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Father's Day 1999

All Our Fathers: William Pollack's 'Real Boys'


Happy Father's Day

Can fathers stop the violence?

June 20, 1999
Web posted at: 5:40 p.m. EDT (2140 GMT)

By Porter Anderson
CNN Interactive Features Writer

(CNN) -- Here at CNN Center, we're lucky on this Father's Day to have a lot of young dads among us. Our company's computer system frequently flashes happy announcements of new fatherhood.

There's a tough reality here, though. In our profession that needs so many younger people, a lot of these new fathers end up working closely on some decidedly unhappy news stories about families -- including the recent dark ones about sons and violence.

Some of our dads worked the story last year about 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, sentenced to the custody of the Arkansas Division of Youth Services for the shooting deaths of five people in Jonesboro. And many of our fathers, of course, covered the story of Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, who killed 13 people and then took their own lives in Littleton, Colorado.

Of course, these are extreme, horrible instances of boyhood gone mad. They're the exception, not the rule.

But as author William Pollack has made the round of talk shows, including CNN's, he's made the point that many of our sons, while not resorting to such violence, may be suffering a pain that can lead to it -- a pain that could be eased by good fathering.

"Why do men behave so much more violently than women do, if there is no male 'violence chromosome'?"
-- William Pollack, 'Real Boys'

At times when our young dads have been so intimately focused on the school-shooting stories, I've been reminded of an acquaintance in the South Carolina Lowcountry, a fine sheriff's deputy, a dedicated enforcer of the law -- who was shocked to discover that his computer-whiz 15-year-old son was under arrest for using his new color printer to counterfeit some fairly passable $50 bills.

Newsmen go home to their supper tables each night, too. I wonder how our news-head fathers feel about their kids' safety in general -- and about their sons' emotional health in particular.

Dads and the 'Boy Code'

"Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood" is Pollack's book on the issue of how we're raising boys in the United States. The hardback was published by Random House last year; the soft-cover edition from Owl Books is in its ninth week on the New York Times' paperback nonfiction bestsellers list.

A clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School's Center for Men, Pollack writes that while we've come a long way in terms of talking about the "sensitive male" as we try to support women and girls -- we've done little to change what he calls the Boy Code.

That code of expectations, he says, is still passed from father to son, still enforced by shame, still insistent that guys must show little if any emotion in order to be manly. A lot of us older boys are walking around with such directives working on us. If you don't believe it, watch the usually docile guys in an office -- or a newsroom -- when a prize fight is on TV. Something slightly less civilized gets into the air. Have you ever seen this? As Pollack tells us, the Code lives.

Today's dads are on the spot, standing in the center of the ring and the bell has been hit: They can take a TKO and pass this Boy Code on to their little buddies, or they can stay on their feet and punch it out with their own childhood programming.

Many a peer of mine can remember his father saying to him something along the lines of, "Son, never get into a fight. But if you do, make sure the other guy comes out looking worse than you." Wink, wink. A buddy-smile passes. It's a great moment of bonding. But Pollack might say the glue is the Boy Code.

Although it may seem ironic, he says more fathering and even a few good bouts with the gloves in the backyard are keys to helping boys control anger and aggression.

"Research shows," Pollack writes, "that while mothers tend to soothe their children and shield them from too much stimulation, the average father is inclined to arouse the emotions and stimulate a boy, playing with him zestfully and 'jazzing' him up. That roughhousing between father and son that may make mom cringe is actually the rudimentary beginning of a boy's management of his aggression and his ability to substitute emotional mastery and mutual cooperation for violent interaction."

This could be timely counsel for a Father's Day clouded by the fact that our daughters aren't the ones shooting up their schools -- and our sons aren't swiping assault weapons from their mothers' gun cases. As Pollack is telling us, this is in no small part a guy problem. A boy problem. A challenge for fathers.

Sons and their frustrations

Pollack's work suggests our old answers to such bad news won't work anymore, either.

"Many people," Pollack writes, "base their thinking about boys on the myth that 'testosterone = aggressiveness = boys,' but nothing in the research, mine included, proves that equation to be true . So why do men behave so much more violently than women do, if there is no male 'violence chromosome'? When boys feel disconnected (from adequate love and support) and afraid of being shamed, when they harden themselves and then put on the macho mask, the one emotion they feel it's acceptable to show, and thus the only emotion they will show, is anger."

Maybe we've run out of old-style Father's Days. The Sunday in June may finally have arrived when American fatherhood needs to reject the fond concept that violence is an inherent component of masculinity.

"When boys feel disconnected and afraid of being shamed ... the one emotion they will show, is anger."
-- William Pollack, 'Real Boys'

Pollack's research indicates that one of the best things we could give our boys is "an extra dose of dad." In one 11-year study of boys -- starting at ages 7 to 11 and running through 18 to 22 -- "the more shared activities a boy had with his father," Pollack reports, "the more education he completed; and the closer the emotional bond between father and son, the lower was the incidence of social delinquency. Indeed, this study showed that fathers had more of an effect on their teen-age sons in their academic and social functioning than mothers did."

That extra dose of dad is good for women, too, writes Pollack, making boys "more relaxed about gender roles, feeling less afraid to bend traditional rules about masculinity while maintaining a confident sense of self." In a 10-year study by Kyle Pruett at Yale, such well-fathered boys "were able to keep girls as close friends, not needing to exclude them from 'all-guy play.'"

In Arthur Miller's stage play "All My Sons," a father commits suicide when it's revealed that he knowingly delivered defective warplane parts for combat, parts that sent boys plunging to their deaths. Those boys, the script has Joe say before he dies, were "all my sons."

Pollack's 'Real Boys' suggests that today's widening drama of violence among youths might play out the other way. Some of the boys are the ones committing suicide. And many contemporary fathers -- battered, themselves, by their own dads' well-intentioned allegiance to the cult of male violence -- can't easily find the inner security and self-respect to believe they're fuller men, richer men, stronger men without guns, without clenched fists, without living on win-at-everything overdrive.

We have to embrace them as they are. Because we need them to teach their sons a better way.

They're all our fathers.

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