Gerald P. Jones, Ph.D.
Institute for the Study of Women and Men in Society
University of Southern California (Originally published in Men's Studies Review, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 9-13, Winter 1990)
Emotionally intimate interaction between men and younger males -- a type of intergenerational intimacy -- is proposed here as one method of breaking male role stereotypes and enhancing the socialization of boys through relationships that make sense psychologically and developmentally. Indeed, this paper suggests that the typical development of boys all but requires some social contact with older males, especially during the transitional years surrounding puberty when the boy begins gradually to enter the adult world. Interaction with females, of course, also is important, though qualitatively different to the extent that males are in a few ways physically different from females. During development the older child or adolescent focuses first on the dichotomous female/male categories, having identified herself or himself as one or the other before the age of two (Stoller, 1965). Only as adulthood approaches is the individual able to understand fully the basic similarity of all human beings regardless of gender and in spite of superficial physical attributes.
Men's studies -- or, even better, gender studies which include an anti-sexist perspective on men's roles and development -- has done rather well it its attention to men's interactions with infants and small children, but now needs to develop its position regarding men's interactions with older children and adolescents, particularly boys. The way to such a position is unclear and its implications speculative. Despite widespread popular beliefs, there is little research to verify the notion that girls and boys need same-sex role models for optimum development, and there is always the possibility that men's greater involvement in the socialization of boys would push again toward a "separate and unequal" status for women, which is no longer acceptable.
This paper proposes that Men's Studies (Gender Studies) scholars and activists evaluate and advocate true intimacy: real two-way social relationships between men and boys during the stages when boys are fixated on same-sex friends and role models. (Sexual behavior is not essentially a part of this definition of intimacy and as such is outside the scope of this discussion.) The study and advocacy of women's interactions with girls is equally important, as is an investigation of the value of cross- sex interactions during development. The focus here on boys and men, however, is appropriate since their relationships, inside and outside the family, are comparatively less mutual and intimate in our society compared with the relationships females enjoy. Men's studies must take a long, hard look at current man/boy "interactions" which too often are characterized by superficiality, emotional distancing and formula behaviors like sports consumerism or macho talk.
It seems there was a day when men took care of their boys, not in the sense of nepotism or old-boy networks or uninvolved financial support, but in the sense of apprenticeship, going fishing, Andy and Judge Hardy talks, and a lot more gentle touching. Admittedly, these images come from times past when women were not considered worthy of the man's world, the public sphere, and much of the socialization of boys was dedicated to maintaining that distinction. But it seems there was tenderness, caring, and deep, emotional bonds that lasted lifetimes and changed lives. Whether or not this is ephemeral nostalgia, there is no question that boys today need qualitatively more from men than they have been getting. Fundamentally different behaviors need to be taught -- or revived -- through which boys can blend into adulthood without renouncing most of what makes them human. If it is to make sense to most older boys and adolescents, many of these behaviors will need to be modeled from the men they interact with.
Memories of close relationships with valued adults who took the time to care are treasured by more than a few people in our culture. Unfortunately, with men it often happens that such memories surface only in their later years. Younger men seem to prefer remembering their childhood exploits and conquests while forgetting the infinite tenderness and passion of their first best-friendships and hero worship, and they are wary of interactions, with their sons and other boys, that are too "mushy" or not masculine enough.
Men need to ask themselves: What about the nostalgic images of fathers and sons and other men and boys as pals, buddies, confidantes? Why are they so popular in sentimental films and literature? Why are they encouraged in organizations such as Boy Scouts, Big Brothers, and community Boys' Clubs? The answer may lie in the proposition that boys and men must interact for either to make much sense. The boy will become a man, and carries this potential from conception. The man was once a boy, and carries this experience to the grave. Corresponding things can be said, of course, of women and girls, and a person's identity as a human being, crossing demarcations of sex, race, culture and class also is important to develop. Yet it is almost self-evident that if there is anything essentially masculine or feminine, if there is anything unique to males that females don't share, some degree of same-sex interdependence becomes essential.
