person or group of their positive human qualities. Just like the pursuit of superiority, this is a self-destructive approach to living that erodes the humanity of the bully more than anyone. It’s a road that won’t take you where you want to go.

Be a Sturdy Oak

“Men should be stoic, stable, and independent. A man never shows weakness.”

Personally, this has been the toughest one for me to shake. I bottle up emotions. Between high school and college, writing became a place where I could express emotions, but in front of others, my natural reaction to that lump in my throat is still to swallow it. I avoid asking for help, even when I know I need it, and I try to give off the impression that nothing phases me, which my wife will tell you is absolutely not the case. Growing up, I valued stoicism (I still do, but now more in the Stoic philosophy sense). Because I was shy and quiet and never the popular kid, being stoic was something I was good at. It earned me praise. There are benefits to stoicism. Stability, fortitude, independence, but invulnerability? When my dad told me he had cancer, I stared off into nothing and turned to stone. That’s not strength.

Boys learn to fear weakness and the natural feelings that come with it: vulnerability, sadness, loneliness, depression, defeat. What masquerades as courage is cowardice in reality. The men I have respected the most in my life are the ones who are able to be themselves. They have the courage to cry in public. Rather than feeling shame in moments of weakness, they connect in moments of vulnerability, giving strength to others. Unfortunately, most boys still learn to hide their tears and fears. Vulnerability avoidance has real consequences, including, according to Dr. Brené Brown, the foreboding of joy, disappointment as a lifestyle, low-grade disconnection, perfectionism, extremism, and numbness (2010). The truth is that tears and fears are the breath of superpowers.

As we go through the process of understanding the boy code, it’s important to recognize that boys are not doomed. We don’t need to control-alt-delete masculinity. One of my aspirations is to convince people that boys and men are good and that shaming them for existing will only perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies, defensiveness, and, of course, shame. There are aspects of the code, like being a sturdy oak, that are helpful for any person when applied appropriately. This is where a lot of pushback enters the scene. Many people worry that efforts to detox masculinity are conspiracies to subjugate men. Redefining masculinity is not the answer. Rather, we should aim to give boys the independence to discover their authentic selves, to unlock their full potential.

Stability is good. Stagnation is not. When boys master the art of the sturdy oak, they become emotionally stagnant, and they limit their growth. They become a picture hanging on the wall, maybe John Wayne or Lil Wayne or Bruce Wayne. Whoever. I’m not saying that any of these men are bad dudes, but the images we see when we hear those names are frozen in time, likely depicting moments of glory. We don’t see them grieving or failing or reflecting on their deathbeds about what actually matters. We don’t see their growth, which, as Michael Jordan pointed out, follows a whole lot of failure. Let’s also not forget that we cannot grow up to be a picture of someone else hanging on the wall. You may be able to fool others, but you can never fool yourself.

Give ’em Hell

“Live life on the edge. Take risks. Go for it. Pay no attention to what others think.”

In 2019, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization reported that 1 in 5 men will die before the age of 50 because of socially imposed risk-seeking behavior. Based on their studies, they claimed that stereotypical gender roles reinforce a lack of self-care and a neglect of physical and mental health. Risks leading to death––killing others or the self––included accidents, violence, homicides, suicide, alcoholism, and other addictions. This does not include the harm that men cause women and children at alarming frequency. Give ’em Hell is the most lethal pillar of the boy code.

Though the pressure to appear that you are giving ’em hell still exists, kids are taking fewer risks, and they are paying a ton of attention to what others think. Youth are spending less time interacting face to face, they are less rebellious, and they are taking more time to achieve life milestones like driving (Twenge, 2017). In the past few decades, the ways in which we see other people have transformed. We now pay more attention to digital people than we do real people. I’m scared just saying that. We create our perceptions of others based on what we see on social media. Even more troubling, we create our perception of ourselves based on how we compare to others––on social media. More often than not, that comparison does not reflect reality.

On the whole, boys are physically safer than they ever have been. They don’t go out as much. They don’t date as much. They don’t party or have sex nearly as much as we think they do. There are fewer boys learning to drive cars so that they can sneak away from their bedrooms. Fewer teens in general want to take risks and the majority want to avoid danger (Twenge, 2017). And while boys become more physically safe, their mental health suffers. Boys take risks online that leave them disconnected. They dedicate hours to watching short videos designed to capture the new-and-not-improved human attention span, which some believe now rivals that of a goldfish.

