After spending a weekend with 27 seven-nine year old boys and their dads at a horse ranch in California, I was once again struck by the enigma of boys. Young men are getting a bad rap these days, stuck with a stereotype of irresponsible Neanderthals parked on their parent’s basement couch playing mindless video games and refusing to grow up. National statistics forecast a continued decline in the percentage of males on college campuses, and the drops are seen in all races, income groups and fields of study, with girls outranking them in college and post-grad admissions by around 60/40. Boys and men also carry the label of being low on social-emotional intelligence, and clueless when it comes to creating meaningful relationships. But this limiting view is far from the total picture of who guys really are.
I watched these young boys spend most of the weekend running amok, chasing and wrestling each other, pushing boys into the pool, and catching and tormenting tarantulas by the dozens. They spent exactly 10 seconds sitting down for each meal before running off for more mischief. They were a blast to play with in the pool, and squealed with delight when two dads catapulted each of them high in the air before landing with a splat. There is nothing quite like little boy energy and their enthusiasm for play.
But on the last night, another side of them emerged. Each dad had written their son a love letter, and read it to them as we had our final circle together. The boys took the acknowledgements seriously, and it was the most still they had been all weekend. Afterwards we opened the floor for anyone to share what the retreat had meant to them, and almost all of the boys shared. And it was amazing how vulnerable, real, and emotional they were.
Boys talked about how meaningful it was to have had this one on one time with their dads, without having to compete with siblings and work for their dad’s attention. Many described how much closer they felt with their fathers, and how grateful they were that they had gotten to know their dads better. And they all agreed this was a weekend they would never forget.
Boys and men do have feelings, although it takes the right environment for them to feel comfortable in sharing them. Sitting across from a boy and looking into their eyes is usually NOT the way into their hearts. Oftentimes you’ll get deeper with them with a more indirect approach: driving in the car, throwing a baseball around in the yard, or hiking in the woods. Boys need permission to be vulnerable and to show emotions, and their father’s modeling is crucial.
Despite the perceived differences between boys and girls, I have found that both just want to be heard, understood, valuable, and loved. We’d get more well-rounded guys if we let go of limiting stereotypes and focused more on finding the right keys into their hearts.