Editor’s Note: This post is a product of the Youth Minister as Pastor and Leader class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.
by Samantha Hassell
Boys will be boys!
He’s all boy!
He’s a man’s man.
Don’t be a sissy!
You play like a girl!
Unfortunately, you have an image of what each of these implies; maybe you even pictured a specific individual. Guys are left struggling to balance the way they are created with the way they are prompted by society to be. They are struggling to form an identity that allows them to fit in easily yet in some ways goes against the nature of who they are.
Boys struggle against what William Pollack calls “Boy Code.” Boy Code tells boys that they should be independent, strong, invulnerable, and stoic; that they are naturally macho; they must achieve power and status and avoid shame; and that they should not express thoughts, feelings, or ideals that are “feminine.”
Boys are created for relationship and community. And to a degree they find that—friendships are important to the development of teenage guys. But Boy Code tells them “don’t be vulnerable, don’t show emotion, don’t let them ‘see you sweat.'” Authentic relationships cannot happen without vulnerability and a willingness to be intimate. In his 2006 book Teenage Guys: Exploring Issues Adolescent Guys Face and Strategies to Help Them, adolescence and youth ministry expert Steven Gerali reminds us that Genesis 2:24 calls guys to “leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” To “cleave” means to “adhere closely, to stick, and to cling.” In order to adhere closely, stick, and cling, a man must be willing to open himself up to his partner. This goes against what Boy Code tells a boy to be. But Boy Code’s call for independence goes against the very make-up of a guy who is called by God to “cleave.”
Boys are created to love, nurture, and care for others. Boy Code tells them that’s girly. I spoke with four teenage boys, and asked them, “What does it mean to be a man?” Each of them answered using Boy Code speak until I pushed them a little deeper. Jordan* (18) responded that a man is a provider and that you’re not a “legit” man until you’re a father. When I asked him what kind of provider and why one must be a father he replied, “Well, providing by taking care of your family. And I think you can’t really really know how much you can love someone until you have kids.” Jordan believes you don’t reach manhood until you know what it is to really love someone. Casey (16) said that a real man is a provider and that while the world says he must like women, he just thinks a real man will “love whoever he’s with.” He went on to say that women are also providers; that there’s no distinction. Dave (15) said that a real man is respectful, “especially of his wife.” And Cameron (12) told me that a real man is unafraid. When I asked him, “Unafraid of what?” He replied, “You know, of standing up for others and taking care of people.” See, they all used Boy Code answers, but when asked to dig deeper, they all suggested that care and concern and provision are important parts of being a man. At the core of it, they want to define manhood as nurturing and caring. And at the core of it, being loving, caring, and nurturing is just as important to the identity of a man, and we harm young guys by trying to convince them otherwise.
Boy Code tells guys to avoid shame and fear. I asked those same four guys what they are most afraid of. Not a single one of them told me “Nothing.” In fact, they didn’t even have to think about it; each of them possessed a fear of something: losing someone they love; the future; not fitting in; being seen as different. I asked them if they would admit those fears to their friends. They all said that they would not. It was okay to have a fear and to disclose it to me, their youth minister, but it’s not okay to disclose it to their peers. “Whatever you make fun of, you’re afraid of. And I see guys making fun of a lot,” is what Casey told me. Rather than admit or work through their fears, rather than reach out to their community for support, Boy Code tells boys to shame others by making them less than and to never show fear.
We who are responsible for teaching and forming young men have to be willing to show them how to balance the way they were created with the tendency of Boy Code to want to shift that. They can be both strong and vulnerable. They can be both steady and sensitive. They can be both afraid and courageous. They can be both humble and leaders. They can be both bold and nurturing. As those who love teenagers, we are most faithful when we guide them towards living as God created them—in God’s likeness—rather than toward the macho chauvinism of Boy Code.
* Names have been changed.
Samantha Hassell serves the Cumberland Presbyterian church as a Christian Educator working with children and youth. She has served the denomination as well as presbyteries and churches in both Tennessee and Kentucky. She and her husband, Victor, currently serve the Sturgis CPC in Sturgis, KY. Samantha and Victor have three children: Victoria, Mallory, and John.