Youth advocate helps boys empower themselves to make good choices

By Tim Hauserman


Following up on my article in April of this year entitled The Dying Game, which reported on Go Bigger Coalition’s effort to balance the desire for joy and adventure with risk, this month we focus youth advocate Charis Denison’s work with teenage boys. Denison helps boys empower themselves to make good decisions, and teaches adults how to assist in that process.

I raised two daughters, so I must admit I’d looked at teenage boys through the eyes of a father of girls, perhaps forgetting what it was like when I was a teenage boy. I didn’t realize what boys were going through until I saw Charis Denison’s presentation at Ted X Tahoe City called “A Young Man’s Relationship to Culture.”

Denison has been a youth advocate for over 23 years. She currently runs Prajna Consulting, based in Fairfax, which works with schools to help both boys and girls make good choices. In her Ted X talk she told us that the demographic that reaches out the most for help are teenage boys, and that the current social and political culture perpetuates a crisis for boys that has left them starving for leadership that rewards them for acts of humanity.

Denison said that we “need a new working definition of power and masculinity. We need to empower young people to make choices that end in honor and joy, rather then guilt, shame or regret.”

She talked about how boys need to be able to find space to practice being the man we hope they become. Currently they don’t have those spaces, and the results are not only hard on them, but hard on the society which must deal with their behavior.

“So much where our boys are coming from is fear, danger and loneliness,” Denison said. She says this often leads them to go “balls to the wall in every capacity, trying to succeed at every single thing. There is no balance.” This sometimes leads to a boy who earns straight A’s and gets into a great college, but then has no common sense skills to deal with college or life in general.

Boys are conditioned from the beginning to shut down. They are rewarded for not feeling pain, or if they feel it, for pushing through the pain. They are told that not giving up is what will make them a man, and they are called pussies if they give up. This leaves them feeling isolated and not able to express feelings. Denison revealed that “inmates talk about their lack of ability to express sadness and fear.”

While some boys use this focus on rewards to put their heads down and work to be a success, other boys act out and take risks, without having learned the skills to be balanced risk takers. We used to learn the basics through trial and error, but the current culture doesn’t allow boys to make errors.

What is the solution? Denison said she encourages boys to STOP – then take the time to feel and think before acting. Boys primordial instinct is to react quickly to stimuli. She says we need them to count to three and consciously make their next decision.

“Their biggest mistake is to act too quickly. I’m trying to get teenagers to reflect, then revise, and redraft,” said Denison.

What Denison found is that boys have feelings waiting to get out, you just need to know how to open the flood gates. It’s not as complicated as people think. We just need to create the space, reward them for expressing their feelings in front of each other, and for being brave enough to be vulnerable.

The challenges boys face are reflected in the world of adventure sports and the love of danger. While the love of some danger has always been a part of growing up, now the push to jump higher, fly further, go faster leaves less room for error. “Where is it going? It is not sustainable,” explained Denison. “You are never enough. You will never be man enough, kick ass enough,” she said. “Because as soon as you reach one bar, they move it higher and faster. I was watching these eight year old boys. They were having a milk drinking contest. Timing how fast they could slam down a carton of milk. They are being hard wired for addiction. And the girls were sitting around watching them and awarding the winner with their attention.” In fact, Denison noted part of the problem is that many girls are “gravitated to assholes, but they think ‘he won’t be an asshole with me.’”

When Denison goes into a high school she has boys write on one side of a piece of paper what they show the world, and on the other side, what you don’t know about them by looking at them. They then read both sides and the whole group comes to realize that everyone has pain and sadness. Within a few minutes they are all crying, because they are finally able to admit how they feel, and realize they are not alone.

“It is so clear that everyone is hungry for a change,” asserted Denison. She summarized the changes needed: Give boys space to practice being men; show a compassionate mirror so they can discover what they actually feel; recognize the good when you see it; develop a new definition of power and masculinity, and finally, “radically love our boys with intention.”