I’m the oldest child in a family of four girls. My four sons are a never ending source of mystery to me. I have an attic full of super hero costumes, drawers full of cups (not the drinking kind) and more trouble getting my children to shower than I ever dreamed possible. I got a nervous call from a neighbor last week letting me know a bear had been spotted in our neighborhood. There was still snow on the ground so I suspected this was a very hungry bear fresh out of hibernation. Because my boys play outside unsupervised often, I was understandably nervous. When I told my boys about the bear, I was shocked that they weren’t scared at all. My most naturally anxious son thought about it for a minute, then shrugged and said, “I know how to handle bears.” Even my four year old smiled and said, “That’s okay. If I see the bear, I’ll just punch it in the nose.” The other two hardly reacted at all. I guess that’s the benefit of watching all the survival shows we enjoy as a family on the Discovery channel. Or not.
Brene Brown says in her book I Thought it Was Just Me, “Studies show that perceived vulnerability, meaning the ability to acknowledge we’re at risk, greatly increases our chances of adhering to some kind of positive health regime…however, if we don’t think we’re vulnerable to illness, we won’t do anything to prevent it from happening.” This concept is applicable not just to illness, but to anything that could damage our health which we could take reasonable precautions against: bears, obesity, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, pornography, etc.
Believing they are susceptible to danger will greatly increase our children’s chances of staying away from things that threaten their safety and well being. In our politically correct society, however, we are often afraid of frightening our children. We are filling our boys’ heads with stories of invincible superheroes while simultaneously filtering out much of the danger that exists in real life. I live about 8 miles away from Sandy Hook and when the Newtown massacre happened, none of the schools told our children anything. They left it to us to decide whether our children could handle hearing the story or not. That was probably the right call, but it illustrates how scared we are to let our children feel vulnerable. I’m guilty of doing this as well. I’m uncomfortable introducing fear into my children’s lives and I like showing them that strong, manly men help people, but interwoven with this message is the idea that it’s possible, even admirable to have no vulnerabilities or weaknesses.
Boys who most closely resemble superheroes (athletic, strong, funny, relaxed, good with girls, unemotional) tend to be the most popular and also the most at risk. Boys who want to maintain the level of popularity that goes hand in hand with the hypermasculinized superhero persona of invincibility feel the need to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take. In Rosalind Wiseman’s book Masterminds and Wingmen, Sean age 17 says this:
At my school, I’m in that 10 percent elite, but I honestly feel like I have to fight for it. I’m not the meathead jock who plays lacrosse and football and gets the praise handed down to them. To be up in the 10 percent elite, I have to be bold and make some moves that I personally wouldn’t make but have to in order to fit in. We [the 10 percenters] are the ones with the parties and the booze, the hot girls…I wish I didn’t care as much about my social standing, but no matter what any guy says, they truly care.”
Clearly Sean could sense that there was a healthier way to live, but the pressure to maintain his status was too great. Over time, this pressure to maintain an unrealistic persona builds up and can yield to: depression, isolation, self medication/addiction and even suicide. Suicide rates are 3-4x as high for men as they are for women. Our superheroes are quite literally killing our boys.