The Code: A boy’s anchor, and burden

Big boys don’t cry. It’s written in the Boy Code.

Be a man — strong, independent. It isn’t cool to excel in school. And dude, don’t get all emo.

The Boy Code keeps a lid on emotions. Just ask girls.

“There are a lot of things you need to express but you don’t,” says Kiera Cline, 16, to boyfriend Jonathan Smith, 17, who grins and rubs her arm. “Why do guys do that?”

Pressed to explain, Jonathan just shrugs: “If you run off your mouth, it’s immature.”

William Pollack coined the code in his book Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. The Harvard psychologist says the Boy Code creates a pressure cooker for many who don’t really feel that tough and don’t really wish to disconnect from mothers, as culture expects of boys — but not girls — by age 13.

“Anyone who’s been around boys knows the code,” says Pollack, who is among academics and activist groups calling for its deconstruction.

“It’s shorthand for all the messages they’re getting from home, from school, the media, the marketplace ... ‘Be a little man,’ we say. ‘Cut your mama’s apron strings … Pull yourself up …’ It’s got a lot of boys silently suffering with a pain they don’t even have words for.”

The extent of that suffering is debatable. But the power of the code is obvious, beyond our escaping.

It’s there in the bulging arms and ripped abdomens of action figures.

It’s there in the sexual objectification of women in video games and rap music.

It’s on the playing field, as Blue Valley Academy counselor David Hurt sees it: “We’re quick to disapprove of parents who dress little girls up like women — Jon Benet Ramsey — pushed to grow up too soon ... What about dads putting second-graders in full football uniforms, pads and all?”

The code only gains adherents in a society feeling its way through redefined gender roles. When confused about sex or puzzled about why teachers sometimes seem to favor girls, boys struggling through their teens can always follow the code.

“You think ‘insecure and dramatic’ with girls — putting on makeup,” says Lee’s Summit high schooler A.W. Morrow, 15, as she and friends take a break from a Coterie Theatre comedy class.

“We put on makeup,” says Madeleine Burkart, 17. “They put on attitude.”

The Boy Code is not one fashion line worn by all boys or even most. Rather, it is a list of accessories that — when piled on — make a full suit of armor.

Show no fear. Avoid the honor roll. Stick to sports (boys’ involvement in other school clubs is falling nationwide, surveys say).

Oh yeah, whisper to other boy-coders about sexual exploits you’ve never had.

“At least one of those symptoms applies to maybe 100 percent of guys,” says Joseph Bushur, 15, of Lee’s Summit. “Maybe half wear the entire package. They like to refer to each other as studs. ‘Oh, he’s a stud.’ They say it many times a day. Almost like flirting with each other in a macho sort of way.”

So what’s the harm? Nobody can knock strength, stoicism and masculinity, done right.

As Pollack notes, however: “The code becomes so restrictive, it can put boys in a gender straitjacket and lead to an ungenuine life. Girls used to have their masks, too, but we’ve moved in a positive direction to take the mask away and let girls be themselves.”

Some in the boys movement resist lumping all male hang-ups into one code that must be corrected. “Boys are losing on almost every front because the system is stacked against them!” writes family values stalwart James Dobson in Bringing Up Boys. “Is it any wonder why they are in such disarray?”

But worrying Dobson, and most everyone, are the outcomes of mutated male toughness: bullying, bad grades, delinquency, sexual violence and low self-worth in those boys suffocating in the armor.

The British have their own term: “laddism,” a self-imposed condition that The Times of London warned could lead to a permanent “underclass” of disaffected, low-achieving men. England and Australia are among several nations that have launched programs to boost boys in school and life.

Juvenile justice officials see the code in action daily.

“We call it fronting — trying to be something you’re not,” says Allan Odle, program manager at McCune School for Boys. “It’s the tough-guy, macho pose, the Rambo image.”

Roberto strikes the pose. He’s 15 and sitting outside detention at the Jackson County Family Court. Hours earlier, he was the passenger in a stolen 2006 Mercedes-Benz.

