I love having a teenage son. But I’ve found the adolescent boy world often bewildering and sometimes scary. I haven’t always known how to react to what I see and hear.
Fortunately for parents like me, “Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes” beautifully addresses this dilemma. Authors Lynn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb and Mark Tappen examine in great depth the ways marketers work overtime to sell our complex, unique boys crippling stereotypes that usually don’t work in their best interests. Basing their work on more than 600 surveys, they open a window into what our sons really are listening to, watching, wearing and doing, and how they are influenced.
Are you bothered by the over-the-top violence of many movies? Could you do with a little less virtual slaying in video games? Boys, we are told, are supposed to aspire to be the most powerful, the toughest, the most too cool to care. Probably very few will go on rampages. But many can be desensitized to real-world violence they might encounter in their neighborhoods or at school.
Sports aren’t always the perfect alternative. At the professional and Olympic levels there is a winning-at-all-costs emphasis. Even some Little League coaches convey this message. A boy simply has to be the best, no matter what it takes. (This is not to mention the rampant materialism of champions doing endorsements and showing off their bling).
What about the boys who know they aren’t the toughest and the best? The media give them an alternative face-saving stereotype: the slacker. It’s not that he can’t do better; he’s just too cool to care. If you are frustrated with your son’s waste of potential or worried that he might be limiting his adult career choices, you are not alone. (Ironically, as any “Simpsons” viewer can attest, dads are allowed into slacker world. We moms are the wet blankets, the ones who veto anything fun.)
So what’s a parent to do?
Fortunately, the authors aren’t pessimists or defeatists. And they advise against locking our sons in their rooms with their homework. Our boys are out there in the real world with its influences. What’s up to us is whether we mediate these influences, just say no to anything that bothers us or look the other way.
Almost 200 of the boys who were surveyed gave advice on talking to sons about the issues brought up in “Packaging Boyhood.” The suggestions they gave included talking calmly, not lecturing, and trying to remember what being a teen feels like. The book is full of ideas for starting meaningful conversations.
To be able to really talk to your son about the media and the activities he loves, the authors suggest joining him. Watching the movies, listening to the music or playing the video games he’s interested in is time well invested. Having this common experience will make the conversation easier. And finding good things to comment on will let him know that you honor his choices even if you don’t always approve of them.
Lynn Mikel Brown is a professor at Colby College and author of four books. Sharon Lamb is an author and a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Saint Michael’s College. Mark Tappen is a Colby College professor, coeditor of two books, and a founding member of the Maine Boys’ Network.