Boys will be Boys

My grade 8 son is being harassed in the school locker room. He’s small and hasn’t developed yet. The gym teacher isn’t impressed with our concern and says it’s “just boys being boys.” My son is mortified that I’ve talked to the school. I don’t want to lose his trust. What should I do?

This is a very important issue. Boys form their sense of male identity during adolescence, and the pecking order can be quite vicious. I recently counseled a man whose problems with self-esteem stemmed from grade 8 harassment, when his father prevented his mother from intervening or sympathizing, saying he needed to “learn to be a man.” He didn’t have the size, or the emotional resources, at that time to deal with the kind of harassment he received, and it was a permanent blow to his self-confidence. I have another adult male client who is just beginning (at almost 40) to realize he is a tall, strong, good-looking man – because of his early high school experiences when he was smaller than others and got picked on.

It helps if both parents, including the father whenever possible, are sympathetic at home and listen to what your son is going through in order to help him realize it is not him who is deficient in male characteristics. Exactly what kind of harassment is happening to your son, and who is doing it? You need to know this in order to let your son feel cared for, help him know how to deal with it, and possibly intervene with the school. Let him express his feelings fully, and validate them. If you don’t, he will learn, as most men in our culture have learned, to suppress all feelings except anger. This is not healthy.

After you’ve listened to your son, educate him about growth patterns, pointing out that early growth doesn’t mean much in terms of what he is likely to look like in later life. He is likely to develop like one of his male relatives – father or uncle – what will that be like? If it’s likely he’s always going to be small, help him see that strength and athleticism isn’t necessarily related to size. If he’s willing, enroll in him some sport like martial arts or tennis which relies on agility rather than strength. That will help him for the present no matter how big he grows to be, and if he continues to be small, will give him a skill which larger boys can admire.

When I listen to my sons, who are now 23 and 18 and well built, I am appalled by the extent to which their self-esteem is dependent on their athletic ability and their body build. I feel just as appalled as I would if my daughter grew up valuing herself primarily for her looks. Our society has paid more attention to the negative effects of making girls into Barbie dolls than it has to the negative effects of male competition on the basis of physical abilities. The boy who is not athletic is really at a competitive disadvantage. Somehow we, especially fathers, need to convey to our sons that their value is in their character as a human being, not in the kind of body they happen to have been given. There’s nothing wrong with loving sports or seeking to excel in them, but when the peer culture dictates that athletic prowess is the primary measure of self-esteem, boys are being short-changed. Fathers must step in here and encourage their sons to become well-rounded individuals who are tolerant of others who are different and who develop their abilities and interests even when they don’t fit the cultural norm.

If the harassment is minor, your son may be able to fend it off with a few snappy retorts, which you can coach him in. Again, if there are two parents, Dad may be better than Mom at this because he has lived through the male peer culture himself. The kind of bridge-building statements women make may only make things worse; your son may need to learn how to give insults with a smile. This is the equivalent of the raised hairs and low growl when two dogs confront one another and establish the pecking order without actually fighting. I believe you can buy a book called “Snappy comebacks!” And you can rehearse these comebacks until your son sounds believable.

If the harassment is really destructive, your son is still young enough that it is appropriate to intervene with the school. The problem in intervening is how to help without making the problem worse. If his peers find out that his mother talks to the gym teacher, they will probably ridicule him even more. So it must be done discreetly, assuring your son that his peers will not find out. If a parent intervenes, it should be the father whenever possible. A teacher who believes “boys will be boys” is more likely to listen to a man than to a woman. If the teacher doesn’t listen, try the school counselor and/or the principal. The school counselor will know how to approach any particular teacher, and the principal can assert his or her authority if necessary.