From his disaffected calm, you would never know Roberto had been in a 110-mph chase on Interstate 435, a police helicopter in pursuit. The driver stopped, Roberto scrambled out and jumped a fence to flee an officer chasing him. The officer found Roberto under a bush and pointed his gun at the boy.

“How are things at school?” asks deputy juvenile officer Wanda Oldham, searching for ways he could be helped.

Roberto mumbles: “Last time I was in school was maybe two Fridays ago.”

He casually examines his fingernails, stained by ink used to get his prints. No apparent tension, no explanation or remorse on his way to lockup.

At the McCune School for Boys, a residency center for delinquents, counselors rave about a program called EQUIP, designed to rip back the boy armor. They gather boys in groups of 10 to hash out anger management, social skills, decision-making and posing.

“If we’re lucky,” says Odle, “the upper-level peers who’ve been through the process will let the new ones know: ‘Hey, quit your fronting. You’re wasting this group’s time with that act.”

Since McCune initiated EQUIP in 2002, recidivism rates have dropped in half.

“You can only pretend for so long before the pipes start to bust under pressure,” says a resident named Juan, 16. “Some guys never do get it. They’ve been fronting so long they really think it’s their actual selves.”

Who writes the Boy Code?

Many parents do, without intending to, when they tell sons as early as kindergarten to “be a big boy. Stand on your own two feet,” says psychologist Pollack. “At age 5 those are pretty wobbly feet.”

Hollywood and Madison Avenue pump up the code to its physical extremes: Compare the flabby TV version of Batman in the 1960s to his chiseled form today.

“Even Star Wars action figures have beefed up, with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo much more sculpted than when they were introduced in the 1970s,” says psychologist Roberto Olivardia, co-author of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession


So, should we be shocked that 3.3 percent of area 12th-grade boys tell the Kauffman Teen Survey they’ve used steroids without a prescription? More troubling, nearly 3 percent of eighth-grade boys say it, too.

“It’s not a coincidence that Rambo and Rocky were capturing our attention back when the culture was feeling this blurring of gender roles,” Olivardia says. “It’s as if we were saying, ‘We’re still men: We’re powerful, dominant and don’t forget it.’ ”

Clearly, competition and good physical fitness (without steroids) can lift self-image, instill discipline and cement social connections.

“I love the feeling of working out, I love that burn,” says Tyler Bullis, 14, of Overland Park.

Yet Tyler is different from most on the football and wrestling teams at Blue Valley West High School. He is active in theater, too: “I’ve been extremely lucky to have coaches over the years let me miss a few practices to see a play.”

The Boy Code at his school, however, dictates he make a choice, Tyler says. “According to them (other boys), you’ve got to decide by your sophomore or junior year — the art cult or the athletic cult? I can’t think of another word for it but cult.”

Cultism doesn’t figure into 40-year basketball coach Chuck Minor’s view of athletics.

“To me, the purpose is to give kids a successful, positive experience — camaraderie with your team, the joys of victory, the lessons of defeat…,” says Minor, now coaching freshmen at Shawnee Mission West High School.

Not all boys — or parents — are in it for that. Instead, the code kicks in, and some boys who fail at sports feel like failures in life. Even worse, fathers manipulate the code to force sons to mature, or spur them to athletic glories they once knew or missed. Many other parents devote a boy’s adolescence to the scholarship chase: One sport, one shot, now or nothing.

“You talk about pressure on a player,” Minor said. Disappointment awaits most, especially in basketball: Forty-two freshman boys tried out for Coach Minor this year, the team only had room for 22, and of those maybe four or five will play as varsity seniors.

Adding to the pressures, Dad sometimes injects himself into the selection process, pleading to the coaches that college is out if his son’s off the team.

In the Blue Valley district, counselor Gretchen Steffen knows something a certain student’s parents don’t know.

“He did not want to play football. He came into my office on his own and told me … And he’s a very good player.”

He finished out this season rather than disappoint his father.

What if Dad isn’t around?

Just as some fathers feed into the Boy Code, their absence can leave boys without a compass for finding ways around it.

Sitting at a science table at De La Salle Educational Center, a pair of 17-year-old boys opened up. “How can we be ‘a man’ growing up when we don’t know how it’s done?” asks Tony, a single mother’s son. “Just learn it from the streets?”

