Teaching boys to be 'gentle men' in a hyper-masculine world

Boys build towers out of uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows.
From left to right, Truman Stolz, Beli Jones, Lucas Do, Nick Rossman and Jack, whose parents did not want MPR News to his last name, construct a tower out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti as a team-building exercise before a discussion about deconstructing male stereotypes.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

On a recent October evening, some adolescent boys were building towers out of uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows in the common room of the Assisi Heights convent.

It's an odd scene from the outside.

But the tower-building exercise is just the icebreaker for a more serious discussion about empathy, kindness and how to be a "gentle man" in a world overwhelmed with masculine stereotypes that health experts argue are associated with violence, depression and suicide for men later in life.

The evening was facilitated by a group of men from Rochester. But the Sisters of Saint Francis came up with the idea for the class.

Sister Marlys Jax has helped organize this event for several years. She said the initial idea was to teach boys and girls good behavior and good manners.

But amid news about the #MeToo movement and allegations of attempted rape leveled at Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing, Jax said they tweaked the curriculum to focus more on how young men can fight stereotypes that reinforce aggressive or overly masculine behavior.

"How do you respect others?" she asked. "In this case, how do you respect women who you'll be interacting with on a daily basis, and how you respect women when you start dating?"

Part of the discussion focused on using social media responsibly, and participant Amulya, whose parents didn't want MPR News to use his last name, brought up "sexting."

Retired high school teacher Jerry Hrabe led the discussion, and used Amulya's example as a way to talk to the boys about respect — for themselves and for others.

Retired teacher Jerry Hrabe talks to a group of adolescent boys.
Retired teacher Jerry Hrabe talks to a group of adolescent boys about using social media responsibly.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

"What you're saying is ... 'Look at me!'" Hrabe said. "It's not about your body parts here. You're a human being. You have a good brain. That's what people should be looking at."

Later in the evening, the discussion turned to male stereotypes. Boy scout troop leader Jim Fitzsimmons asked the group for some examples, and hands shot up around the room.

"Real men never ask for directions," suggests 12-year-old Truman Stolz.

"Real men never say they're sorry," Fitzsimmons adds. "Real men never admit they're wrong. These are not necessarily healthy stereotypes."

Actually, Fitzsimmons tells the crowd, real men verbalize their feelings instead of bottling up anger and sadness.

Fitzsimmons said afterward that he hopes teaching boys to talk about their emotions helps them treat others, including their future partners, with respect.

"I think the stereotypes that are out there, they can be so toxic," he said.

Dr. Robert Blum, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has studied gender norms and attitudes in adolescents around the world.

"I would applaud anyone who is raising these questions both for boys and girls," he said.

Blum said his research shows these stereotypes contribute to boys dying more from violence, more often going through with killing themselves, and smoking and drinking more than girls.

"Much of this doesn't have to do with biology or a Y chromosome," he said. "It has to do with socialization."

Blum added that it's important to reach kids early — as early as 10 years old like some boys in this group — because gender norms become more fixed as they enter teenage years.

Before the evening was over, the boys were asked whether it would be easy to use the advice and concepts they learned that night while they're in school.

An 11-year-old boy named Jack, whose parents didn't want MPR News to use his last name, said it could be hard.

"I think it could be hard to stick up for the people that are being bullied, to stick up to those characters," he said. "If they're the big popular person at school, and you're the small person, they'll start doing it to you, and it will never stop."

Discuss this story with others interested in parenting in our Facebook Group: Raising Kids in Minnesota.

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