April 20, 2015

6 Reasons School Support Groups
Can Make Good Men Out of Boys

Having been in many different kinds of men's support groups over the last thirty years, and having sat in lots of groups with young men, I've seen the power of these groups to changes lives. As a result, I have become an unreserved and vocal advocate for this way of being together to become better men.

It's also why I think it is critical for teen males to get exposure to this powerful man-making experience. In a group of the willing, that's made safe with common agreements around confidentiality, where trust is high and there's no layered-over agenda by a sponsoring organization, the transformational juice is always flowing.

Six reasons support group circles produce better males:

Truth-Speaking: It's a rare thing for most guys to be with other males where you can be your transparent and authentic self. It's a total gift to be in a group where you can speak your darkest truths and long-buried inner thoughts. It's life-giving to be able to speak your negative internal messages and needed confessions, name failures, and claim your personal successes. It can be a relief to be where your heart's fondest hopes and deepest sadness can be spoken aloud.

Being in what I call a truth-speaking group, all by itself, is transformational. It means you are no longer alone and hidden with an "I'm okay" mask over it all. It means you no longer need to be going quietly crazy from the pent up emotional pressures and the effort of maintaining the mask. All of that goes away and the weight lifts when you're in a safe circle with other guys and take the risk to be your unfiltered self. This is true for males regardless of age.

. . . these circles are where guys go to feelings school,
expand their self-awareness, and cultivate emotional literacy!

Emotional Capacity: In a recent Man-Making Blog post, I wrote about helping young males expand their emotional vocabulary so they have more access to the complex emotional life going on inside them. As the sense of trust and safety builds in these groups, the sharing eventually moves from simply talking about your life and talking about your feelings, to actually having feelings as they naturally arise.

Many times in group I've surprised myself with a sudden up-welling of sadness, feelings of love, a lift in self-esteem from claiming a hard-won personal victory, or felt and spoke the visceral fears of feeling powerless, trapped, or victimized in some way. I've witnessed those same emotional responses in countless other men and boys. For teenage males, when the mask drops away, their capacity for honest and emotional expression is sometimes breath-taking. For me, these circles are where guys go to feelings school, expand their self-awareness, and cultivate emotional literacy.

Unconditional Acceptance: There is something in the mix of male DNA and cultural training that invites guys to put on armor and not be vulnerable. Very early on, males learn not to appear weak, to play hurt, to not show their pain, and to just handle whatever it is they're struggling with, and do it all alone. Some have been wearing their I'm okay mask for so long, they don't realize it's the face they show the world!

When a male joins a circle of other guys who are being more authentic, it's initially disorienting. For a new guy, sitting behind an I'm okay mask, it can be a shock to hear a guy talk about being a confused mess of fear, anger, denial, or grief and not hear someone make a joke, change the subject, or try to fix him with inane advice. Not only is witnessing emotional honesty uncomfortable, but it's just as unusual to hear the speaker be accepted, and honored for his courage, strength, and honesty.

For males of any age, it's a powerful and healing experience to be accepted when you're at your worst, most embarrassed, or your shame-laden self. Unconditional acceptance by others breeds self-acceptance and self-love when those qualities are the hardest to come by.

. . . unconditional acceptance by others
. . . breeds self-acceptance and self-love . . .

Learning You're Normal: A recent TIME online magazine article titled: Why Facebook Makes You Feel Bad About Yourself, describes research stating one out of three Facebook users tend to be more depressed than non-Facebookers. Viewing posts and photos of other people's wonderful lives can trigger feelings of envy, misery and loneliness. Comparing your not-always-wonderful world with the best face of other's lives is a prescription for depression.

However, when truth is shared in a guy's group, one very predictable outcome is that we soon learn, even with our darkest self-talk and stories, we are all much more like each other than we're different. We learn the "range of normal" is very broad, that we're not terminally defective in some way, and we really are okay! For young teens who are fully engaged in the school social struggle to fit in, learning you're really just like everyone else, is a soothing balm.