The facts are these: Females and males differ in only a few respects, mostly physiological, but the developing child -- perhaps inevitably -- focuses on these differences as significant. The developmental periods called preadolescence (roughly age 8 to puberty) and adolescence are heavily dominated by same-sex friendships and a focus on same-sex adults. This same-sex focus is typical of industrialized, Western societies, and also holds true in a wide range of other cultures. In Western culture, boys tend to model their behavior on abstract, media-propagated male images, especially during the years of same-sex focus, while girls more often have contact with mothers and other real people as mentors and role models. Boys are socialized away from emotional expression, nurturing, tenderness, in general anything considered feminine. Boys learn -- sometimes subliminally, sometimes explicitly -- that homophobia and sexist views of women and girls are about all they need to know to be real men. Measurements of intimate relationships virtually always show males lower in emotional intimacy than females. Men suffer greatly as a result of the limitations placed on them during their socialization.
The questions are these: Is it dangerous for men to have a role in the socialization of boys? Will encouragement of true relationships between them be an impossible dream that will just revert to familiar patterns of male socialization for dominance? Is it reasonable for anti-sexist men's studies to investigate and potentially encourage men's real committment to the healthy socialization of boys? Is contact with actual men necessary for a boy's development in the first place? (Maybe it isn't important that boys tend to focus on same-sex models as they are developing.) Are males even different enough from females in significant ways to justify the encouragement of same-sex modeling? Are hero worship and role modeling functional, or anachronisms?
The hypothesis is this: True intimacy between developing boys and adult men -- including mutual respect, sharing of control, power, feelings and secrets, affectionate touching and time spent experiencing each other in a variety of situations -- will render homophobia impotent and will emphasize and enhance human qualities that are incompatible with sexism: interpersonal involvement, openness, committment, giving, inclusion, and feeling of security in personal worth. These will be experienced during development, rather than during the romantic/dating phase after development, when less desirable attitudes may well have been learned and set.
Gradual vs. delayed development. It is essential to understand that the postponement of developmental behaviors is not consistent with human psychology, nor is the expectation that any complex behavior suddenly can appear, without a period of gradual acquisition of the requisite components and a chance for trial-and-error practice (Money, 1986). If development is a continuum of experiences, rather than a series of abrupt changes as new stages magically appear, prepuberty is not too early for one to begin acquiring some skills that will be used in adulthood (Jackson, 1982). The key is that the scenario unfolds gradually. There is no magic age, or sudden time when a feature of human behavior suddenly is acquired.
With respect to interpersonal relationships, one must grow into progressively complex, mature, responsible relationships just as one becomes more proficient at any task with more and more practice. We find that this gradual process begins and develops to a large extent in childhood and adolescence, and with others of the same sex, both peers and older heroes or models.
The same-sex phase of development. One central feature of child development and socialization is that, like education in general, it typically proceeds from the simple to the complex, from the familiar to the novel, from egocentric to other- centered, to all-inclusive. In this context, there is a credible argument that a same-sex phase of development is behaviorally functional, and that relationships during this phase play a crucial role.
Apparently, the development of close relationship, which Sullivan (1953ab) sees as a necessity to alleviate feelings of isolation associated with entering the unknown world outside the home, happens most easily with those the child perceives as being most like herself or himself, those of the same sex, and in general the child's growing awareness of the "outside" world is focused on those who are mature members of the category into which he or she seems to fit: male or female. The school-age child's playmates, the preadolescent's best friends, the adolescent's role models, and often the primary social groups throughout adulthood are virtually always predominantly same-sex.
This focus on members of the same sex during these years surrounding puberty is not limited to peers. Findings in studies of parental influence on developmental processes in childhood and adolescence point to the same-sexed parent as the more important one for identity development (Marcia, 1980), and research involving non-parental adults provides further support for the importance of interaction with same-sex adults during childhood and adolescence (Riley & Cochran, 1987). One result of this same-sex focus in developing youngsters is that girls, consciously or unconsciously, tend to look to women for information on what it will be like for them as a woman, and boys tend to look to men as real or symbolic models for their manhood. If this sounds sexist, it need not be regarded automatically as such. There is no question that adults of both sexes are essential to growing persons of both sexes, if for no other reason than that virtually everyone lives in a bisexual world, more or less. The question is whether same-sex adults are helpful in the development process, and if so, why.
