Parents, and especially fathers, hold back from hugging and physically showing love to their sons. Underlining this behaviour is a fear of making a sissy of him, and a desire to make him ‘tough’. Boys are also physically punished more than girls. Physical abuse is a recognised way to train someone to be aggressive. While parents strongly reject aggression in their daughters, they accept and even encourage it in their sons. Often fathers think that a ‘real’ boy is ‘naturally’ aggressive, gets into fights, or persecutes his younger brother, and that fighting, pain and bullying build strength and manliness. They fear that little Johnny may be too soft unless they toughen him up with violence.
As Dr J. A. Simington* says, “Touch is essential for human psychological development and wellbeing.” Any aggressive or physically abusive environment contributes to the development of an aggressive child, and the likelihood of later violence. In comparison, the hugs and caresses of a loving environment contribute to the development of a loving, caring and compassionate child, able to develop intimate relationships. Parents don’t realise that their behaviour damages their sons, cultivates aggression and reduces boys’ long-term ability to show caring and love. To quote Simington again, “The high divorce rate, the increase in family violence, the skyrocketing suicide rate, and the devastating loss related to drug and alcohol abuse may all have their roots in the inability of human beings to reach out physically and emotionally.”
Research shows that too little physical closeness increases aggression in both animals and humans. Boys and men’s emotional reactions to criticism, challenges or problems are often limited to anger, impatience, aggression and violence. This has awful repercussions, a direct link to: war; the choice of conflict over peaceful alternatives; individual violent incidents with other men; physical, sexual and emotional abuse of partners, wives and girlfriends; and abuse of children.
The encouragement of aggression also happens on the sport’s field. If a boy is hurt by another, he is encouraged by teachers, fathers and other boys to retaliate. Causing pain to an opponent is understood as part of the game. Contrary to the common myth, sport is not a release for aggression. This is clear from the increased aggression displayed after big sports matches. Sports are often the means of expressing rivalry between regions. It represents the new ideal of masculinity. Goldstein* says that sport and war – sport and the military – complement each other.
Many fathers apprentice sons into violence by encouraging them to kill – insects, birds and animals, at the same time teaching them to disregard the sanctity of life. They allow, even encourage, behaviour that is more tribal than civilised – the aggressive, primitive proving of toughness and dominance. Too often the result is that carelessly-stored guns kill siblings or are taken to school for revenge against bullying. Or the tragedy occurs later with reckless driving, violence against each other or violence against female partners. Violence is ambivalently portrayed as bad but also the solution.
But there are other ways that we encourage aggression in boys. Most games focus on violence and war, not mature life activities to do with work or relationships. Interactive videos increase boys’ acceptance of violence. The images are often real and gory. They desensitize boys to violence, and deny consequences or any moral component. The boy does not gain any understanding of the emotions that should come with harming others or with carrying out the acts of a violent killer. The focus is on killing, dangerous activity and violence.
Children no longer invent their own games, but observe and imitate plots from movies and TV, learning adult violence at a very young age. Parents presume this is okay or don’t give it a passing thought. Media and video violence has well documented effects on levels of child and adult aggression, both verbal and physical. It also stereotypes gender roles more extremely. For entertainment, both boys and men primarily choose movies, books and TV programmes that feature killing and the infliction of suffering.
Boys are surrounded by aggression and violence that they cannot avoid. Fathers, but also mothers, lead their sons into the ‘masculine’ behaviour useful for soldiers – shaping their sons for war.
The war machine needs men who are psychologically prepared to be aggressive and violent. To fill this need, society largely condones aggression and violence in boys and accepts that men are aggressive and can be violent. Aggressive and violence is linked to the idealised soldier. The idealised soldier is a man. The circle is complete.
In my next post I question society’s idolisation of ‘The Hero’.*