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Getting boys to ask for help

October 15, 2013

Getting boys to ask for help

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Men don’t like asking for help. So conventional wisdom imparts. Think of men driving around lost, refusing to ask for directions. Sadly, reams of research demonstrate this tendency is more serious than driving in circles.

Men are less likely than women to ask for medical or mental health support. They also have higher rates of mortality and suicide than women, and demonstrate higher rates of unhealthy behaviors such as cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, aggression and violence.

Additional research demonstrates boys and young men are less likely than their female peers to ask for help in school. In my years as a high school teacher, and now college instructor, I have witnessed countless examples of this pattern.

Predictably, this tendency leads to tragic, gender-based discrepancies in educational performance. By some accounts, male students receive 70 percent of all Ds and Fs, account for 80 percent of disciplinary problems, include 70 percent of diagnosed learning disabilities, and account for 80 percent of high school dropouts. Not surprisingly, males are far less likely to enroll in college than women, more likely to drop out, and earn only 42 percent of all undergraduate degrees.

As a teacher, I have grappled with these issues for years, experimenting with ways to promote the success of all students, particularly those, mostly males, least likely to seek support.

But as a father, watching our 4-year-old son, Adam, begin to shy away from seeking help, I wince at the thought that he is slowly accepting the code of boyhood.

Inwardly I ask: “In what ways do I as a father – a man — model to Adam a willingness to ask for help?”

This conversation is uncomfortable.

The loudest voice in me, the manly one, demands that my role, as father and husband, is to have answers, not questions. To offer support, not seek it. This voice learned long ago that boys should do things for themselves not offer pleas for help in the form of tears or whining voices. It’s a lonely voice, one that most men, and boys, learn to silently carry.

As a father, this voice is losing credibility with me. Watching Adam race up and down the block on his bike, occasionally crashing to the ground, I am astonished, but not surprised, at his reaction. With a hole torn in his pants, a bloody scrape on his knee and tears running down his cheeks, he quickly tries to compose himself, screaming to approaching adults, “No! Get away! Get away!”

He does not want to be consoled, not then, not in front of the neighbors, the older boys. He wants us all to believe he is fine. Only later, when snuggled in bed, after reading stories, will he let down his guard, with gentle prompting.

As Adam experiments with the voice of boyhood, a different voice grows stronger in me. I ask myself: “In what ways would life be both easier and richer if I was more open to seeking and receiving help?”

This conversation is refreshing. It leads to insight about how I might father Adam in a way that leads him to become a man who is both confident and humble, a man who comfortably asks for help. It is a conversation that promotes healthier relationships, for all fathers and sons.

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