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For the week of May 9 through May 15, 2001

Boys will be boys


Along with strides made for women since I graduated from college, I see men sharing in the rewards of a reconsideration of their responsibilities and roles.

Recently a group of exuberant fathers at the elementary school where I work burst in through the entry hall on their way to pick up their sons. In the process, they were high-fiving it, slapping each other on the back, and setting times for the next get-together, a tryout for a kids' summer league athletic team. As the hallway filled with the presence of these three men, their buoyant good spirits and sense of play, I could see their sons' boyhoods reflected in the manly repartee. Three women in the same place would not have seemed as, well, present as these men were. Their vivacity and high spirits absolutely dominated the space in front of my desk. They filled the room and the air with their maleness. I thought to myself, "boys will be boys." I couldn't help but admire their joie de vivre.

That morning I had also watched Scott Waddle, the disgraced commander of the American Navy sub that collided with a Japanese vessel, interviewed on a morning news show. I had noticed his kindly and responsible demeanor before, of course, and observed that he often choked up when talking about the accident resulting in the death of nine Japanese people. I had sensed the weight of his acceptance of the responsibility as the commander of the sub, confirmed by the navy decision to terminate his long career.

In this interview he read from a letter sent to him by a victim's widow. She wrote about seeing Commander Waddle on television in the days following her husband's death. She had noticed him walking with and being comforted by his wife, something she said she would never be able to do again for her deceased husband. As he read these words, Waddle sobbed profusely. When I saw this, I thought how much the rules of behavior for men have changed since my childhood, when men were taught never to cry. Then it would most especially have been considered unseemly for a naval officer to display any public emotion, especially tears.

These two examples lead me to wonder if boys are still "boys" in the traditional sense of the phrase. I wonder how much concepts about gender qualities have changed in the last few decades. Our society is certainly still grappling with increasingly contradictory expectations and stereotypical definitions of masculinity and femininity. I am a perfect example. I wish to feel as strong and as secure as do my male counterparts, and yet I still enjoy the courtly gesture of a man pulling out a chair for me or opening a car door. Perhaps that is because I am a confused mixture of attitudes gleaned from my 1950s upbringing and witnessing the great changes in social mores in the years since.

I must also acknowledge the ascendance of strong women as role models for the girls growing up today. Mia Hamm is but one of many dynamic young women who are challenging the hopefully outdated concepts of feminine behavior with which I was raised.

Along with strides made for women since I graduated from college, I see men sharing in the rewards of a reconsideration of their responsibilities and roles. Men of my generation abided by rigid rules of masculine conduct. Always stoic in the face of adversity, always strong, always the breadwinner, there was little time for more "sensitive" pursuits. Nor were they granted paternity leave.

I am thrilled when I see men sharing in the delights of child care, moved when men show "vulnerable emotions," and inordinately happy when I see a man reading poetry or discussing emotional issues. I think we have made great strides in our culture, and I witness every day the more open nature of the young fathers at our school. Hurrah, I say.

However, I am also intrigued by what I perceive as the innate qualities that make boys "boys" and men "men." Most of the men I like have the kind of confidence of spirit I observed in the daddies in the hall. I appreciate and sometimes envy that male exuberance, strength and feeling of entitlement of space. I know women who have worked to acquire that same sense of self-possession and knowledge that they, too, have the right to belong wherever they choose.

Studies are ongoing, of course, attempting to discern the validity of gender stereotypes. One research revealed the penchant for toddlers to fulfill traditional role expectations through play by noting that boys go for trucks and girls for dolls. Yet another found items both sexes enjoyed, such as blocks. One mother recently noted how her baby boy loves throwing things (can baseball be far behind?) while her daughter had not exhibited such tendencies naturally. Loads of books have been recently published exploring gender concepts and whether they are innate or learned.

I'm not sure of the validity of any study which defines what we should be as men and women, but I do enjoy the contradictions I see. Maybe the two examples of contemporary "manly" behavior I noted at the beginning of this column signal a new reality for today's men. Perhaps we have come to a remarkable time where boys can be boys and still cry. Bravo!


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Copyright 2001 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.