Like all things, there is the matter of privilege to acknowledge. Boys with more privilege don’t feel as much pressure to give ’em hell. They don’t need to live life on the edge if they are above it. Boys with less privilege living in disadvantaged communities will experience more pressure to uphold this pillar of the code. In a dog-eat-dog world, telling a boy that he doesn’t need to “go for it” may be the equivalent of telling him to roll over and die. In situations where boys live the code not just to belong, but to survive, it’s all the more important not to cast them aside with shame and blame.

It’s healthy for boys to live life on the edge and take measured risks. It’s good for them to go for it and fail. As one of my colleagues reminded me, healthy mischief is OK. As adults, we sometimes forget that we were once granted the freedom to make mistakes behind the backs of adults, and we loved it. Boys should pay less attention to what others think if they are ever going to break free of the man box. The late poet Tony Hoagland gave me a single piece of advice before I became a teacher: be fierce. Those two words have been a tremendous source of inspiration for me since, and I believe that goodness and fierceness are not antithetical. I believe that fierceness, not complacency, defeats injustice. Fierceness, not negativity, overcomes adversity. Fierceness, not submissiveness, heals wounds. Fierce good triumphs over evil. Boys should be fierce in life, as long as they are also fierce in love.

Know the Code

Figure it out or get your ticket clipped. A real boy is always ready to rock and roll.

This is my addition to the boy code: know the code. One of the unintended consequences of articulating the man box over the past few decades is that the code is no longer invisible or unwritten. Boys see and hear about the code all of the time. They are well aware of gender stereotypes. Most of them believe that gender stereotypes are harmful. Unfortunately, culture is amorphous. Even if we want to change it, it’s like trying to bail the ocean with your hands. It’s more than one could ever handle. And then it rains or the ice melts. So it goes.

Because boys know the code, because human culture doesn’t pivot when we say, “I see you,” because we have yet to establish an advantageous alternative, and because it’s way easier to adapt on the surface while buying into a patriarchal system that leads to wealth, power, and status, it’s best for boys to figure out the system. For boys, there’s an expectation that they understand the code. However, there’s no officially endorsed school. Instead, boys rely on independent study, underground peer review, and tacit apprenticeship.

Independently, they learn about sex through porn and whatever else about how to be a man through media in all of its forms. Underground, they harden their soft edges through peer review, discovering how to gain approval in hallways and locker rooms and basements. They serve as apprentices to older boys and men who share their war stories, glorifying the old days, passing down the legends of how things used to be before the world went soft. If boys don’t self-educate, if they find themselves in a situation where they do not know the code––at a party, with a girl, in a game––they run the risk of humiliation and having their ticket to manhood clipped.

As I’ve said before, the gender police are alive and well. The code has evolved, but it still exists. We’ve made a great deal of progress, but, for the most part, boys are still navigating on their own and participating in outdated rituals on their quest to be men. I believe the worst is yet to come for boys if we do not break the box of gender stereotypes. I believe society is free falling with the forces of addictive technology, fanatical ideas, and conditional love pulling us all the way down to rock bottom. Bleak. So bleak. What to do? bell hooks says:

Men cannot change if there are no blueprints for change. Men cannot love if they are not taught the art of loving. It is not true that men are unwilling to change. It is true that many men are afraid to change. It is true that masses of men have not even begun to look at the ways that patriarchy keeps them from knowing themselves, from being in touch with their feelings, from loving. To know love, men must be able to let go the will to dominate. They must be able to choose life over death. They must be willing to change. (2004)

I agree with hooks (and I recommend reading The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love), though I would revise one of her words: “change.” I believe men must be willing to grow. Change is often so hard because it presents a threat to our identity. We can never really replace who we are, yet change comes with growth.

When we grow, we understand that we are progressing. We’ve been talking about how men need to change for a long time, how they are toxic and oppressive and violent and insensitive and whatever else. We’ve been arguing that there is something wrong with manhood. Perhaps if we believed that the natural development of boys and men was to become more resilient and empathetic and loving, we’d be telling a different story. The constructs of society are responsible for changing men from their true nature of giving and receiving love. We don’t need men to change who they are. Any charlatan can do that. We need communities that help them to grow into who they were meant to be.


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