by Dr. Will Courtenay
So, your son wants to be an invincible super hero. And when he puts on his cape and pretends to fly through the air in pursuit of bad guys, it’s pretty darn cute.
The problem is, it’s likely that he really believes he’s invincible – and invulnerable.
If he doesn’t believe it now, chances are he will. Research of teenagers shows that boys are more likely than girls to think they’re invulnerable to a variety of risks
Boys are not alone in holding this belief. Their parents believe it too – and reinforce it. “Boys,” we say, “are tough!” But the truth is, boys are vulnerable.
Each day, 18 boys under age 15 die in the United States – 3 times the number of girls who do. Nearly all of these deaths are violent, and the result of injury, suicide and homicide. Boys are also 1½ times more likely than girls to get injured
Despite these risks, parents actually misperceive boys – even as babies – as being less vulnerable than girls. These misperceptions are based on gender stereotypes, which boys are expected to conform to even more so than girls. In fact, boys are frequently punished when they violate the rules of boyhood.
So, conform they do. The problem is, conforming to the rules of boyhood increases boys’ risks. That’s because the tools we give boys in America to become men are, for the most part, unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.
Pretending to be invulnerable is just one page out of what I call “The Playbook for Manhood” – which boys are taught from parents, teachers, coaches and society in general. Parents, for example, are more likely to encourage their sons than their daughters in risky activities and are much less concerned about the safety of their sons, despite boys’ greater risk. Even peers adhere to the Playbook, and are tougher on boys than girls while enforcing unhealthy, stereotypical boy behavior.
Then there’s media, which codifies the Playbook and teaches boys all kinds of unhealthy behaviors – through commercials, movies, magazines, television, and video games. Boys are more likely than girls to be portrayed engaging in all kinds of risky and unhealthy behaviors, and to be marketed junk foods, tobacco and alcohol.
Making matters worse, these media messages consistently communicate to boys that they won’t suffer the consequences of their unhealthy choices. On the contrary, they demonstrate how boys are rewarded for these choices.
Now fast forward to adolescence. It’s then that we find boys themselves actually believe they’re less vulnerable than girls and are less concerned about their own safety – despite their greater risks – behind the wheel, between the sheets, and under the sun.
The problem with this is that people who don’t think they’re vulnerable, don’t take precautions – like using sun protection, or sex protection, or driving safely. And that’s exactly what we see in boys. Despite their riskier driving habits – like speeding and running red lights – teenage boys believe they’re better drivers than girls. But as a result of their poorer driving habits, teenage boys account for 3 out of 4 young people killed driving, which is their number one cause of death.
Boys’ sense of invulnerability is just 1 of over 30 reasons their health risks are so great. The most important of these is their health behavior. Boys are less likely than girls to wear safety belts or bike helmets, and are more likely to carry weapons, use tobacco and drugs, and to be heavy drinkers, and to engage in dozens of behaviors that increase their risk of disease, injury and death.
They eat more fat and salt, fewer fruits and vegetables, and drink more soda than girls. Consequently, teenage boys are more overweight and are three times more likely than girls to be at risk for a cluster of factors linked with heart disease. And unhealthy behaviors like these adopted in childhood typically continue into adulthood.
Instead of educating our sons about their health, we dismiss their risky and unhealthy behavior with “boys will be boys.” What boys learn is that risking danger is manly, that getting hurt is inevitable, and that bravely sustaining injury is admirable.
It’s time we started using son protection and teaching our sons that they’re not as invulnerable as we wish they could be.
Dr. Will Courtenay is a consultant, speaker, author, and men's health expert. He received his PH.D. from the Unviersityh of California at Berkeley and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. He is the author of "Dying To Be Men: Psychosocial, Environmental, and Biobehavioral Directions in Promoting the Health of Men and Boys." He is currently writing a book on post partum depression in fathers.