Finding a Path to Manhood: Truth-speaking in group is often hearing about how others are overcoming difficult challenges. Hearing about how other men and young guys have had success with their problems makes it possible to envision a path out of the places where you're stuck. You not only get good peer role models and inspiration, you also get good ideas about how to approach a problem, information about helpful resources, and allies with supportive skills. Whether it's someone for a young guy to talk to about a breakup with a girlfriend, his fear of STDs, or a community resource for support when getting kicked out of the house, very often the help you need is sitting right across the circle.

. . . very often the help you need
is sitting right across the circle.

Courage and Support: One of the most important gifts groups offer guys is the ability to use others for support. It means publicly naming your intentions to be a better person, and then using the group for accountability as you risk the new behaviors. It means getting help to not let yourself down by retreating to your old ways. It means knowing others will have your back as you courageously take the small but frightening steps to become that better version of yourself. For men or teens without people on their side, having allies in group on the journey to a better you is everything.



In the video below you'll hear from nine boys involved in Boys to Men middle school groups. They tell you what it has meant to them to get some of the benefits of being in a support group. You'll also hear from a school principal telling you what it has meant to her to have men like you show up in her school.

Most importantly, you'll begin to understand why I'd like young guys to experience these groups in their teen years, while they are still forming the vision of the man they will become. Their "I'm okay" masks are not yet so thick or as sealed on as they will eventually be.

Thank you to Boys to Men of San Diego for this video!


If this clip doesn't show up use this link.

I feel so strongly about the benefits of men showing up in schools to support our boys I am offering training to interested schools or groups of men. If you even faintly hear that call to service, send me a quick message. I can assure you of a few things: it's not that difficult, the young guys are waiting for you to show up, and because you're still reading this, you're perfectly equipped for the job.

Think about it! Who would you be today
if you had access to a supportive circle with a few good men
when you were in middle or high school?



SHARE: If you enjoy this blog, please click the Facebook "Share" button below to support the Man-Making Facebook page! (The button is only on the MM Blog, and NOT in email post delivery, sorry.)


CONTACT: Send Earl a message. I'm very interested in your thoughts on any man-making post or topic. I'm available to help bring man-making initiatives to your community or organization.

SUBSCRIBE: If you're not yet a subscriber to the Man-Making Blog, and you'd like to receive these posts by email 3-4 times a month, use this link for a free subscription.

TWEET: Send this post along to your friends or follow me on Twitter!

April 10, 2015

Does being “pro-boy” mean “anti-girl?”

In a short article titled, Save Our Boys, by Esther J. Cepeda in the Washington Post, she describes her conversation with Dr. Leonard Sax. Dr. Sax is the author of the book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. Dr. Sax, M.D., Ph.D., is a family doctor, a PhD psychologist, and the founder of the National Association for Choice in Education (NACE).

In the description of his book Dr. Sax says, "Something scary is happening to boys today. From kindergarten to college, American boys are, on average, less resilient and less ambitious than they were a mere twenty years ago. The gender gap in college attendance and graduation rates has widened dramatically. While Emily is working hard at school and getting A’s, her brother Justin is goofing off. He’s more concerned about getting to the next level in his video game than about finishing his homework."

Something scary is happening to boys today.

At the heart of her story, Ms. Cepeda uncovered Dr. Sax's disappointment with how often showing up for boys is seen as being anti-girl. It's sad, but often the reality I've encountered in speaking to groups. In Ms. Cepeda's interview with Dr. Sax, he said, “. . . I didn’t have an appreciation for the degree to which this topic is political,”. . . . “The assumption is that if you advocate for boys, you are right-of-center, and if you advocate for girls you are left-of center. And you must work very hard to make people understand that not only are the politics not the most important issue, but that if you’re seeing boys as the ‘losers’ of good education and work opportunities, girls are not the ‘winners,’ either. But when you start talking about offering boy-friendly instructional strategies, then you must be against girls.

