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A BOY'S LIFE / On the verge of adolescence, his self-esteem may need shoring up
Date: 08-01-1998; Publication: Newsday; Author: Liza N. Burby

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Newsday A BOY'S LIFE / On the verge of adolescence, his self-esteem may need shoring up

By Liza N. Burby. Liza N. Burby is a regular contributor to Newsday.

BY NOW, IT'S practically common knowledge that girls' self-esteem drops as they enter adolescence. The American Association of University Women's 1992 study, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," and Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan's findings about the lost voice of girls have helped increased this awareness, and programs such as Take Our Daughters to Work Day have been instituted in response. But the self-esteem of boys has often been overlooked. "Just as adolescent girls lose their voice in young adulthood - not because they can't speak, but because we don't listen to what they're telling us - boys speak, but have already been cut off from their emotional self early on, suffering a major blow to their self-esteem," says William Pollack, a clinical psychologist based in Cambridge, Mass., and the author of "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood" (Random House, $24.95). The blow is manifesting itself in startling ways: Four boys are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed to every one girl. In education, two boys are learning disabled for every one girl. Boys are four times more likely to commit suicide than are girls. The list goes on. Studies show that boys' self-esteem drops as intensely as does adolescent girls' . However, Michael Gurian, a psychotherapist in Spokane, Wash., maintains the drop is less likely to be noticed both at home and at school simply because boys have been taught to suppress their emotions. Society is to blame, according to many experts, including Jason Kornrich, staff psychologist at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow. He says it's assumed that boys don't really have thoughts and feelings so they are trained to be action-oriented. "In preschool they are taught to master skills like running and climbing. In latency, ages 6 to 12, it's sports, math and science. They also start comparing themselves to others; boys feel good about themselves when they beat each other out," Kornrich says. "They still need support from their parents, but they rely more on the feedback from competition and their classmates . . . Girls this age are valued for their personality." In adolescence, Kornrich says, boys are suddenly supposed to have a personality and a richer repertoire, not just sports. "This is when the negative traits imposed by society come to the fore. They're supposed to be rebellious, independent from their parents, nonconformists, well on their way to adulthood. This is confusing for them. To be truly independent, they have to have a sense of self and if they are trained to look outward rather than inward, how is that possible when we expect our boys to be invulnerable?" Kornrich asks. Recent research indicates that boys and girls are wired differently: Boys are more action-oriented and girls are more verbal and comfortable with relationships and ideas. But Gurian, author of two books from Tarcher / Putnam - "The Wonder of Boys" ($14.95) and most recently, "A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys Into Exceptional Men" ($24.95) - believes that actively discouraging boys from paying attention to their feelings means they'll get into trouble. His research shows four adolescent males drop out of school for every one female and adolescent boys commit crime at a higher rate than do men. Pollack believes part of the problem lies in our definition of what it means to be a man. "There's a split in society pushed down to young adults: the old boy code to act like a man, don't be a sissy on one hand versus the new-age sensitive boy who is compassionate of girls," he says. "Boys are saying: `When I'm sensitive and ask a girl out, she goes out with the jock. When I throw my weight around, I'm told I'm overbearing. I can't win.' "So boys are failing in society and society is failing boys. It may still be a man's world, but it's certainly not a boy's world. Many feel isolated and depressed, but it shows itself in a different way, so it tends not to be noticed. Boys tend to be irritable, angry, withdrawn, and we view that as negative behavior, rather than a cry for help." Louise Silverstein, professor of family psychology at Yeshiva University in the Bronx, sees sports as a clear example of what is wrong. "The issues are complex, but sports contributes to the self-esteem of a small number of boys and humiliates a large number of boys," says this mom of a 15-year-old nonathletic son. "They're supposed to absorb injury without complaint, in fact, play through the pain and then destroy the other team. All boys are pressured to play because boys and men supposedly have to be physically tough and we haven't thought of a way to organize sports in a way that's about teamwork, not dominance. All this makes it difficult to be empathetic with others, since very early on we train them to be tough." Pollack maintains that school harms boys' self-esteem, because it makes little allowance for the fact that boys tend to learn better if they can do hands-on projects instead of sitting still. Often, boys are perceived as having behavior