Crafting Healthy Conceptions of Masculinity: What the Summer Camp Experience Can Provide for Boys

Joseph D. LaLiberte
November 2019

I was sitting in our chapel benches surrounded by towering pines as I listened to our leadership director, Dave Irwin, give his Sunday chapel talk in late July of 2016 at YMCA Camp Belknap, a traditional, nonprofit, overnight summer camp for boys. He articulated the reasons behind the birth, more than a century ago, of summer camps and the industry’s rapid growth in response to what the nation was deeming a “crisis of masculinity.” Families were moving from their self-sustaining lifestyles of the countryside into crowded cities, and, as a result, they grew concerned that their boys would lose their connection with the outdoors — that cities would feminize them. President Teddy Roosevelt shared this concern, championing a movement to create more summer camps and Boy Scout programs nationwide in an effort to provide boys hardened outdoor skills, physicality, strife, and other masculine ideals that families felt would be scarce in the city. President Roosevelt beckoned for a return to woodsy roots, preaching his ideal of the “strenuous life,” in which men “do not shrink from danger, hardship, or bitter toil.” Irwin continued to insinuate that summer camps provided such an outlet for boys for the next 100+ years, in which they were able to respond to a host of social crises and reconnect with their roots, both masculine and arboreous.

Belknap, like many other boys’ camps across the country, strives — among its many missions — to “make good boys better.” Inherently engrained in this mission is a duty to address various social trends and pressures placed upon boys in the “outside world.” I knew from my own experience that camp helped me to address my own perceived social pressures I faced at school and elsewhere. Camp provided me a place to be myself, meet new friends, and explore a whole host of opportunities and challenges. Because of this experience and those of so many of my peers and friends, I knew right after hearing Irwin’s talk that camps still have this profound effect today. I thought to myself, “If camps could address Roosevelt’s ‘crisis of masculinity,’ then they surely are addressing the modern version as well.” Thus, I set out to determine just how much pressure boys endure to fit this masculine expectation, and whether the camp experience provides an outlet to escape such rigid ideals.

Why Does This Matter?

Today’s proposed “crisis of masculinity” suggests that boys remain under immense pressure to fit a specific mold of boy and manhood, yet this mold is drastically different than Roosevelt’s. William Pollack suggests in his book Real Boys that young men in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are being subscribed to what he refers to as the “boy code,” an expectation that boys are to be stoic, stable, independent, daring, powerful, and above all, must avoid any semblance of femininity or emotionality (Pollack, 1999). New research shows that boys are faring less well in school than they did in the past and in comparison to girls, that many boys have remarkably fragile self-esteems, and that the rates of depression and suicide in boys are frighteningly on the rise. Many of our sons are in a desperate crisis, and this trend doesn’t stop in high school. The boy code transitions into the man box, in which many academics argue that boys suppress their emotional vulnerability to preserve a macho bravado and appear strong and tough no matter the circumstance. In this model, experts suggest that boys strive to maintain an understood expectation of manhood: tough, aggressive, strong, authoritative, unemotional, etc.

The various academics who reference the man box focus on the expectations placed upon boys and men to suppress emotions, engage in risky behaviors, incite violence, and overemphasize toughness and stoicism (Edwards & Jones, 2009). The box is comprised of the rigid expectations placed on male youth, and a failure to act in accordance with these expectations results in the “policing” of these behaviors by male peers. In social settings surrounded by other males, boys tend to retreat further into the man box and heighten their male characteristics. This is a phenomenon called a “stereotype threat,” a situation in which a group is aware of the stereotype that might be attributed to them, and because of this risk of stereotype application, acts in accordance with the stereotype (Link & Phelan, 2001). The result is that hateful language rooted in homophobia, racism, and misogyny becomes normalized among young men.

If researchers now know that heightened masculine gender norms and gender-based social pressures can potentially have a profoundly negative impact on men, then first and foremost, what is happening to our boys?

Research suggests that such gendered social pressures are detrimental to mental health (O’Neil, Good, & Holmes, 1995). Moreover, stereotypical masculine gender norms can impair the emotional and physical development of boys (Santos, 2010). These norms have been linked with negative social, developmental, and psychological outcomes such as violence, aggression, academic difficulties, substance use, neglect of personal health, homophobia, misogyny, and detached fathering (Santos, 2010 via Levant, 2005; Kindlon & Thompson, 1999; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1993). During Roosevelt’s time, “. . . remaking gender roles was integral to [the] process” of overnight summer camps (Ayres, 2010). Ironically, a more urgent focus of inquiry today is whether camps protect youth from hegemonic gender roles.

Do Solutions Exist?

At the turn of the last century, researchers began to highlight the gender-role-based challenges that girls faced, but studies of boys have lagged behind. As a result, society seems to be less aware of boys’ problems, perhaps due to the widespread assumption that males should be self-sufficient and keep problems to themselves. By the time many boys enter elementary school, they have learned to hide and feel ashamed of two important sets of emotions: those that express vulnerability in one way or another (e.g., fear, sadness, loneliness, hurt, shame, disappointment) and those that express attachment to others, (e.g., neediness, caring, love, connection) (Levant, 2005).

