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‘Boys Will Be Men’ looks for answers

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday May 23, 2001

“Boys will be boys” – an innocuous enough phrase when it comes to pulling cats tails and diving into coffee tables – assumes boys are naturally inclined to be rambunctious and mischievous.  

But the run of school shootings America has seen the past few years brings the question of boys’ cruel inclinations to a critical pitch. A documentary film called “Boys Will Be Men” traces a culture of cruelty inherent to the way boys are raised and offers alternatives. 

Berkeley-based filmmaker Tom Weidlinger got the idea to make this film in the wake of Columbine and subsequent high school campus tragedies. The issue, as he saw it, was not who did what to whom in these crimes, but the psychosocial undercurrent producing them. And, perhaps, that we are all a little complacent in these tragic outbursts of rage.  

“My thought was those extreme manifestations of violence are just the tip of the iceberg of a social problem that’s much more widespread,” said Weidlinger. “When a violent episode happens we tend to focus on the moment of violence and look into the individual pathology of the family or child, and not really address the larger social issues.” 

Following the screenings will be an audience conversation with a panel of experts: Joe Marshall of the Omega Boys Club, Ricardo Carrillo of the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, Marin Country school psychologist Allan Gold and the Associate Dean of San Francisco City College Rod Santos. 

The film begins with men seated in support group-circle fashion, all of whom have had a criminal past, confessing they had never had a proper emotional release mechanism. Their crimes, they say, were in some way begotten from their limited communication abilities. 

With this circle and interviews with authors William Pollock (“Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Manhood”) and Michael Thompson (“Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys”), the film establishes the nearly inescapable precedent boys face growing up in a culture favoring male toughness and aggression. 

How did we get here? “Boys Will Be Men” goes back to the cradle to begin searching for answers. It breezes over proclamations of male infant’s emotive abilities (psychological studies of infants tends to be so vague and inconclusive, they don’t hold much water) and quickly moves into qualifiable accounts of boys in first grade. 

Jamie Carlson, a first grade teacher at Berkeley’s Emerson Elementary School, appears in the film to testify that boys suffer from an academic gap with girls due to restlessness.  

Where girls tend to develop reading and writing skills early on, boys are more prone to physicality and motor skills, which often is inappropriate in a classroom environment. 

“Boys are packed with energy,” said Carlson from her home in Berkeley. She says she has to allow time and space during the day for her boy students to move and sing and play.  

“That kind of chaos is very upsetting for adults and teachers,” said Weidlinger. “Sometimes you have to realize you can’t control it, you just have to let it happen.” 

Without a means to expend their energy, boys often cannot focus as they fidget through lessons. Carlson says it’s not easy to distinguish Attention Deficit Disorder from common 5-year-old jitters. Being an “old music teacher,” though, she finds music goes a long way in calming children. Exercise works well, too: “They love to run laps, to just run it out.” 

The film shifts its focus to older teenagers, and the social pressure to conceal vulnerability and narrow their emotional range into a bottleneck of hostility. Author Michael Thompson describes a “culture of cruelty” in which bullying and taunting are accepted by adults as the natural, inevitable rites of adolescence. 

“They attack in each other anything that appears tender, compassionate, caring,” said Thompson in the film, which then portrays two programs designed to discipline boys’ frustration and violence while acknowledging their needs for physical expression. 

One is a wilderness program in Southern Idaho teaching discipline by survival to troublesome students.  

There are many boot camp-style programs operating, and Weidlinger chose to follow this particular program because “a lot of camp for youth at risk are tough and have punitive quality to them. I don’t like that, and I felt the one in Idaho was much more humane in their approach to boys.” 

While forcing them to march with ill-fitting backpacks and taking their boots away at night to discourage bolting might seem tough, this program, called SUWS, is seen encouraging personal reflection and teamwork. It also puts boys in physical situations – high wire balancing and search-and-rescue missions – where they must rely on each other to succeed. 

The film also looks at a poetry/ storytelling program in Chicago created by Michael Meade (author of “Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and Tempering of Men”) whose drum-beating, pagan-male performance was greeted with looks of embarrassment and derision on the faces of his teenage participants, these boys who have grown up in the Robert Bly “Iron Man” backlash. 

The boys are given the task of writing and performing poetry at the end of the three-day program. Weidlinger captures them going through a familiar cycle: first they are disinterested in something so wimpy as poetry; when they are nervous in anticipation of the performance they get rambunctious, distracted, and playful (tackling each other, playing baseball indoors, tapping out a tune on a piano); then, and only then, do they settle into the task of self-expression. It’s a trick Jamie Carlson uses on her first graders, too. “Get a boy involved in a game, and they do a lot more talking.”