Boys don’t cry: A personal reflection on the gendering of pastoral care

Boys don’t cry.

So the old adage goes.

As a society we have thankfully come to recognise the flaw in this thinking, as generations of boys and men have paid the price, suffering from suppressed and hidden mental health issues, and higher rates of suicide. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the highest cause of death amongst men under the age of 45.

An article by Dr Funke Baffour entitled ‘Male Suicide: A Silent Epidemic’ discusses the gendering of suicide, and examines possible explanations for the differences in male and female suicide rates. He explains that this is ultimately due to factors that you might have already guessed; men are less likely to ask for help, men have greater difficulty in expressing depressive or suicidal feelings, men have been socialised to internalise their feelings. 

These are quite sweeping generalisations and as Dr Baffour notes, research hasn’t been able to pinpoint the exact reasons for this just yet. She acknowledges that these are simple answers to a complex question.

It is coming up to the one-year anniversary of the first global lockdown, and it is clear to see the mental toll that the ongoing uncertainty has had on students. I have experienced more students openly expressing their concerns in the past few months than I have done in previous years, and the prevalence and severity of their problems certainly appear greater. This has undoubtedly been impacted by periods of physical separation from friends and families, ongoing fears and worries about the health of themselves and those they care about, and spending more time in dysfunctional family situations. 

This is further compounded in the international school context, where it is not uncommon for parents businesses or employment to have an international element. This may mean that at least one parent is regularly based overseas for temporary work contracts, or permanently working abroad and sending money home to pay for international schooling. What we’ve seen in this past year is that many parents have either been trapped abroad (or have had to remain away from their homes and families in order to continue earning money) or that parents have been laid off after finishing their most recent contracts. This has led to families experiencing greater financial stress, and perhaps even having to consider the viability of international schooling going forwards.

Students are stressed. Families are stressed. Households are stressed.

Things are different.

Prior to the pandemic I very rarely had male students self-refer themselves for counselling or pastoral support. In my experience, I have often had many more female students open up to me about their struggles. Indeed, I can probably count on one hand how many male students have come to me for help in the three years that I have worked at my current school. Whilst I recognise that the fact that I am also female undoubtedly influences which students reach out to me, I find this to be an interesting observation.

Over the past six months, however, I have started to speak to many more male students for the first time, who are reaching out for help because they are struggling to cope.

I feel that this is indicative (in part, at least) of the internalisation of the ‘boys don’t cry mentality’, despite the rhetoric around gender and masculinity increasingly telling us that it is ok for boys to show emotion. 

That it is ok for boys to struggle mentally and emotionally. That boys can cry if they need to.

Yet, I have recognised that when a male student comes to me upset and crying, it feels strange. It’s not ‘normal’. Or at least, it’s not normal in the sense that it doesn’t happen very often, and takes me by surprise. 

Even though I would like to consider myself open-minded and progressive in my thinking, I am aware that I have also internalised aspects of the ‘boys don’t cry’ thinking, because I don’t have much previous experience to draw upon. Because even in my limited experience, boys haven’t tended to cry, or open up emotionally, around me. Nor do I expect them to. 

What I have noticed, upon reflection, is that pastoral support or intervention for male students often seems to be delayed. 

When a male student is demonstrating changes in their behaviour such as an inability to focus or meet deadlines, a change from being easy going to withdrawn and angry, a change from engaging in lessons and taking pride in their appearance to coming in most days tired and scruffy, it is much more likely to be explained as a character flaw – a behavioural (as opposed to an emotional) issue.

He’s lazy, he’s disrespectful, he just needs to ‘sort himself out’.

We can often delay our response and misconstrue cries for help as ‘boys being boys’.

I can definitely identify this in my own thinking, and realise that I’m often slower in recognising that these students may need deeper help and support, and not just a superficial behavioural intervention or a pep talk.

Perhaps we are quick to give a simple answer to a complex question. 

Afterall, boys will be boys.

In our move to become more progressive in our thinking about gender not just being a binary notion… it’s not as simple as that… our gendered biases run deep.

Perhaps boys don’t cry because we don’t let them.

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