Violence Avoidance: Teaching Boys to Walk Away


Bullying is a topic that has garnered a lot of attention in the past few years. Psychologists, school counselors, behavioral studies experts, and parents all have opinions about the causes of bullying, speculating about chemical imbalances, traumatic upbringings, poor parenting, and cultural changes in youth interaction in a digital era.

Something that is often not considered in the conversation about bullying is what it means to grow up and mature, especially for boys in our culture. Many young men are told to “grow up,” but rarely are they offered a path to do so. Instead, they are provided with a series of don’ts as they relate to general decorum:

  • Don’t pick on others who are smaller or different from you (Don’t bully)
  • Don’t say crude things or inappropriately touch girls (Don’t sexually harass)
  • Don’t fight unless you have no other choice. (Don’t instigate violence)

Of the many don’ts, this one is the most complex.

Boys are physical creatures. We posture, we prod, we push, we pull. It’s not really about violent interaction but more a form of communication, especially in terms of our worth. As women are culturally indoctrinated to worry about their physical attractiveness as an indicator of self-worth, men are culturally indoctrinated to believe that physical prowess is the ultimate expression of their worth.

In movies, the good guy usually has to prove himself, even if reluctantly, by physically championing the opposing forces. In the movies, the schoolyard bully gets punched in the nose (Karate Kid) or the evil land baron gets punched in the nose (Karate Kid 2). The same goes for the intergalactic alien tyrant (Avengers), the bad guy cowboy (Lone Ranger), and the evil robot (The Matrix). If you are interested in an engaging critique on the impact of media on boys’ perceptions of the role of violence in masculinity, look no further than the Jackson Katz documentary, Tough Guise 2. Katz’s work challenges the pervasive cultural myth that being a real man means putting up a false front and engaging in violent and self-destructive behavior.

Fathers, teachers, and coaches who tell boys to “stand up for themselves” often reinforce these powerful media messages. Many of these role models scorn young men who succumb to their fear of fighting. Unfortunately in many cases, this disapproval reinforces boys’ egos and can lead to very confusing thoughts regarding the “right way” to deal with bullies or perceived threats.

No young man wants to be thought of as a punk or a coward. And though many adults will tell children and teens that it’s best to walk away and ignore the insults, years of other messages—including those from peers—tell the child to prove his worth by showing how aggressively he can respond to anyone threatening or taunting him. Esteem for Boys teaches boys what to do if physically attacked and how to physically defend themselves, but it also helps boys think about the ego-based nature of fighting among young men.

In almost every class of middle or high school boys, when teaching violence avoidance, the question inevitably comes up: “How do I avoid a fight and not look like a punk or a coward when some other guy comes up and tries to bully me?” My first response is, “You have to be mature.” As you might imagine, that comment is met with blank stares, so I press on: I suggest that when they are in a threatening situation, they stop and ask themselves, “What do I really want?” Do they really want to fight, or do they want to be out of the situation? At Esteem we believe all communication has a goal. In the events ramping up to a fight, the goal is either to inflict harm or to avoid it. Esteem gives options as to how to avoid harm first and foremost by revealing that physical confrontation is foremost about ego. This is where maturity comes into play.

Maturity is when logic overrides ego. The immature person worries that if he doesn’t rise to the challenge of a fight, then he will be perceived as weak. An immature person’s goal is to preserve his ego, which can lead to violent behavior. The mature person, on the other hand, seeks to avoid a fight. His goal is rooted in the logic of not wanting to cause harm or be harmed, which leads him away from violent behavior. “But what if people think you’re scared?” boys inquire. I tell them that most people who choose to fight are actually very scared. The difference between them and someone who walked away was that the other person ended up scared and hurt.

This can be a touchy topic because it is easy to think of many worst-case scenarios when walking away isn’t an option. And it is complicated by generations of societal typecasting that equate manhood with a supposed inherent ability (and desire) to fight. Esteem for Boys addresses these concerns by stressing the importance of maturity. Maturity applies to many aspects of life in terms of picking the logical conclusion over the one that would best suit one’s ego. This is usually what we mean when we tell kids to “grow up.” We try to guide them to make a logical choice that best suits their interests and keeps them out of harm’s way. This is especially important to point out to boys during their teenage years. Teenagers experience tremendous growth in intelligence, testosterone, risk-taking and confidence; all that coupled with a lack of experience makes a trying combination for the adults in their lives. We have to remember that they are still children even though we often hold them to adult standards. And if maturity is presented as a choice that encourages a boy to think outside of himself, perhaps we will have more boys grow up to be empathetic, emotionally healthy, mature adults instead of frightened, aggressive bullies.

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4 Responses to “Violence Avoidance: Teaching Boys to Walk Away”

  1. Jan

    Great ideas about how masculinity is culturally defined and needs to be re-thought. Thanks!

  2. Kelly


  3. Kathy

    Thank you for this perspective.

  4. Megan

    I am passing this article on to our on campus male mentor who works with several boys in 4th and 5th grade.


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