Dr. Sax does offer gender-neutral prescriptions in his book. He told Ms. Cepeda, “With just a little bit of training and permission, administrators and teachers can greatly boost achievement for boys without drowning out girls,” Sax said. “It is not a zero-sum game. Gender-aware instructional strategies don’t cost much money and have the potential to get boys excited about writing and girls excited about computer coding. But the notion that boys and girls need something different to love writing or computers is deeply offensive to scholars.

Sadly, Dr. Sax has become cynical about ever finding a motivated audience and has returned to full-time medical practice. I believe Dr. Sax is very much on the right track. Too many of our young males are "adrift," and would benefit greatly from experimentation with young-male-focused educational approaches. I also feel the overarching quest should be to come up with an educational system that brings out the best in all of our children.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, says in 2012, "U.S. students ranked below average in math among the world's most-developed countries. They were close to average in science and reading." Taken directly from their data, 29 nations outperformed the United States in math, 22 in science, and 19 in reading, all much worse performance than the data collected in 2009. All of our kids deserve better.

As you consider the idea of more young-male-literate educational approaches, check out what comes up for you! Are you carrying a gender bias when it comes to their education?

You can read Ms. Cepeda's full article on her Washington Post web page, and find Dr. Sax's book on Amazon.



SHARE: If you enjoy this blog, please click the Facebook "Share" button below to support the Man-Making Facebook page! (The button is only on the MM Blog, and NOT in email post delivery, sorry.)


CONTACT: Send Earl a message. I'm very interested in your thoughts on any man-making post or topic. I'm available to help bring man-making initiatives to your community or organization.

SUBSCRIBE: If you're not yet a subscriber to the Man-Making Blog, and you'd like to receive these posts by email 3-4 times a month, use this link for a free subscription.

TWEET: Send this post along to your friends or follow me on Twitter!

March 25, 2015

Teaching Boys to Have Feelings?

On our Rite of Passage weekends, on our adventure outings, and in our school and other support group circles with young men, the adult men in this man-making work consider ourselves to be language instructors. In addition to all the many benefits of being around good and caring men, we are in the business of helping young guys develop their emotional vocabulary.


Most recently, the opportunity to develop the emotional tools for young guys came up in support group circle at a local high school. During the process of checking in for group, the guys are often asked to say their name and identify what they were feeling at the moment. As is very common and predictable, week after week they were continuing to use a very limited feelings vocabulary with words like tired, hungry, relaxed, chill, numb, sometimes mad, and many saying flat out, "I don't know what I feel." These are common responses because most of the guys don't get enough sleep or enough to eat. In addition, these young males simply don't have a good connection to their internal world of feelings. Except for the most rudimentary emotional language they really can't describe what's going on inside themselves in any detail.

. . . they really can't describe
what's going on inside themselves
in any detail.

Early on during group development, we will challenge them to not use their standard words and instead use basic feelings words such as mad, sad, glad, or afraid. Even those simple words are sometimes a stretch for them. In the simple choices, "mad" is the most popular word. Anger is the one emotion they see men expressing in the media, they see in their violent video games, and hear in their music. On top of that, so many of the young men have a lot to be angry about, but that's another blog post. I'll say more about anger in a moment.

To further develop the depth of their emotional language, I brought copies of a feelings wheel to the circle. While many different charts are available, the feelings wheel puts the most basic emotions in the center and then expands those feelings outward with more expressive words. For the young guys, it's a whole new landscape of descriptive options. The first time they see all the possibilities they're a little silly trying on a new words. It's fun to hear a young dude say, "I'm feeling fascinating," or "I'm pensive today." I love hearing them claim words like respected, skeptical, insignificant, delightful, amused, daring, and even sexy.

