Why men don't hold hands

Posted: June 17, 2011

By Joseph T. Cox

During the recent NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors' Leandro Barbosa reached for teammate Reggie Evans' hand and held it as they walked to the locker room after a victory over the Orlando Magic. Video of the episode created a stir.

As head of the all-male Haverford School, I recently interviewed a woman for a drama teaching position at our middle school. She shared an experience from a class she taught during her interview, in which she asked eighth graders for their dramatic responses to various hypothetical circumstances. When she told the boys they were in a life-threatening situation, some of them held hands. She said boys never do that in the coed classes she teaches.

In the recently published Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, New York University developmental psychology professor Niobe Way finds that boys' natural empathy and emotional depth well exceed societal assumptions, and she argues that men have been hurt by society's failure to understand the importance of friendships in their lives.

In Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neuroscientist Lise Eliot examines our culture's exaggeration of gender differences when it comes to empathy and emotional sensitivity. Infant males, she notes, are actually the more emotional of the two sexes. And there's ample evidence that our society expects boys to behave in ways that may be contrary to their neurology. Stereotyping of any kind diminishes our understanding of complex problems and differences, and gender stereotyping may do more harm than we realize.

A six-year study of factors contributing to fatal heart disease in men found smoking to be the only risk factor comparable to a lack of friendship. The strong, silent, isolated man is less likely to be healthy. We should be doing everything we can to encourage boys to embrace their feelings and friendships, perhaps even to the point of hugging and holding hands when they celebrate a victory.

We need to develop an understanding of masculinity that respects the emotional lives of boys and men, recognizing their demonstrations of emotional depth as natural and, in the long run, healthy. We need to be vigilant about the lessons we teach our sons.

My father was a survivor of the Great Depression and a veteran wounded in World War II - a tough man who lived a tough life. I remember when he refused my kiss good night, telling his 5-year-old son, "Men don't kiss."

I don't think I ever tried again until that moment in the intensive-care unit when I made the decision to shut off his life support. I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him, and I don't think he minded.


Joseph T. Cox is headmaster of the

Haverford School.

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