Why Are Boys So Violent?

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.

After every national tragedy committed by boy or young man, we ask “why” or “what made him or them do it?” We probe their family, school, peer, and religious life seeking signs of pathology. More often than not, we find what we are looking for to confirm our homegrown theories about why boys commit such violence. What we rarely do, however, is listen to the boys themselves. I don’t mean just the boys who committed the acts of violence, since they are often dead as a consequence of their actions, but also boys in general. When boys and young men are listened to, as social scientists such as Michael Kimmel, Pedro NogueraWilliam Pollack, and I have found, the answers to our “why” questions become apparent. The violence that boys commit, according to the research, often reflects a toxic mix of social isolation, loneliness, and cultural norms of masculinity.

The hundreds of boys in my interview studies over the past 20 years make the direct link between not having close friendships — friendships in which “deep secrets” are shared — and going “wacko,” committing suicide, doing drugs, and “taking it out on others.” They speak at length about the difficulties of finding friends with whom they can trust, the pressures to “man up,” and the fear that expressing their desires for connection will make them look girly or gay. These themes are not simply heard among the boys who are “loners,” they are also heard by the popular, sports-playing boys. These themes are evident in the research with boys as well as in the diaries of boys who have committed suicide.

Boys don’t want to appear weak, so they express their anger rather than their sadness. When asked what happens when his friend stands him up, a boy in one of my studies says: “I will get mad… but I’m not gonna get mad ‘cause he dissed me. I’m gonna get mad ‘cause I missed him but I will probably show it to him like I’m mad.” Boys tell us, furthermore, that their anger leads them to feel violent. When I asked a classroom full of 12-year-old boys why Adam Lanza killed the school children in Newtown, Conn., the boys responded by telling me it because he was “lonely” and then preceded to tell me their own stories of feeling lonely or excluded and how angry these experiences made them feel.

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