We also ask young men to use "I" statements. That means when they are sharing an opinion or feeling, instead of saying, ". . . you know when you feel angry at someone and you want to hit them . . . ." they will say, "I felt so angry I wanted to hit someone." In this way, in addition to growing their emotional vocabulary, we're helping them to own their feelings, to become more self-aware, and to be in touch with their internal feelings world.

Because anger is such a big part of a teen male's life, one important benefit of a little emotional self-awareness is realizing when he's feeling angry, and then watching it come over him. If, in that moment, he can pause to just experience it, he creates a choice point where he might elect a self-affirming rather than a self-defeating and often violent response. One young African-American guy told the group a "stop and frisk" story, a too-common experience with the police in his neighborhood. He said that even though he knew he was being unfairly profiled, as he was being aggressively pushed over the hood of the police car, he chose not to let his anger explode. He said he took some deep breaths, remembered what was talked about in group, and chose to be polite and cooperative. While I and the group felt uncomfortable hearing about the unfairness in that story, I considered the young man's choice to be a huge victory, and a solid lesson for the group.

Using a group environment to understand and better manage the surge of angry emotions also opens up the possibility of working through the darker feelings like sadness and grief, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. While these themes show up regularly, a willingness to explore them often depends on how well the group had gelled and if there is sufficient trust in the circle. Like dealing with anger, exploring these topics helps teens not become victims of their deeper feelings.

. . . if you understand your own emotional life
you're better prepared for understanding others.

Empathy is also an important tool in anyone's emotional skill set. Simply stated, if you understand your own emotional life, you're better prepared for connecting with others at a deeper level. To help young guys develop empathy, we invite them to consider the impact of their words or actions on others. We may use questions like, "How do you think it makes a girl feel to be called a stupid, fat, bitch, or a whore? How would you feel if someone was saying that to your mom or sister? What do you feel right now when you just think about someone saying those things to the women in your family?" Eventually the guys get it, and it really does make them more considerate.

We are always looking for opportunities to get our young guys to name a feeling, asking about how others might feel, then praising them for emotional honesty and for making good choices about dealing with their feelings. I guess it's not so much teaching them to have feelings as it is helping them to understand, describe, and work with the rich emotional life already happening inside them. It's good work and very gratifying to see these young men emotionally ripening over a twelve-week semester.

What would your life be like today if you had been given the opportunity to be in a safe and supportive place, with caring men, who were helping you to develop these live-giving emotional tools?

If you want to read more on this topic, check out this recent Man-Making Blog post.

If you're interested in actually doing this kind of work in support of young males in your community, give me a shout and we can talk about how you might get started. I can assure you the gloriously imperfect and fearful part of yourself makes you the perfect man for this work. I can also assure you that at this very moment the young guys in your community are waiting for you to step up.



SHARE: If you enjoy this blog, please click the Facebook "Share" button below to support the Man-Making Facebook page! (The button is only on the MM Blog, and NOT in email post delivery, sorry.)


CONTACT: Send Earl a message. I'm very interested in your thoughts on any man-making post or topic. I'm available to help bring man-making initiatives to your community or organization.

SUBSCRIBE: If you're not yet a subscriber to the Man-Making Blog, and you'd like to receive these posts by email 3-4 times a month, use this link for a free subscription.

TWEET: Send this post along to your friends or follow me on Twitter!

March 7, 2015

Men, Boys, and Getting the Meat - Ice Fishing!

There is just something primitive and very natural about men and young guys heading out into the wild elements to bring home the meat, or in this example of the hunt, going fishing in very cold weather and in the middle of a frozen lake.

The Club for Boys is located in Rapid City, South Dakota, near the beautiful Black Hills. It's an organization in which men have been supporting young guys for a very long time. In a powerful statement of their purpose, they say they have been ". . . a consistent and positive influence on the lives of over 33,000 different boys through the years." One of the ways they do that is through fishing.