In their 1999 book Raising Cain, Dan Kindlon, PhD, and Michael Thompson, PhD, articulated these masculine pressures and offered what they viewed to be potential solutions. They recognized that masculine expectations were encouraging boys to restrict themselves from exhibiting emotion, as they feared it would compromise their masculinity and render them outcasts amongst their peers:

“All boys have feelings. They’re often treated as if they don’t . . . as boys get older, they express less emotion. [Studies have shown that] girls [are] less upset by crying, [while boys consume] a steady diet of commercials in which a man is not a man unless he is tough, drives a tough truck, and drinks lots of beer” (Kindlon & Thompson, 1999).

Although both conventional wisdom and empirical research suggest that camps have the power to affect serious change on the youth, little data exists on how camp influences self-perceived gender roles or whether camp provides a safe space for boys to escape from the social pressure to adhere to a masculine stereotype, such as being tough or stoic.

Chris Thurber, PhD, outlines his strategies to inform schools and other developmental institutions in realizing this improvement in his 10-step program, Live What You Want Your Boys to Become:

  1. Discuss masculinity. Which concepts of maleness are positive and which could be potentially toxic?
  2. Postpone problem-solving. Vocalize more adjectives that describe thoughts and feelings.
  3. Model conflict resolution. Don’t resolve conflicts through vengeance and anger, but through conversation, understanding, and critical thought.
  4. Sanction physicality. Teach boys to use their bodies in a healthy manner.
  5. Allow originality. Challenge the current narrative of what is masculine and what is not.
  6. Explore culture. Initiate nonjudgmental conversations about norms, media, and traditions.
  7. Show tolerance. Teach male students to understand the context of interpersonal interactions and show tolerance for variation and instinctual discomfort.
  8. Celebrate ritual. Learn boys’ rituals and celebrations, and discover whether or not they are healthy traditions that send the proper messages.
  9. Appreciate beauty. Comment on the beauty of a study, of literature, of nature, etc. Show boys that there is more to beauty than what the media tells them they should consume — less content objectifying women and more content articulating what is inherently beautiful in its own right.
  10. Make time for boys. Boys need care and love in their lives; they need to be nurtured and shown the way toward discovering their own unique sense of masculinity (Thurber, 2018).

These 10 steps bare the potential to improve programs in schools and camps and provide boys with a safe space to develop their own healthy sense of what it means to be a man. Surely there is a way to realize Roosevelt’s ideal of resilient youth without negating the innately human experiences of emotional pain and connection to others.

Although it is widely understood at this point that camps affect meaningful change in boys, questions remain:

How much pressure do boys feel to fit this mold while at camp, and is this pressure different than at school or at home?

If the camp experience is branded as an escape from the pressures and toils of the modern world, then with this disconnect from technology and television is there also the accompaniment of a change in mindset regarding the masculine expectation?

How do boys feel when they hear “Be a man?”

What does it mean to feel a deep expectation of manliness, and how could boys fathom breaking free of such rigid gender expectations?

With these questions in mind, I constructed a study that aimed to shed further light on how boys experience this pressure, and whether it is perceived as a healthy expectation or a potentially harmful one. While Roosevelt’s “crisis” represented an important turning point for manhood, in the modern and technological 21st century, many more factors and influences are at play. If camps were the answer for Roosevelt, can they still provide the solution to the modern crisis of masculinity today?

How Do We Know Camps Are an Answer?

I knew that my experience at Belknap provided such an outlet from the rigid expectations of manhood that Irwin depicted in his eloquent chapel talk, but I wanted to ask the boys themselves what they thought. Thus, in the summer of 2016, I conducted, distributed, and later analyzed a survey of 162 boys during one of Camp Belknap’s four two-week sessions. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether a traditional, overnight boys’ camp could provide an emotionally and physically safe space for boys to eschew gender role stereotypes. Specifically, this study sought to investigate whether boys would self-report lower levels of social pressure to exhibit a tough and emotional stoic persona when surrounded by their peers.

Self-report survey questions included demographic information, questions about camp culture, expectations of stoicism and toughness at camp and school, and a query about instances in which participants may have seen, heard, or read the phrase “man up” or similar vernacular. Sample questions included:

  • “On a scale of 1 to 10, how strongly, if at all, do you feel like other people expect you to be tough and avoid showing weakness at camp?”
  • “On a scale of 1 to 10, how strongly, if at all, do you feel like other people expect you to be tough and avoid showing weakness at school?”
  • “On a scale from 1 to 10, how accepting and inclusive do you feel camp is?”
  • “In your life, have you ever been told to ‘be a man,’ ‘man up,’ ‘don’t be a girl,’ or ‘don’t be a wuss?’”

