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Tips from The Parents' Coach » Blog Archive » The Boy Code and The Power of Just Hanging Out to Overcome It

The Boy Code and The Power of Just Hanging Out to Overcome It

The Boy Code is a pervasive, unwritten code that is so ingrained in our culture that most people, unless they are aware of it, enforce it through their responses and comments to boys from the day they are born. After working with male teens for many years, I intuitively knew about the boy code and what to do in raising kids to counter it. I am forever indebted, though, to Dr. William Pollack for his research on this subject and his great book about raising boys called, " Real Boys Workbook ." His books both validated my experience and work and gave me a great text and reference guidebook to offer to the parents I coach. Much of the theory I am presenting here is drawn from him. If every parent who is raising sons would read this early on, their boys would have a far easier time as teens. In it he discusses how the Boy Code influences everything a teen does, how they make decisions and choices, who they date and what feelings they can and can not express to others. That is just the first chapter; the rest is a fantastic guide for understanding and raising boys.

The Boy Code tells boys and teens (and unfortunately, even grown men) that they must always appear strong by never giving in or showing signs of weakness, being in control of all situations and especially their emotions (except for anger and violence), never admitting to defeat or being wrong, always being macho even when they falling apart inside, being independent by "being a man!" and so on. I am sure by now you get the point. The bottom line is that any outward appearance or utterance that might possibly be considered by others as "shameful" is to be avoided. This means that crying when hurt is a no, no. Hanging around mother or girls, except on dates, is to be avoided for fear of being labeled a sissy or the other "f" word, faggot. This is, also why, by the time they become teens, they answer our requests for a conversation about how they are and feel with grunts or two word answers, "I’m O.K.," even when it is obvious that they are not.

Besides the obvious, consequences of the Boy Code on teens includes:

not wanting to share feelings with parents, being obstinate, fighting with siblings, and being bullies and the like. There are other consequences that are of huge concern to society and when they happen, they are blamed on the teens without society taking any of the blame for setting them up. I am referring to youth gang activity including drive-by shootings and to school shootings. Two weeks before the Columbine High School shootings, I heard Dr. Pollack during an interview with Oprah say, "When boys cannot cry, bullets become their tears!" Unfortunately and prophetically, he was totally right. More unfortunate is that those two boys were totally blamed for all the havoc they created with very little to no culpability laid at the doorstep of our society. The Boy Code of society set up the other students who teased and bullied them, literally to death. Society, through the Boy Code, gave the students and faculty permission to tolerate that harassment because "boys will be boys." And, finally, society’s Boy Code taught those two kids to hold inside their very hurt feelings until they exploded.

Parents, who do not understand the Boy Code, inadvertently enforce it by their interactions with their boys and set themselves up for many problems with their future teens, including keeping all their feelings inside. Dr. Pollack cites a study that observed parents of newborns. The researchers were watching how the parents interacted with their babies. The results illustrate how the Boy Code messages start being given right out of the womb. The parents of girls mimicked all the facial expressions of their new born. When she smiled, they smiled. When she frowned, they frowned. The parents of boys only mimicked happy expressions of their baby. And we wonder why they won’t share their unhappy feelings with us when they are teens!

The Power of Just Hanging Out

When I, as a grad student, started my first program, which worked with kids who were hanging out on the streets of Ithaca, NY, I didn’t have a clue as to how to approach those kids. They were all hanging out, sitting on the low wall of a local bank. Since I didn’t know how to approach them, I didn’t. I just sat patiently on another part of the wall, day after day, until the self-appointed spokesman of the group came over and asked what I was doing sitting on their wall. I explained about my new program, including how I assisted kids to get jobs. He said, "Can you get me a job?" Of course I was prepared with the names and numbers of some of my merchant friends who were looking for help. After that, I got to hang out on their part of the wall. Inadvertently I had discovered the power of just hanging out. From that moment, 34 years ago, just hanging out was what allowed me and the programs I created to reach the most unreachable kids, including my 13 foster sons and my own son. Just hanging out for extensive periods of time gave them the space to feel secure and supported enough to eventually open up.

One of my first foster sons, Benny, taught me the other parts of the just hanging out lesson. He was a Ute Native American who, as a transgendered kid on the reservation in Utah in the middle 1970s, had run away to Tucson, AZ for his own protection. Part of his culture included being very comfortable with long periods of silence. One day, he was especially troubled with something and, of course, he wouldn’t talk about it. I was a little tired so I went into my bedroom and laid down on my back on my bed. Sometime later, he came in and laid down on his back on the other side of the bed. Something inside me said, "Don’t say anything, just lay here." A long while later, he started to talk. Immediately, I rolled on my side and propped my head up with my arm and, looking at him, started to respond. He got up and walked out of the room. Ugg!

The next time I noticed he was holding in a lot of feelings, I went and laid down on my bed. Eventually he came in and we had a repeat of the above scenario with two notable exceptions, first I stayed on my back and talked to him via the ceiling. Second, I allowed an amount of silence equal to his before I responded. The other part of the just hanging out lesson that I learned from him was it had to be done at the kids’ level of comfort. Kids who feel less-than and shameful do not like to be directly stared at by anyone, especially by adults, especially if they come from a culture where direct contact is challenging. That was one part of the learning. The other part was that matching the rhythm of his conversation, allowed him to feel totally comfortable. Long periods of silence were the norm for his culture. My initial, immediate response, the first time, was taken as an attack. I have found that most hanging out conversations I have had with kids are way more effective if I allow some silence before I respond. It usually takes them a long period of time to get both the comfort and courage to start a feelings type of conversation. I believe that even a moderately short period of silence before I answer unconsciously signals that I put some thought into my answer. It also matches the rhythm of their conversations and is therefore calming.

Hanging out does not mean having a conversation over dinner, although insisting that the family has dinner together every night, as my Mother did, is a good start. The hanging out that I am suggesting doing with your teens involves a planned activity when you and your teen are alone for an extended period of time. If you pinned me down to a time, I would say three hours, minimum. It needs to be an activity where there is an opportunity to talk. Movies do not qualify since the only talk time is before and after, unless it is combined with some other activity like a very casual and long picnic or lunch at a quiet restaurant with a patio where you could talk without being overheard by others. Better still is something like Dr. Pollack’s favorite, going fishing. Fishing is a great example because it has all the elements for success. The focus is off your son and on the water and what is probably not happening. And there are long periods of boring silence which, if you overcome your need to fill the silence with conversation and shut up, will allow him to eventually start talking.

The last piece of this just hanging out is that it is probably more effective with only one parent at a time. It is hugely important for the family to have outings, eating meals together, and the like. For this particular exercise to be effective, it needs to be one-on-one. In a two parent family, it is important that both parents get to hang out alone with each of their kids. Yes, this is a large commitment of time. The consequences of not doing this usually take way more time to deal with and are way less enjoyable. Just do it and you will very quickly notice the difference.

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