A while back I wrote a blog post about my first encounter with a tackle box. It was my introduction to all the colorful and seemingly magical gear. It was filled with different kinds of lures, each with a special purpose and creature in mind. The box also had an other-worldly aroma that only added to my excitement. With the help of a good man, I did eventually learn to fish (and learned the smell in the tackle box was from years of accumulated fish guts, dried worms, and a little beer). So when I came across the story of men and boys going fishing, it took me right back to those days!

The Club for Boys held their second annual ice fishing event and called it Hooked on Hardwater. Get it? The water is hard! Sorry. For those of you not familiar with life in the frozen northlands, it may look a little strange to see a community of people gathered on a cold, grey day, all covered in down coats and pants, and sitting in tents in the middle of a frozen lake. These are people who are used to seeing their breath when they talk, and who take pleasure at staring at a hole in the ice. In the colder northern parts of the U.S., it's actually a common thing to do and really a lot of fun.


For this outing, over sixty professional fishermen came from nine states and Canada. It's a heart-warmer to learn that some of those fishing pros drove over thirteen hours to get to the event. They were partnered with sixty or so boys from the club. The young guys learned about fish, fish finders, bait, and the fine art of fishing itself. The event was strategically placed on the lake that was known to be home to a large population of perch. That location guaranteed that each of the boys would catch somewhere between five and ten fish. A catch that size is a thrilling day for a kid just learning to fish and a small but true rite of passage.

. . . a thrilling day for a kid just learning to fish
and a small but true rite of passage.

The smiles on the faces of the men and boys is the real story, and partially explains why a fishing pro might drive cross country to be involved. You can get the whole story and see the video at this link.

What kind of fish am I?
As a side note for you fishing lovers, I really liked their Junior and Master Angler Program. It perfectly fits the idea of a ladder of achievement that young men like so much. In these programs, when boys catch a rainbow trout, a perch, a blue gill and a bass, they receive a Junior Angler card and a free tackle box. When they go on to catch a brown trout, a crappie, and bull head, AND they can demonstrate tying a basic angler knot, they are given a Master Angler card plus a free rod and reel. They also get some serious status in the club. Boys with a completed Master Angler card are also eligible to go on the big Summer Fishing Trip which includes travelling with the men for five full days of fishing (and a whole lot of fun). To learn more about these kinds of events, visit The Club for Boys website for more information.

Do you know a young guy you could teach how to fish? Or if you never learned to fish and are interested, can you find a fisherman friend and see what the two of you might create? Here's a fishing story about a man and his friends doing just that. It's called Fishin With A Mission.

Or maybe you have a different hobby or passion you and some of your men friends might share with some young guys. I'm certain if you act, the lives of the boys and men who get involved will be changed for the better.

And yes, it's just that simple!



SHARE: If you enjoy this blog, please click the Facebook "Share" button below to support the Man-Making Facebook page! (The button is only on the MM Blog, and NOT in email post delivery, sorry.)


CONTACT: Send Earl a message. I'm very interested in your thoughts on any man-making post or topic. I'm available to help bring man-making initiatives to your community or organization.

SUBSCRIBE: If you're not yet a subscriber to the Man-Making Blog, and you'd like to receive these posts by email 3-4 times a month, use this link for a free subscription.

TWEET: Send this post along to your friends or follow me on Twitter!

February 24, 2015

A Dead Horse and Young Guys Having Feelings

In our school circles, it always hits me hard to see the young men struggle to describe their feelings. The incredibly limited emotional vocabulary they have available is almost tragic and a very hard thing to witness. We always start our groups with a check in. In that round, each male gets to be heard saying their name, a feeling, and then answer a question about their lives. The feeling statement is the hardest for them. When trying to name a feeling, I often hear, "I don't know," "numb," "chill," "cool," "okay," or sometimes "confused," and way too often some version of being angry.

In one check in, a young man took the risk of sharing the story of how, on the previous night, he watched while his horse had to be put down with a bullet to the head. That story was a punch in my gut, and I could actually feel the sadness and grief in him needing to be released. Instead, looking down as he talked, he just kept shaking his head, tapping his feet, and saying how it really sucked man, and it wasn't fair man. His damp eyes and restless agitation spoke volumes, but he managed to keep the deep sadness bottled up inside.

