Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Is the 'be a man' stereotype hurting boys?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jaylen Fryberg, the Washington school shooter, may have been dealing with a broken heart
  • The tragedy has parents asking whether we're doing enough to help boys with their feelings
  • "Cultural ideal of masculinity" is hurting boys, said the co-author of "Raising Cain"
  • We need to "redefine healthy masculinity" for boys, a documentary filmmaker says

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Why did he do it?

That's what so many of us are asking after Jaylen Fryberg, a popular freshman, opened fire on classmates during lunch at Marysville-Pilchuck High School north of Seattle on Friday.

The shootings left two girls dead and three other students injured, including two of Fryberg's cousins, one of whom remains in critical condition. Fryberg died after turning the gun on himself.

Tweets give insight into school shooter
What motivated Wa. school shooting?

We typically assume that school shooters fit the narrative of a loner, struggling to fit in, ostracized and bullied by his peers. But by all accounts, Fryberg was well-liked, a member of the football team who planned to try out for wrestling too and who was recently named the school's freshman homecoming prince.

What made him snap?

We don't know and may never know, but as reports come in that Fryberg might have been dealing with a breakup or anger that a girl he liked rebuffed him and was with his cousin, we have to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to help our boys deal with difficult emotions and express them without resorting to violence.

Fryberg, it seems, was using social media to express some of the pain he appeared to be feeling.

Washington school shooting forgives the gunman -- his cousin

"Tell me what your plan is," he wrote on Twitter at the end of August. "You can't make a bond with anyone like the bond me and you have right now.... Tell me what your going to do."

He went on to say, "Your gonna piss me off... And then some (expletive's) gonna go down and I don't think you'll like it."

Days before the shooting, he wrote, "It breaks me... It actually does... I know it seems like I'm sweating it off... But I'm not.. And I never will be able to."

"It's a cry for help," said Avital Norman Nathman, who wrote a story for The Frisky on the Washington tragedy headlined "School Shootings, Toxic Masculinity and 'Boys Will Be Boys.'"

"This kid was hurting, but do we have a safe space for young men to feel OK talking about their feelings without fear of repercussion, whether that's teasing, even if it's gentle ribbing?" asked Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology "The Good Mother Myth."

Emotional literacy in boys

Type "emotional literacy for boys" into Google, and "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" is the first item that will pop up. Coincidentally, the book came out just days before the Columbine school shooting.

Co-author Michael Thompson says the "cultural ideal of masculinity," the thinking that men need to be strong and independent, is causing many boys and young men to have trouble bearing difficult emotions.

Masculinity, mental illness and guns: A lethal equation?

"Teenage boys still have the myths," Thompson said. "They still believe in the myths of total strength and independence, and when your girlfriend (drops) you and you are flooded with feelings of loss, shame and abandonment, then you think you can't manage these feelings.

"And that's where the issue of emotional literacy comes in, because emotional literacy means being able to identify your feelings and being able to manage them," said Thompson, a clinical psychologist who works at a boys school in Massachusetts.

"The Mask You Live In," to be released in 2015, is a film about the impact that our "narrow definition" of masculinity is having on boys, men and society in general.

The experts interviewed for the film say "that boys have been socialized in such a way that they're not supposed to experience pain or suffering and that they're expected to be dominant, stoic and in control at all times," said Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film's writer, producer and director. She also wrote, produced and directed the documentary "Miss Representation," which examined the role of the media in the underrepresentation of women in power.

"If young men do not have an outlet for expressing their feelings and communicating honestly and outwardly with others, they are subject to an incredibly lonely and isolating existence," said Siebel Newsom, who is also the founder and chief executive officer of the non-profit The Representation Project.

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace talked with experts and parents about how we can help boys deal with their feelings.
CNN's Kelly Wallace talked with experts and parents about how we can help boys deal with their feelings.

The numbers paint a portrait of frustration and despair that can lead to extreme behavior: Eighty-one percent of completed suicides among young people ages 10 to 24 are by boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although girls attempt suicide twice as often, Thompson said, they typically leave notes or take pills, whereas boys often "get a gun or hang themselves or they jump off a bridge."

"Why are they doing that?" Thompson asked. "Well, they feel they have to do something that looks strong. 'I'm hurt but I'm still strong. I can leap off a bridge.' They do what in many ways is the final test of masculinity."

What more can we do to help boys?

Siebel Newsom believes a conversation is necessary among parents, guardians, educators and coaches and young men, allowing boys to know that "there is more than one way to 'be a man.' "

SOS for stressed-out teens

"We have to redefine healthy masculinity for our boys to include empathy, emotion, care and compassion," she said. "And we have to model it, challenging unhealthy dominant norms in public culture and daily life."

Thompson said that as we see an increase in fathers' involvement in their sons' lives, people's idea of masculinity will change.

"If your father is diapering you from the get-go and taking care of you and bathing you and feeding you, then you don't think masculinity is just a 'tough thing.' "

He also said we should think about encouraging our boys to take on caretaking positions, just like girls do, in terms of babysitting or helping the elderly.

"Meeting the needs of somebody who's dependent allows you to become more accepting of your own dependency needs," he said.

Do modern dads get enough credit?

Parents need to talk to their boys, but too often they aren't using the right words, said Thompson.

"They're often saying 'Be in touch with your emotions' ... 'Embrace your inner femininity,' and men experience that as they are being told to be more like women, and they reject it, and teenage boys do especially."