Participants (M=12.9; SD=1.4; 88 percent white) completed this 22-question survey during the one-hour, post-lunch rest period near the end of their second week at camp. They were able to read and answer all questions in the privacy of their own bunk beds. Preliminary analyses, conducted within a larger study on boys’ experiences at overnight summer camp, suggested that of the campers who reported they had heard a phrase such as “man up,” boys felt a higher expectation of stoicism and toughness at school versus at camp. Some 47 percent reported a negative feeling associated with the phrase “man up” (or similar expressions of male stereotypes), suggesting that boys were likely experiencing uncomfortable levels of social pressure to express toughness and stoicism; 25.9 percent reported a neutral feeling, such as “fine” or “I didn’t care,” and 27 percent reported a positive feeling, such as “happy” or “motivated.”

Analyses by the five age cohorts at camp suggested that older boys generally felt greater expectations to be tough and avoid showing weakness at school versus camp. On the numerical rating scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest perceived level of others’ expectations for toughness and the avoidance of showing weakness, the senior campers, (ages ~15–16) rated school 2.8 points higher than camp, on average (p<.00001); the besserer campers (age ~14) rated school 2.0 points higher than camp (p< .001); the middler campers (age ~13) rated school 2.7 points higher than camp (p< .0001); the junior campers (ages ~11–12) rated school 1.1 points higher than camp (p< .05). Results suggested no significant school versus camp differences for boys in the youngest division.

Discussion and Implications for Camp Professionals

Preliminary findings and ongoing analyses indicate that boys felt significantly more comfortable and less pressured in the camp environment as opposed to their schools. The larger differences for older campers could suggest that their experiences at camp serve as a place where boys are encouraged to be themselves, feel accepted, and relax, more so than at school. Alternatively, perhaps the more years a boy returns to camp, the more he feels as if camp is a safe environment, one in which he feels less pressure to conform to a gender role stereotype.

These results might allow camps to promote themselves as retreats not only from the fast pace of daily life, but also from the social pressures to act tough or hide weakness. In a time where the concept of what it means to be masculine can be foggy and unclear for boys and young men, such a reprieve may be welcome. That said, it is important to note that roughly a quarter of the boys reported a positive association with masculine stereotypes, and another quarter felt neutral on the topic. Given that adherence to a stoic or tough masculine stereotype is generally associated with negative outcomes, one wonders both about the social desirability bias of respondents and the possibility of a healthy, ego-syntonic state of stoicism. Further data analysis of the current sample will investigate how group mean differences vary in regard to demographic information and how they co-vary with other questions on the survey.

Future research could compare school and camp experiences in greater depth and explore the broader societal implications of how boys are receiving, processing, and handling masculine norms and expectations of toughness. Future research could also investigate boys’ experiences in other settings, such as families, sports teams, and peer groups. How boys’ experiences compare to girls — who also experience pressure to live up to an unhealthy feminine stereotype — is also essential. Ultimately, such data can inform program improvement at camps, coursework at schools, and cultural enhancement in both settings. Surely, there is a way to realize Roosevelt’s ideal of resilient youth without negating the innately human experiences of emotional pain and connection to others.

I believe that camps have a unique role in crafting healthy conceptions of masculinity. As indicated by my research, there is no sole area that perpetuates unhealthy archetypes, therefore there are many ways in which such a goal can be accomplished. I believe that while the phrase “man up” isn’t always expressed with malintent, the phrase can create unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of manhood. Boys are in desperate need of an outlet in their lives, one in which they feel the freedom to practice their own innate interests without the worry of what others might think of them. They need the space to simply be themselves, to be taught that strength, toughness, and stoicism are extremely important and noble traits, but that gentleness and emotionality are equally crucial. Additionally, they need to be taught that these very traits are not gendered — that men and women alike can be mentally, physically, and spiritually strong and stoic when the time is right, and demonstrate the ability to express their emotions physically or verbally in healthy, expressive ways.

I recognize that Belknap is just one of many examples of institutions actively practicing and teaching such tenets, and that this shift requires a major cultural overhaul, but I believe that it can be done. Sometimes, for boys, it is as simple as showing them strength comes in many forms — that men can hug each other, cry on each other’s shoulders, and also compete and exhibit physical toughness and resilience through sport. Boys need leadership by example, deserve an environment of acceptance and inclusivity, and ought to be shown and reminded that there are countless ways to be a man. If schools, childcare programs, and families alike can understand these trends and apply these lessons both through mission and top-down leadership, perhaps boys can learn a new Boy Code — one that promotes all traits and characteristics on an equal plane, and emphasizes that vulnerability is its own form of strength.

Photo courtesy of Camp Belknap, Tuftonboro, New Hampshire.

Reference

Pollack, W. (1999). Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood. New York, NY: Owl Books.

Joe LaLiberte is a teacher and coach at the Delbarton School, an independent Benedictine Catholic college preparatory school for boys located in Morristown, New Jersey. Joe spends his summers working at YMCA Camp Belknap in New Hampshire. He graduated from Middlebury College in May 2018 where he studied Sociology/Anthropology, Spanish, and Education Studies. Joe presented this research at the 2018 ACA National Conference in Orlando, FL, for which he earned the 2018 Marge Scanlin Outstanding Student Research Award.