Last summer holidays, my son gave me quite a fright when he had some friends at our home before I took them to a movie.
I was busy in the kitchen while they remained, I thought, in his room. When I went to ask them something they were gone - from the house, the yard, not at a nearby park – nowhere to be seen, and my son was not answering his phone.
I was on the verge of calling the police when they sauntered down the street with a shopping bag full of lollies.
This time it was only Skittles, but my mind raced to the possibility of him behaving in the same manner to get much more harmful substances. This type of sneaky behaviour was not something I had encountered with my son previously.
The whole incident had me quite unsettled and reminded me of a term I had once heard to describe teenage boy behaviour – ‘Boy Code’. I decided to delve a bit deeper into this concept to prepare myself should a similar incident occur again.
What is ‘Boy Code’?
Harvard Psychology Professor and author of bestselling book Real Boys, Dr William Pollack, says boys entering adolescence may feel they've stepped into a whole new universe with its own rules and language.
He refers to the 'Boy Code' - something with which most parents of teenage boys will be familiar.
"Kids who used to be nice guys suddenly started acting cool…they were totally different. Once you’re 13 or older you can’t be the same person at school as you are at home," a boy told Dr Pollack while he was completing his ground-breaking study, Listening to Boys’ Voices, which comprised two decades of clinical work and interviews.
Dr Pollack says the adolescent boy suffers the greatest humiliation when he violates the 'Boy Code', the 'thing' that says boys should be tough and mean.
"This code to be cool can push adolescents into self-destructive behaviour, such as drugs and alcohol," he says.
But he found that one of the saddest consequences of the 'Boy Code' is the creation of such pressure on a boy to mask his true identity and values.
Peer Pressure versus Values
Perth psychologist Scott Nodwell* says peer pressure is real, and it's biologically wired that we are strongly driven to find security in groups. He says that by the time adolescence arrives most of what can be imparted on young men has already been laid down, at least in seed form.
"The task for parents then becomes more about gentle guidance and 'reminders' about the boy’s path and their values," he says. "We can reflect back their strengths to reinforce them. We can celebrate their values."
We can remind them that a young man who holds to his values in the face of a challenge is usually more respected by his peers.
Mr Nodwell likes to remind young men that their values are like a compass, which guides them through life. The challenge is to hold to these values even when nobody else does.
I had to remind my son about his compass after his trip to the store for lollies with his friends. I was incensed that he had left our home without telling me and caused me so much worry by obeying the 'Boy Code' instead of 'Mum Code'. He had also, I strongly suspected, lied by telling me he had 'forgotten' to let me know he was going a couple of blocks away to the shops.
Mr Nodwell says that it’s not so much about failing when boys lose track of their values, but more like a stepping away from their centre. "It is often said that we learn to make good decisions by making bad ones first. This is a necessary part of growing up," he says.
"We need to remind our young ones of responsibility without letting them be overcome by self-criticism, blame or guilt when they make a mistake. This allows the surest footing through adolescence and into manhood," Mr Nodwell says.
Fortunately for my son and me, last summer I was saved by not wanting to make a scene in front of his friends by lashing him with words to cause such self-loathing – or him loathing me. Rather than lashing out, I told him, almost weeping, that he had always been so honest, and I wanted to continue to have a trusting relationship with him and not have to check up on him all the time.
As busy, stressed parents perhaps we all need to step away as much as is possible when our sons follow the 'Boy Code' and follow our instincts that prevail in calmer moments. For me, so far, that approach is working.
*Scott Nodwell has more than 10 years’ experience working with individuals and families. He has a special interest in healthy youth development and education, family dynamics, managing life transitions, trauma and grief.