Shrinking Recreational Options for Adolescent Boys Swell Their Tempers and Inabilities to Solve Problems

Originally published November 10, 2016 as an article for my weekly column at the Good Men Project.

When I was a young kid in elementary and middle school I was always the smallest kid in my class. My birthday being in July meant that I was right on the cutoff of either being one of the youngest kids in the grade, or being one of the oldest kids in the grade below. I ended up in the grade ahead and was 6-12 months behind the other kids in physical development as a child. I’m easy to find in any class photo from the ages of 5-14. I’m the shortest one in the picture.

There are a few things that come with being the smallest in the class. I was usually picked last in any Phys. Ed. activity, no one wanted me on their basketball team, and I was the perfect target for larger kids to mess with on the schoolyard. That’s just the way it was. “Big fish eat little fish.” It’s true in the wild, and a schoolyard of adolescent children is not much different.

But I don’t reflect back on those years with any type of ill will. They were some of the best, carefree years of my life. I learned a lot from those experiences that would help to shape the man I am today.

The first thing the smallest kid learns how to do is stand up for himself. There were no teachers intervening or speaking on my behalf. I had to learn how to solve heated situations diplomatically, and when that didn’t work I had to learn how to defend myself. Childhood scuffles happened throughout my adolescence and was a part of growing up. Nine times out of ten we duked it out like the little 13-year-old tough guys we thought we were and then shook hands with each other after, almost always becoming better friends afterwards.

Looking back, the schoolyard politics were laughable, but they served a purpose. I learned how to deal with adversity, work my way through it, and move on.

As I grew past the turbulent days of middle school and into high school I learned how to express my emotions through sports and music. I found solace on the wrestling mat and traveled all over northern New Jersey and New York City going to punk rock shows. The music was fast and heavy and sounded just how I felt inside. I could relate to it.

Young men going through puberty are tinderboxes of hormones, ignited left and right as they go through many new experiences. It was crucial for me to be able to externalize what I was feeling internally. I needed plenty of pressure release valves, both physically and mentally to vent as I transitioned from boyhood to manhood.

But now there is a movement today to control how boys express their feelings. It encourages them to internalize their feelings and process them in a way that is unnatural; telling them their way is flawed. This movement is currently taking place in schools across the country, and is creating lifelong habits that are unhealthy and dangerous for boys and for society as a whole.

The fundamental piece in the way this system operates is by controlling how boys express the multitude of emotions they go through as they pass through the fragile adolescent period in their lives.

We are at war with violence. Any violence whatsoever has to be eradicated completely, and it starts in the schools, with young boys. Administrators slap the bully label on any and all behavior that is outside accepted conduct. Any aggressive or demeaning language (broad terms that can be interpreted many different ways) is punishable by expulsions and suspensions. Physical altercations of any kind have become “behavioral issues” and the kids involved now labeled as “troubled students”. This only teaches the boy that his natural expression of what he is feeling is wrong, and that he has a problem. He instead should internalize his feelings and not express them because he will get in trouble for it.

It’s a fact that many of our habits and behaviors are learned behaviors from our childhood. What we learn when we are younger tends to manifest itself later in life. When a child is constantly being told that they are wrong for expressing themselves, this leads to issues of self esteem and self blaming which can become a feeling of unworthiness that lasts long past adolescence. Internalizing feelings creates social isolation and unhealthy ways of coping like substance abuse and violence either towards themselves or others.

Steady waters don’t make skilled sailors and what teachers and administrators have done is rob today’s kids of having to navigate the same rough seas they themselves had to navigate in order to become successful adults.

There are also fewer outlets for boys to channel their emotions into something positive. Recess and Physical Education class are being reduced across the country, one study showing only 8% of adolescents (12-19) getting the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity.[1] Music programs along with other extra curricular activities are the first ones slashed when budget cuts come down. I witnessed my own high school wrestling team get cut after I graduated due to parents worrying it was too dangerous, and I see the same happening to football programs.

Those outlets I used to focus the energy of my emotions I still use today. On rough days I try to take to that pent up energy and put it to work doing something positive. I’ll go to the gym, play music, or start writing. But if I grew up being told that those feelings were a mistake to begin with, that I was wrong for feeling them, I wouldn’t have even begun to explore any way to process them. I would’ve just stuffed them away and be a much different person than I am today.

I will always be grateful for the coaches and teachers I had during my middle school and high school years. They pushed me both physically and mentally beyond my self perceived limits, allowed me to express my emotions, and fostered the growth that allowed me to become a man who is comfortable in his own skin.

[1] U.S. Government Accountability Office. K-12 Education: School-based physical education and sports programs. GAO report 12-350. Washington, DC: GAO; 2012.

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