In recent years I have noticed a growing trend both in my therapy practice and in my college classes. About 80% of my therapy practice is comprised of men, mostly young men. A common problem of these young men is low self-esteem, particularly with regard to feelings about their masculinity.
At the same time I have noticed that the ratio of female students to male students in my college classes is about 2 to 1. This also happens to be about the national ratio among undergraduate programs. And it is the women students who are most vocal and assertive, while the male students are often reticent to speak. Once again there seems to be a problem of self-esteem.
A typical attitude of my male students was expressed one day by a young man sitting in the back row. The subject was why there were more women students in college and why women students were speaking up more. “I don’t know, I think, well, women are more confident than men. Maybe it’s because in the past women faced a lot of discrimination. They just seem more comfortable with themselves.”
In another class, a young woman was talking about her relationships with men and she remarked, “Men just don’t get it. Can you tell me why that is, professor? I keep going on dates and the men are, you know, weird. They just don’t seem to get it.” It didn’t occur to this young woman, nor to the young man in the previous class, that the discrepancy might be due to the way in which boys and girls are being raised.
I talked to a female colleague about how I was experiencing young men in my practice and in my classes as having low self-esteem. “I wonder whether there is some child-rearing trend, some new double-standard in which girls are being supported more than boys.”
Her reply was, “There may well be. And I think that’s fine. Men have had it their way for hundreds of years. For hundreds of years there has been a double standard in favor of boys and men. Why shouldn’t there be a double standard in favor of girls and men for a while, to even things up? Even though there are more girls in college and graduate school, there are still more men in positions of power.”
To me, this is a faulty argument. There is no reason why there should ever be a double standard. There is no reason why both boys and girls should be supported. There is no reason why all children of all families should be supported, whether they are the oldest, the youngest, the middle child, the only boy, the only girl, the shortest, the tallest, the cutest, the ugliest, or whatever their situation or gender is. No child should be favored above others for any reason.
An important goal of parenting should be to raise confident children who accept themselves, are assertive, and who have healthy self-esteem, including gender self-esteem. It seems to me that more girls than boys are being raised this way at the present time. The young men in my practice and in my classes are intimidated by women, afraid to assert themselves, and express feelings of inadequacy about their gender. This inadequacy about their gender is often expressed in regrets about the size of their penis. On the internet one can find a slew of ads that cater to this regret and offer magical ways one can increase penis size.
From years of working with male patients I have found that in many cases boys are made to feel ashamed of being boys. They are somehow given the message that their penises are dirty and their attitudes toward their sisters and women are “naughty.” Many schools have special classes that boys must attend that teach them how to respect girls and women. But there are no classes that teach girls how to respect boys and men. There seems to be a perception that boys are an inferior gender that needs to be trained how to be “nice.”
One of my male clients told me how his mother would fly into a rage if he didn’t lift the lid before he urinated. He remembered fondling himself in the bathroom and seeing that his penis got erect. “Look, Mom, my pee-pee gets bigger!” he proudly exclaimed. To which she replied, “Don’t do that.” If she saw him touch himself she would likewise become angry and yell, “Stop that. That’s dirty.” His older sister would often tease him but Mom said nothing about that. But once he kicked his sister on her behind and he was severely punished. “You must learn to respect your sister!” Mom said. He grew up feeling inferior about his masculinity and submissive to girls and women.
To raise boys to become confident men, parents must support their masculinity and their masculine rambunctiousness. There is truth to the old saying, “Boys will be boys.” Boys are hormonally different than girls and hence they are biologically predisposed to be more aggressive. That aggressiveness should be accepted. Certainly boys need to be socialized, and if they don’t lift the lid before urinating, they should be trained to do so. But the training should be done in a way that is respectful and cognizant that “boys will be boys,” not angry and degrading of their masculinity.
Boys should be valued as boys, and given the general support they need to actualize their full potential as human beings, including their talents, their intellect, their ability to trust and love, and their leadership abilities. (This is no way takes away from women being raised the same way.) Boys should be raised to feel they are equal to women, not inferior, and that it is OK to assert themselves and to disagree with them at times.
To be a confident man, he shouldn’t feel ashamed of being a man; he must feel good about being a man, and he must feel good about his biological attraction to women and his sexual functioning. Both genders must be treated equally in order for us to have a truly equal society.