The Heart of a Harsh Boy

#MeToo and teenage boy culture

I’m sitting with a teenage boy on a park bench carved with strangers’ initials. He’s facing me but he’s focused on picking at a worn wooden letter in front of him. We’re talking about perception. “My teachers think I’m a waste of time, my friends think I’m a jerk. Even my own parents don’t like me,” he says, his eyes fixed deliberately on the bench between us. “They told me.”

“Your parents told you they don’t like you,” I say.

His lips barely move. “That’s what I just said.” I don’t say anything back, and he’s quiet for a couple moments. “Do you?”

I don’t move. “Do I what?”

He breaks off a chip of wood and looks up at me, and in his eyes I see a mixture of trepidation and vulnerability, a hint of defiance and a halfhearted attempt to seem indifferent. “Do you like me?”

In the three months since the rise of #MeToo, I’ve seen an upswing in the conversation about raising feminist boys, with people writing about raising a sweet son in an era of angry men, for example, and reversing course on how we’re raising boys. All of the articles I’ve seen focus on young boys who still have close connections to their parents.

“How many of us parents have watched our sweet toddler boys slowly lose their capacity to cry or hide their tenderness in order to fit into the harsh teenage boy culture?” — John Bell

But some boys already fit into harsh teenage boy culture, and it feels like no one is talking about them. There are occasional references to the social power accorded to dominance and heterosexuality within teenage culture, but even those seem to posit adolescent tenets of masculinity as unchangeable. Teenage boys are seen as inaccessible. Unapproachable. Impenetrable.

It’s the same ‘boys will be boys’ rhetoric, only no one is saying it out loud.

This hurts us. Collectively. We’re trying to end violence against women while maintaining our disconnection from the roots of toxic masculinity, and that doesn’t make any sense. Talking to sweet boys about consent is like teaching kids the dangers of smoking cigarettes. It’s preventative. It’s worthwhile. But it’s clearly inadequate. What about the kids already smoking to fit in or to cope with anxiety? What about the kids who picked it up from their parents? And what about the kids who don’t smoke but still think it looks cool?

“If we truly want to address the widespread mistreatment and harassment of women, we need a drastic culture shift that tackles our valuing of masculinity and systemic patriarchy. The focus now cannot simply be on adult men in power — we need to turn our attention to our boys.” — Celisa Calacal

The ‘boys will be boys’ rhetoric also hurts boys themselves. Even teenagers. Even the ones trying desperately and sometimes convincingly to appear invulnerable. They’re not. If you think a boy who was in a fist fight isn’t hurting, try punching something with an unprotected fist. If you think a boy who is using drugs isn’t struggling, ask yourself what kind of feelings outweigh getting arrested. Connecting with harsh boys isn’t just about ending violence against girls and women, it’s also about protecting boys themselves.

“The image of the angrily grunting and inarticulate teenager is not one which stands up to scrutiny when one looks at what can happen when boys are given the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and are encouraged to talk. […] They often spoke particularly poignantly about losses and also about how much value they placed upon parents who attended to them sensitively and seriously — and how disappointed they were by parents who did not.” — Stephen Frosh

No boy wants to hurt. Especially not alone.

Part of the reason I think people are reluctant to talk about harsh boys is because it isn’t easy. There is a difference between knowing there are feelings behind a teenager’s bravado and actually being able to access them. It takes skill to effectively build or rebuild a relationship and challenge the limiting tenets of masculine culture at the same time, because doing both of those things simultaneously requires careful balance. Too much of one or the other means you lose credibility. No credibility, no access.

What we’re really talking about is trust. When that kid on the park bench asked me if I liked him, he was trusting me to not make him feel bad like everyone else in his life did. When a boy starts leading with that kind of vulnerability, I can affect change. Not before.

So let’s talk about connecting with harsh boys.

1. Don’t write him off.

There is no such thing as a boy who’s just a jerk. That doesn’t exist. There are boys who are provocative, or violent, or indifferent—but those are behaviours, not characteristics. If you mistake one for the other, you’ve already lost him.

“We tend to isolate the withdrawn or angry boy. We see his tough, sullen exterior, and say, ‘He’s a teenager, what do you expect? It’s a phase. He’s just being a boy.’ And so we let him drift away.” — William Pollack

2. Spend one-on-one time.

There is no room for vulnerability in traditional adolescent masculine culture. If your relationship with him is limited to the social pressure of group settings or the triviality of brief conversations, all you’ll experience is a boy playing defence. There is no trust in defence.

3. Find authentic things to like.

There is no point in saying something positive if you don’t mean it, nor is there any point in saying something positive if he’s not going to believe it. Watch him carefully. Believe the best. Convince him what he’s worth.

“For all the rules that I was taught about how to be a man, I was never taught how to be myself and how to love myself.” — Wade Davis

4. Say the hard stuff.

It took only one suicide intervention for me to stop leaving things unsaid. Tell him every loving thing. Ask him every meaningful question. If it’s hard to say, it’s probably worth saying.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize.

It takes steadiness and vision to align with a boy and alter his direction. Don’t forget you’re on his side. Don’t forget you’re playing the long game. There is no surrender.

“The ‘symbolic violence’ of hegemonic masculinity, though compelling, nonetheless leaves boys room for agency: to invent ways to be themselves; to thwart routines and roles they find suffocating; to endure pain, threat, and punishment rather than surrender their hearts altogether.” — Michael Reichert and Sharon Ravitch

To TIME and Refinery29 and AlterNet and every other publication discussing the importance of raising feminist boys in the context of #MeToo: if you’re only talking about sweet boys, you’re having half a conversation. The norms of toxic masculinity that lead to sexual assault originate within harsh teenage boy culture. If we’re disconnected from those boys, we can’t effectively offer any alternatives to that toxicity. If we’re disconnected from those boys, we’re perpetuating violence.

To parents and educators who have harsh boys in their lives: consider this your wake-up call. You’re not done. Dust yourself off and commit to connection. It might be his only shot.

I’m still in touch with the boy from the park bench, but since his brother moved back home we don’t talk as much as we used to. There’s no real way to know if our connection changed anything that will last, but in my experience these things are never as small as they seem to be. He could have felt just the loneliness of a strangers’ carved initials that day, but instead he felt liked, and he understood the power of vulnerability. That was a new possibility.

New things, then, are possible. Even for a harsh boy.

Breaking the Boy Code is a feminism-aligned publication on masculinity on Medium, and a podcast on the inner lives of boys coming in 2018. Follow @boypodcast on Twitter and Facebook for podcast-related updates and masculinity-related news.