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Niobe Way, Ed.D. Headshot

Why Men Act Crazy

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This morning, my 11-year-old son asked me what Anthony Weiner had done that put him on the front page of the news last week. I told him. He asked me whether that was similar to what Tiger Woods or Arnold Schwarzenegger had done. I said yes. Why, he asked, do men "act so crazy?" I told him that I would tell him a story about what happens to boys growing up in America, drawn from decades of research, that would help him understand.

Once upon a time in the latter part of the 20th century, a little boy named "Allboys" was born. Like all boys, Allboys had a tremendous capacity for empathy and kindness and a desire for a rich emotional life filled with loving relationships. For the first few years of his life, his capacities were fostered and his desires were fulfilled. His mother arranged playdates for him, encouraged him to share his toys with his friends and be sensitive to their feelings. His father would give him a bear hug when he came home and his mother would snuggle with him at bedtime.

As Allboys grew older, his emotional and social capacities and desires remained but they were no longer fostered or fulfilled. When he expressed his concerns to his parents about these changes, they would say things like: "you are no longer a little boy," "big boys don't cry" and "be strong." They no longer spoke about thinking of other people's feelings, or sharing. In fact, they no longer had intimate conversations with him at all. His father told him this was all a part of becoming a man.

Allboys still, however, had a best friend with whom he shared all his deepest secrets; he knew he could count on this friend for anything. Yet as he reached the age of 16, the closeness in this relationship also diminished. He didn't really know why, but was aware that others thought the friendship was "weird," "gay," and "girly."

Allboys grew up to be a successful businessman with a loving wife. Yet, oddly enough, he found himself doing things that were crazy, risking his marriage and his career but doing it anyway. He didn't understand why. He just knew that he was acting crazy. Eventually he lost everything that mattered. The end.

When we raise our boys to be men in the most stereotypic of ways -- when we raise them to believe that they must separate from those they most love (parents and friends) and not feel their own feelings or those of others -- we are raising them to go against their nature. Thus, they grow up to be men who act "crazy." Data from a wide range of experts, from neuroscientists, developmental psychologists to primatologists and evolutionary anthropologists, indicate that empathy, close relationships, and love are not only human capacities and needs, they are at the root of why we have thrived as a species. Yet we continue to make valuing close relationships and being empathic into something girly or gay rather than simply human and critical for well being.

Furthermore, researchers, including my own over the past twenty years, find that gender differences in our social and emotional capacities and needs have been greatly exaggerated. Boys are, in fact, more emotional in the first year of life than girls (e.g., they cry more easily) and they are just as relationship-oriented as girls. In addition, they are just as likely as girls to seek emotionally intimate same-sex friendships. It is only with age, as boys become men, that we see dramatic gender differences with boys becoming less empathic, less likely to have close same-sex friendships, and more likely to commit suicide.

Our modern notions of maturity and manhood, with its emphasis on separation and stoicism to the exclusion of connection and vulnerability, are at the root of why men treat themselves and others so poorly. According to the research, if we were to value, instead, empathy and kindness and emphasize the importance of maintaining loving relationships with family and friends for both boys and girls, men and women, we would end up with lower divorce rates, better friendships, lower rates of bullying and drug and alcohol use, longer life spans, and fewer men who act crazy. That seems like a worthwhile investment for ourselves and for our children.