On hearing his story, the rest of the group was in a kind of collective shock. All the suffering kid got back was nervous laughter and some verbal validation of how brutal and unfair it all was. The strangest thing was after the brief two minutes of hearing this powerful story, the group charged right on past it to the next young man's check in. I think in doing so, they were giving the grieving kid the message, suck it up, play hurt, and stuff all the hurt back inside.

. . . suck it up, play hurt,
and stuff all the hurt back inside!

It takes time to build enough trust in a container of men and boys before it can hold the larger feelings churning below the surface of young male bravado and behind the mask that says, I can handle it all. In the group that day, we did go back to validate the strength it took for the young man to witness his horse's death, to honor the love he had for the animal, and to give him (males) permission to cry about the loss if he wanted. When asked, most of the other guys in the circle were able to name major losses in their lives. Only tiny hints about the potency of those losses showed through their reporting. They also offered up some positive and some not-so-good coping strategies for dealing with grief. Along the way, we got to insert some new feeling words for the grieving process into the conversation. It was a hard circle for the guys, but we all came closer together for the shared intimacy. In the closing round, one young man actually said, Bless all broken male hearts.

Bless all broken male hearts

Alexithymia is the term for people who have difficulty in identifying, experiencing, or describing emotional material. Yet another other cost of a limited feelings vocabulary is a lack of empathy. That's the inability to really know what someone else is feeling because you've never experienced those feelings and simply don't "get it." I think it's why I "felt" the young man's deep sadness at the loss of his horse, and the rest of the group was so ready to just get on with the check in. It's not that they didn't care, but behind their masks, there were simply no emotional tools to understand that much pain.

Continually witnessing young guys in school circles struggling with their emotions keeps bringing me back to a couple scary thoughts. The first is a quote from Dr. William Pollack in his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Pollack, talks about boy's limited emotional vocabulary and the Boy Code. The code says, except for anger, showing any other big feelings means you're weak, and thus vulnerable. The cost for young men living up to that code is a tragedy we see on the news almost nightly. Pollack's quote rightly says, If we don't let our boys cry tears, they'll cry bullets. The second scary idea is that all school shooters are angry boys.

Another book on this topic by Dr. Max Wachtel is, The One Rule For Boys: How Empathy And Emotional Understanding Will Improve Just About Everything For Your Son. Dr. Wachtel is a psychologist who has worked with boys and men caught up in the justice system.

He has directly witnessed the damage a lack of empathy and emotional understanding can cause. His ‘one rule’ is, when boys are taught and encouraged to recognize and express their feelings, and to understand how other people feel―rather than being tough, unemotional, and clueless about the motivations of others―the world becomes a happier, healthier, and safer place.

I know the work we're doing in school-based support circles for our young men is making a difference. If you want to talk about how to set up a group to support the men and young men in your world, give me a shout.

Dr. Wachtel says, if we support them in the development of an emotional life, our boys will be:
. . . less aggressive, more assertive, have a higher quality of friends, get better jobs, get more chances to get into college if they want to, they are happier, treat women better, have better marriages and are better leaders.

Now there's a whole bunch of reasons to circle up the men and boys for some conversation!



SHARE: If you enjoy this blog, please click the Facebook "Share" button below to support the Man-Making Facebook page! (The button is only on the MM Blog, and NOT in email post delivery, sorry.)


CONTACT: Send Earl a message. I'm very interested in your thoughts on any man-making post or topic. I'm available to help bring man-making initiatives to your community or organization.

SUBSCRIBE: If you're not yet a subscriber to the Man-Making Blog, and you'd like to receive these posts by email 3-4 times a month, use this link for a free subscription.

TWEET: Send this post along to your friends or follow me on Twitter!