Seen from the perspective of the developing person, the issue is much clearer. In adolescence, nothing seems more obvious than looking to members of one's same sex as a primary model against which to evaluate one's own growth into adulthood. The boy tends to look to men as the experts on growing up male, and the girl tends to look to women. Imagine how ridiculous it would be to propose that girls should give as much credence to a man's account of menstruation as they could give to any woman's! Likewise it is with most boys and their feelings about learning things male. If nothing else, testicles and ejaculation, beards and visible erections are important male experiences that women cannot be expected to understand as fully as a man. We need to recognize that there is nothing inherently wrong with that, and our efforts should be directed toward advocating anti-sexist socialization within the existing man/boy and woman/girl relationship model, while continuing to encourage cross-sex interactions as well (Research Note 1).
Are role models necessary? The popular assumption is that children absolutely need same-sex adult role models. There is little empirical evidence that youngsters need or even benefit from close association with adults considered as "role models" (Riley & Cochran, 1987, come close to this concept), but there is also virtually no evidence that role models are unnecessary. The cultural belief in the importance of role models is so strong that most American cities support Big Sister and Big Brother programs to supply at least some same-sex adults for children who lack them, and youth organizations similar to the British/American Boy and Girl Scouts exist in many Western countries. The goals of these organizations go beyond role modeling, of course, but healthy interaction between boys and men, or girls and women, is usually one important objective.
Intimacy vs. "maleness". We are beginning to see that while intimacy may be one of the earmarks of womanhood as defined in our society, the lack of intimacy is characteristic of traditional manhood. Maas (1968), studying "aloof" and "warm" men, found that such lack of intimacy has its roots in childhood and adolescence. Balswick and Peek (1971) felt that society actually fosters this trend, and expressed their concern in the very title of their work: "The inexpressive male: A tragedy of American society".
It is easy to see in our society how men may come to be inexpressive. Many boys interpret the cultural mythology of the "strong man" to mean the man who is neither dependent on nor committed to anyone, in part because his contact with real adult males may be limited or nonexistent. The fact that the overt behavior of males in our society is too often characterized by sexism, dominance and attempts to prove superiority hardly needs documentation here. Beneath the surface, of course, exist the corresponding emotional shallowness, fear of inadequacy, and perhaps most debilitating of all, homophobia. One result is that virtually all studies of friendship and intimacy in adults as well as growing persons have found that males are less close than females to their friends (Eder & Hallinan, 1978), and are less intimate in their relationships in general (Fischer, 1981).
Reduction of sexism through intimacy. Males typically wait until relatively late in life before discovering the importance of intimacy, relationships and care --- as Carol Gilligan (1982) puts it, something that women know from the beginning. Sexism may be one of the by-products of this delay. The mere fact that true closeness is part of an early relationship may give the boy enough of a respite from his stereotypes to allow his natural "discovery" that sexism is not necessary for him. It may not even be necessary for the man in such relationships himself to be aware of anti-sexist principles and behavior, though undoubtedly it would help the process if he were.
Effects of intergenerational contact on development. It almost goes without saying that a successful same-sex intergenerational friendship can reduce homophobic anxiety by assuring the child or adolescent that same-sex intimacy is nothing to be afraid of, and it does so at a time when knee-jerk homophobic responses have not yet immobilized the ability to share at an emotional level.