problems or being hyperactive. Doug and Heidi Vandewinckel of East Northport had difficulty with preschool teachers who told them daily that their son, who is now 7, was acting out and not listening. "After a while, this made him feel like he was a bad kid," Doug Vandewinckel says. He believes that "there's a real difference in the way teachers interact with boys and girls" even in elementary school. "It makes sense . . . because girls tend to be quieter at that age and boys tend to be more energetic. Particularly inexperienced teachers seem to view the natural enthusiasm of boys as bad. After a while if you tell a kid that, through how you interact with him, he starts to believe it." To counteract such problems, Gurian points out key areas for parents and educators to examine. First, the three "families" that he identifies: the nuclear family, in whatever configuration; the extended family, which provides intergenerational interaction, and school and religion. "In school, make sure the teachers are trained to deal with boys and not just saying a boy needs Ritalin," he advises. "Spiritual life is necessary, too. Boys are cosmic creatures and are hungry to understand life around them." Broader changes are needed, Gurian believes, to get away from the notion that boys and men are inherently defective "in the same way that 25 years ago society thought females were." Superstars like Michael Jordan and Leonardo DiCaprio have to recognize their responsibility to our kids, he says, because they become our sons' role models. For parents, Pollack says, the process "starts at home by not showing boys they are different. You need to teach them love and connection. Don't gender-straightjacket boys; give them a diversity of experiences. Be supportive if they put on ballet shoes. Don't buy into the stereotype that boys are naturally uncivilized. We need to change the way we' re bringing them up." Silverstein says we must also acknowledge differences in culture and socioeconomics. "It's not just a gender issue; it's also a race and class issue and these three strands need to be braided together because only one thing builds self-esteem: competence. Each child needs at least one area of competence." Pollack identifies three positive changes for boys. The first is what he calls "chumship" or boys' attachment to other boys. The second is the secret friendship between boys and girls. "They don't talk about it openly because they're afraid of being teased or accused of having sex and lying about it . . . But it allows empathetic understanding of other genders," he says. The third is that 75 percent of boys consider their parents, relatives, teachers and ministers to be their heroes. Although people do have the attitude that "boys are loud, obnoxious and hard to handle," Gerri Farrell of Huntington Station, who has three sons, ages 5, 13 and 16, considers "adolescence hard no matter what. I relate to my sons because while they have different issues than I did - it's cool when your voice changes, as long as it's not too soon before your friends' - the feelings are the same." She attended a workshop led by Gurian in Manhasset last year and says "a lot of what he said can relate to all people regardless of gender." Prompting Boys to TAlk May Bolster Self-Esteem ALL INDICATORS are that your son lacks self-esteem if he is withdrawn, lacksconfidence and always asks questions because he's afraid to be wrong, says Paul Ciborowski, chair of the Brookhaven Town Youth Board. It's important for parents to handle boys' pain without driving them away. Jason Kornrich, staff psychologist at Nassau County Medical Center, recommends giving explicit permission to boys to express their feelings and encourage communication. "Parents and teachers have to go out of their way to make them feel safe about this," he says. "Try to know your child as an individual. Sometimes it's safer, rather than asking him how he feels, to which he'll respond defensively since he'll think you're implying he's wimpy, to say `What are your thoughts?' Thoughts are safer than feelings. Or say `Johnny just called you a bad name. I would be bothered by that. How is it for you?' Put the pieces together and give permission before asking how they feel about it." However, face-to-face conversation usually doesn't work, says William Pollack, codirector of the Center for Men at McLean / Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. The best way to engage your son is to play an active game like basketball, he says, and then get around to asking questions about his feelings. "When a boy is in pain, he recedes, kicks a ball or goes in his room," Pollack says. "But at some point, he will open the door and ask, `When's dinner ready, Mom?' What he's really saying is that he wants to find a way to connect without feeling shame. I know of a mother who told her son to forget dinner and they went for an ice cream instead. While they were eating their cones, the boy told her what was on his mind." He advises fathers to be more involved in nurturing, more open to their son running to mom and not shaming him. Moms, he adds, have to tolerate the boisterous play that dads and sons prefer. "Besides, research shows that this helps calm boys and gives them a better sense of self-control and fewer angry outbursts." - Liza N. Burby

Liza N. Burby, A BOY'S LIFE / On the verge of adolescence, his self-esteem may need shoring up. , Newsday, 08-01-1998, pp B01.

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