Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is currently at work on a book about the failings of feminism. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
As politicians and gun control advocates battle it out over the best way to respond to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, shifting the blame from bump stock devices to mental illness to unarmed teachers and back again, one culprit has gone largely overlooked: how we’re raising our boys.
Yes, the gun that Nikolas Cruz used to kill 17 people and injure many more — an AR-15-style rifle — is not the sort of gun a 19-year-old, troubled or not, should have been able to access. Most school shootings, in fact, involved automatic or semi-automatic weapons, most of them bought legally and with a federal background check. That includes the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle to kill 26 people in minutes.
But while gun control has proven necessary, what’s largely missing in the conversation post-Parkland is the dire lack of emotional support we provide to boys, particularly at the critical time of adolescence.
There have been eight school shootings so far in 2018. Most of the shooters were male. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising: A 2015 investigation found that since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre the “more than 40 people … charged with Columbine-style plots” were almost all white male teenagers, like the Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
But why is it this way?
A lot of attention has been paid lately to what – and who – is keeping women and girls back: gender biases in education and sports, employer-supported income disparity, and more. But even as efforts are made to reject gender norms when it comes to raising girls, we’re not doing the same for boys — at least not nearly as well.
Sure, there’s a whole wave of experts imploring parents to “let boys cry.” But that comes with a caveat, because we still want them to grow up strong, and successful, and independent. No one wants to raise (or, let’s be honest, be) a mama’s boy. At NPR, Hanna Rosin summed up the conflict parents face perfectly: “I think we care a lot less about boys crying than we used to, but more than we will admit. Or to put it another way: Boys can cry, if they do it in just the right way.”
And so, boys are largely not taught to navigate their feelings and, as a result, to secretly fear them. They’re taught to “play through the pain,” emotional and physical. The idea of how a man is “supposed to act” is ingrained young: Research shows that violent video games and watching too much TV can fuel aggression and antisocial behavior, while the popularity of contact sports teaches boys that bigger, stronger, faster wins.
In fact, research shows that from infancy through about age 5, boys are more emotive and socially oriented than girls. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital found that 6-month-old boys “tended to cry more than girls” and were more likely to show “facial expressions of anger [and] to fuss.” Then we essentially socialize the vulnerability out of them.
Some of the differences are chemical: Adolescent boys in particular are at risk for lowered impulse control, which makes them more likely than girls to execute a violent crime. But too many are environmental: As adolescents, boys start to become more independent and they start to isolate, and we let them. They share less with their male friends and instead rely on romantic relationships as places to show their vulnerability. But when those romantic relationships go awry — as they often do, given the age – boys are left with bruised egos and no one to talk about it with. And that’s a recipe for trouble.
The concept of “protection” is key, and here is where the firearms come in, especially when they’re so very easy to get. Even as we talk about how to reduce violence in schools, we’ve got a President saying he believes he’d have rushed into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School unarmed. “I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too,” he said to a room of politicians. This is the model that boys follow.
There’s more. Boys are also more likely than girls to blame others for their problems, and to develop anger and hostility toward them as a result. A 2013 study of college students showed that while women saw stalking as pervasive and harmful, men tended to blame the victims themselves for their stalking. And research on bullying has found that boys are more likely than girls to be a bully.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The idea that bullying and boy-on-boy violence is a rite of passage may also lead to boys not asking for help in these situations. That Nikolas Cruz — just like many mass shooters before him — was revealed to be a troubled kid who displayed enough warning signs of violence is not surprising. We see those warning signs and we overlook them again and again because we expect boys to move on. We expect them to be strong. We expect them to suck it up. And, so, mass violence is increasing, getting more frequent and deadlier.
What else did we expect?