I feel awful about what happened at St Mike’s. Awful for the boys and their parents, and sad for our culture where such goings-on can occur – and be tolerated. I have been hearing this from parents, the worried question: Could what happened at St. Mike’s happen elsewhere?
Some parents ask this question, some don’t. Some believe the assaults at St Mike’s (and posting them on social media) can be blamed on “a few bad apples” rather than on a systemic problem. If it were not a problem of a culture, why did nobody report it? It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to tolerate, and silently condone, assault. It takes a culture that still pressures boys to “man up…. grow balls… show them who’s boss…. get into her pants…. don’t be a pussy…” Expressions like that, the dark side of the locker room, the rink and the field, combine with media messaging about “real men” to cause boys to fear showing their true selves, their vulnerabilities. What are boys afraid of? What causes some boys to brutalize others, and their henchmen to cover it up? They fear loss of power and humiliation. Like with girl bullying, you climb the ladder and kick the people below you – so as not to fall low on the food chain.
Our culture still glorifies hyper-masculinity. As parents, we tell our sons that they are “free to be.” But in boy-world the messaging to boys is different: On social media and at recess, in movies, video games and TV sports, boys see dominance winning. And who do you think they hear louder, us or media and peers. Boys who don’t demonstrate masculinity in traditional ways are teased, called queer and shunned.
Why are boys silent about this? Why in six years at an upstanding boys private school did my son mention this to me only once? Because the first week at the school, in Grade Seven, he told me: “That stuff in the school handbook about bullying is BS. Kids are getting called queer and pussy on the playground and teachers do nothing about it.” I was inflamed and vowed to talk to the school. He begged me not to: “Do you want me to be singled out my first week at a new school?” And that’s why boys rarely report misdeeds against them. It’s like the silence of people paying protection to the Mob. Speak and be silenced – viciously.
Boy aggression left unchecked can spiral out of control. And it can happen anywhere, in any school or camp – because boys bring their baggage with them wherever they go. Unless leaders address the causes of the brutality, and help boys understand the pressures on them to “man up” and what those pressures cost them. You can Google anything, including how to help a boy realize that when he kicks the kid one down from him on the social ladder, and calls that kid a pussy, he’s doing it because of his own fears of not being “man enough.”
At camp we do programs to out raise boys’ self-awareness and their empathy, to reduce bullying. We use a wonderful tool called called Boys Circles that has weekly sessions with boys, to ask them to reflect on what it means to them to become a man, and what they like and don’t like about that. We use some cool kid-friendly videos to inspire our boys to see more options of masculinity. “The Mask You Live In” is one that helps boys figure out what parts of their selves they have to hide to prove their masculinity, and what that costs them. I like the “Man Up” video for its kid-speak, and we use it to elicit boys’ feelings about manhood.
Why do we do all this? Because keeping children truly safe, and preparing them to be the respectful adults of tomorrow, is maybe the best and most important thing we can do.