The boy who has an adult male friend has made a connection across the so-called generation gap, and likely feels connected in some degree to the larger world of adults as well. Such a youngster probably feels in this unusual friendship a sense of self-efficacy that is not nearly as palpable in his peer relationships. If it is indeed a two-way relationship it is possible to assume that the younger person shares a degree of power with the adult, giving the boy a chance to work gradually and gracefully -- with a mentor, besides -- into an adulthood where the exercise of power is balanced with fearlessly surrendering control at appropriate times. The theory is that a man will respect his place in the world and will value his fellow humans if he was once the boy who was not alienated, who felt as he grew that he was more and more a part of the "human community" as opposed to being "just a kid" one day and a grown man the next, who felt just as comfortable exercising power as he did giving it up, and who learned to feel at ease with intimacy, even when it was with other males. This surely is the antithesis of sexism.
Feminist concerns. Some feminist writers feel that children may receive what they need for optimum development from adults of either sex, and hence that boys don't necessarily need male role models. While it is hardly disputed that many types of male models are quite sexist indeed, this is not sufficient reason to believe that boys can do without male contact, especially in a gender distinct culture such as ours. It is inconceivable that women would ever agree that female "bonding" is not important, that girls could develop properly in our culture without female role models and same-sex relationships, nor should they agree to such a proposition. In the final analysis, of course, we don't really know, and research is needed.
Feminists skeptical about studying and/or encouraging intimate male intergenerational contacts should consider the possibility such relationships might encourage alternatives to stereotypical socialization. In many ways boys develop like girls, until about age 11 or 12, when puberty begins to highlight physical differences and homophobia begins to appear (Jones, 1985; see also Friday, 1981, for personal accounts of men whose childhood homosexual experiences stopped around puberty because of fears associated with homosexuality). Of course, traditional man-boy contacts, typically revolving around sports and macho genderflecting, tend to reinforce sexist attitudes and glorification of violence, but not all intergenerational contacts are traditional. Systematic study of many types of relationships might reveal that some result in behavioral outcomes on the part of boys that feminists would welcome.
We need to determine just how important role modeling and hero worship are to developing boys, and girls, and then build a perspective for the encouragement of real-person role modeling that avoids the development of sexist attitudes and homophobia. This paper advocates intimate social relationships between developing boys and men as one likely setting for healthy development. Other possibilities need to be proposed and explored.
Indeed, the whole question of just what images of masculinity are appropriate to offer boys needs to be investigated, regardless of the question of sexual activity. Riddle's (1978) review of the literature shows how children --- those who will be involved in homosexual behavior as well as those who will not --- might well benefit from gay role models, for instance. Morin and Schultz (1978) have asserted that access to gay role models is indeed a right to which growing persons are entitled.
We must move away from the protecting of boys and toward preparing them even before they hit the rapids of adolescence. After age 10 or so, when peer friendships have helped develop a sense of security in the mini-society of school and neighborhood, men -- and later all adults -- must provide boys ever so gradually with the skills, self assurance, motivation and capacity to give and receive in interpersonal relationships in the larger society. This means providing the opportunity for boys to experience and practice interpersonal relationships, including those with older persons if they are so inclined. The early beginning of this preparatory socialization is crucial, even if the pace will be slow at first. Waiting until adolescence has begun or, more typically, until early adulthood to allow and encourage responsibility and decision-making about one's relationships is to risk the likelihood that negative behaviors will have developed in the meantime that get in the way of fully experiencing relationships.
If the growing individual is in fact a human being, that individual exercises choice and retains responsibility for actions, but she or he also needs help from those who have "invented the wheel" before. The best context for such help may exist in intimate one-to-one friendships between young people and adults. It seems likely to assume that such friendships would at least reduce ageism's effects. To the extent that ageism and sexism come from the same source -- adult male dominance of society -- intergenerational friendships might also serve to reduce sexism, if only by interrupting the cycle of stereotypes handed from generation to generation.
1. Many of the points made here regarding anti-sexist socialization were also included in a previous paper: Jones, G.P. (1987, February 14). "Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Enhancing Future Alliances Through the Transmission of Anti-Sexist Values". It was presented at the Conference on the New Gender Scholarship: Women's and Men's Studies, Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. The paper was invited for inclusion in a conference session on "Men and Feminism".
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