His friend, Demetrius, recalled his own efforts to reconnect with an absent father and says: “It’s always about Daddy. If he’s not there, seriously, it messes a dude up.”

Minority communities are especially haunted by what poet and hip-hop historian Kevin Powell calls “father void.”

But even when economics are factored out, boys not living with biological fathers who might guide them to manhood are twice as likely as other boys to land in jail, according to studies by Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan.

They do worse in school and are less likely to go to college.

Rates of illicit drug use and emotional problems are higher in boys from single-mother homes or stepfamilies.

Girls can suffer without Dad, as well; they’re twice as likely to get pregnant out of wedlock. But the hurt seems deeper in boys.

“Girls are more ticked off at the intrusion of parents, not so much the absence,” says a Grandview high school English teacher who reads their essays. “Boys are ticked off by the absence. They’re angrier.”

Finding Our Fathers author Samuel Osherson added it up — families married, divorced or otherwise — to arrive at the average daily time an American child spends with Dad: 10 minutes.

He warns of a “psychological time bomb within the younger generation of men.”

As Pollack says about one of the most divisive features of the Boy Code: “The largest put-down today for boys ages 5 to 15 is ‘You’re gay.’ ”

“So gay” has evolved into the all-purpose tease. Whatever is silly, stupid or irrelevant is “so gay.”

For people called gay, it can be deadly serious. Witness the carnage at Columbine High School, where such taunts helped drive two troubled seniors into gunning down a teacher and 12 classmates.

Today, Winnetonka High School is one of only three area schools where teachers have been trained by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to address sexually oriented bullying.

“Boys have a harder time, in different ways, than (lesbian) girls at school,” said school counselor Alan Schuerman. “With boys, the bullying is more overt. It’s in your face.”

For those who really are gay — or who feel guilty thinking they might be — he said many parents never find out about the teasing, or they offer this advice: “If you just act like a man, this wouldn’t happen.”

Experts estimate that gay boys are three to six times more likely than straight boys to commit suicide.

“The guilt just kills kids, literally, if they don’t have support from home,” says John Long, publisher of Camp, the monthly newspaper of Kansas City’s homosexual communities.

Dylan Theno was luckier than other boys: His parents knew how much he needed them.

Dylan was labeled gay in his Kansas town of Tonganoxie, population 3,600, where the code made every school day agony since seventh grade. His parents re-mortgaged their two-bedroom home to pursue legal options. And this year, at 18, Dylan went to federal court, a plaintiff stating for the record he is not gay and alleging that school officials did little to stop the harassment.

Two years earlier his mother found Dylan curled up in a ball on the couch, sobbing, shaking, begging to quit school. Cheryl Theno held him, and resolved never to send him back.

His father, Alan: “Dylan was slowly falling apart in front of us.”

A wood craftsman, Alan spent more time than ever with his son. It was mostly Dad who pressed the fight with school officials to demand they enforce suspension policies for sexual harassment.

He and Dylan’s mother would enforce their own rule, that Dylan never strike back in anger. This was about justice, they told him, not vengeance.

They turned the Boy Code on its head, comforting Dylan through his tears and supporting his taking Tae Kwan Do, its principles steeped in self-restraint. Once, he got into a fistfight at school. His parents made him paint an aunt’s house as punishment.

A judge recently upheld a harassment verdict against the school district, awarding Dylan $250,000 in damages. As appeals continue, he has his G.E.D. and is learning to weld. He still lives with his parents.

“They were incredible,” he says.

It may sound gushy, but Dylan just nailed what experts say is the first line of defense against the code — loving parents.

Want masculinity? Teach your son empathy. Assure him it’s OK to feel bad. Back off when he asks; hug when he needs it.

Show him how to fight — for justice.

“Stay in touch,” write Susan S. Shaffer and Linda P. Gordon in Why Boys Don’t Talk — And Why it Matters. “As they get older, it may appear that they need their parents less often.

“Appearances are deceiving: They still need you.”

Wednesday: Resolve and

signs of success

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the boy