Dad: No 'be a man' narrative in home

Jim Higley of Chicago, who has two sons and a daughter, said he has always tried to help his sons understand what they are feeling by "literally saying to them, 'You're feeling frustrated / anxious / nervous / hurt right now, but I promise that feeling will go away.' "

"As a dad, we are obligated to take our sons by the hand and make sure they are as familiar with their emotions as they are with healthy eating habits, the importance of exercise and sexuality," said Higley, an award-winning author, radio host and creator of the site Bobblehead Dad.

Buzz Bishop, father of two boys who are 4 and 7, said the "be a man" narrative is not present in their home.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

"There are not stereotypical gender roles in the house," said Bishop, of Calgary, Alberta, who founded a blog called Dad Camp. "I am an active and engaged parent and don't feel the need to berate masculinity into them."

Terry Greenwald, a divorced father of three, says he has spent a lifetime dealing with his own emotions and trying to find ways to deal with them effectively.

When it comes to his younger son, who is 26, he believes he has been dealing with the "being tough" issue since the boy started playing hockey when he was 5.

"They fall or get hit and are told 'be tough' or 'get back out there,' " Greenwald said. "As a parent and a former athlete, I wanted him to find a balance, not let little things stop him but also not to try and keep playing if he really was hurt."

Greenwald said he tried to strike a balance with his son with emotional issues too -- "what to share and what to hold inside" -- and to this day tries to initiate conversations with his son "to open the doors to him expressing his feelings."

Norman Nathman, who has a 7-year-old son, says they play the song "It's Alright to Cry" from the hit '70s album "Free to Be ... You and Me" all the time in their household.

"It's such a simple concept but one that gets lost to boys as they grow up," she said.

She wishes middle and high schools would focus as much on emotional development as many elementary schools do, where the goal is giving boys tools on how to work out feelings, just like they have tools for math and language arts.

"It's just padding up their tool belt so they have more things to go to before it boils over and it turns into any number of these tragedies."

How much do the you think the "be a man" messaging in society is hurting our boys and young men? Tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
updated 12:49 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
While most parents think about having a 'sex talk' with their children, not as many think about talking about technology, and that is a big mistake, experts say.
updated 8:53 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Parents are too ambivalent about their kids' "privacy" online, writes Dr. Jodi Gold--they're either spying fruitlessly or afraid to shape their child's online footprint.
updated 8:55 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Is there an unspoken rule in Hollywood that celebrity parents can only pick unusual names for their kids?
updated 5:50 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The premise is simple: You can eat one marshmallow now or, if you can wait, you get to eat two marshmallows later.
updated 7:43 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
While most children wait and hope Santa visits them at home on Christmas Eve, this year dozens of Denver-area children went directly to the big man's arctic home turf.
updated 5:25 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Almost 300 students who had been rejected by Johns Hopkins University received a joyous shock over the weekend when the prestigious Baltimore school said they'd been admitted after all -- but they hadn't.
updated 5:09 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
There is no way around the topic of nakedness in front of your children without getting personal and slightly uncomfortable.
updated 6:55 AM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Teens might be shedding their rebellious reputations: A survey says they're doing fewer drugs, drinking and smoking less. But E-cigarette use is up.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Carol Costello asks whether American culture sends a message to girls that it's not cool to study math and science fields.
updated 12:44 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
It's that special time of year, when Christmas and Hanukkah toy sellers try to put children in a box.
updated 7:59 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Foodies and travelers: They're adventurous, they have discerning tastes and they love to discover a little-known jewel. Here's how to shop for them.
CNN iReport asked families with children with developmental and physical disabilities to share what their lives are like.
updated 7:00 AM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
Don't know what to get parents who are always on the move or kids who seem to have everything? This is just the list for you.
updated 11:45 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
You probably know LOL and OMG -- but what about IWSN, CU46 or IPN. It's all about KPC -- "keeping parents clueless."
updated 9:17 AM EST, Wed December 3, 2014
Out of control parties, sex and alcohol are some of the dangers kids might get into when left alone overnight. But some are mature enough to handle it. How do you know?
updated 11:58 AM EST, Tue December 2, 2014
Across the country and around the world, synthetic drugs are tearing holes in families.
updated 11:42 AM EST, Tue December 2, 2014
There's no place like home for the holidays -- and for one little girl in Cleveland, it's the only place.
Girl Scout cookie sales are entering the 21st century. For the first time ever, Girl Scout cookies will be sold online through a national platform called Digital Cookie. This breaks the organization's ban on e-sales of Thin Mints and Samoas.
updated 9:19 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
Author/actor B.J. Novak
B.J. Novak is catering to kids. His first children's book tops the New York Times list of best selling children's picture books. But here's the catch: it actually doesn't have any pictures.
updated 7:20 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Hundreds of students walked out of their Oklahoma high school Monday to protest the school's response to the alleged bullying of three classmates who say they were raped by the same person.
updated 8:10 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
If it hasn't happened already, it likely will at some point: the moment you don't like one of your child's friends. What do you do?
updated 5:20 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. CNN's Michaela Pereira grew up in a family of five adopted girls in Canada and eventually reunited with her biological half-sister.
updated 12:35 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
If you think 'my teen would never sext,' you might be mistaken. Recent studies suggest it's more common than many parents might want to admit.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT