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Transforming Conflict to Cooperation

Why Young Men Need Safe Places to Take Risks

By Dr. Mark Schillinger, DC  March 15, 2015

LeapA few days ago, I was driving to a nearby strip mall to pick up some food for dinner. I was enjoying an unusually quiet time, focused on the music that was playing. My attention was not on my usual “to do” list.

When I made the right turn into the parking lot, I noticed two young men, both in their early teens, standing on the cement divider that separated the incoming and outgoing traffic. I was surprised to see that they were watching me and, for a brief moment, our eyes directly connected. In that split second, I felt like I did when I was in elementary school in New York City.

It was during that time that I learned if another boy was looking you directly in the eye, following your movements for a few seconds, that usually meant that you were being “sized up” for a present or future encounter.

As a doctor specializing in stress management, I now know what really happens in those brief moments - which can seem like a very long time. So what happens as a result of this extended, intentional gaze? Our adrenaline, testosterone, cortisol and other hormones are quickly dumped into our blood stream – gearing us up for either a fight or flight.

React or Relax
Because I have 16 years of experience working with young men as a mentor - through a nonprofit that I cofounded, The Young Men’s Ultimate Weekend ( - I was relaxed when these young men challenged me with their daring stare.

I know that in these moments, if I wanted to earn their respect, I must model calmness for those two young men. I quickly sent a nonverbal signal directly back to them, saying that whatever they do, I’m going to be able to “contain it” and not react.

Sure enough, one of the young men bolted from the center divider, about 10 feet in front of my car. I knew he was testing me to see if I would stop for him or yell at him. As he sped by, I was able to slow the car down without slamming on the brakes.

I Got Your Back
I immediately looked at the other young man and caught him “leaning in’, preparing for his sprint across the entryway. He and I both immediately recognized that his window of opportunity was quickly closing if he was going to go for it. When he decided not to run, I drove by him very slowly, keeping my eyes on his face. Although he did his best to appear stoic, I knew that he felt a sense of embarrassment for not being as daring as his friend.

I deliberately did not say or do anything to shame him. In fact, I did the just opposite. I put up my left hand as a primal, “hello” and nonverbally communicated that, had he decided to run, I would not have been upset.

Had he tested me further, I would’ve “watched his back” by stopping in time. Unless young men are doing something really dangerous to themselves or to others, I don’t compete with them. I would have let him cross safely, without yelling out the window some degrading remark. And I would have driven on without making some blanket judgment that, “All young men are misguided and poorly behaved”.

Young Men Need to Take Risks
I understand the need for young men to practice being bold. I know that ancestral wisdom and modern science both tell us that young men are wired to take risks. I’m saddened by the fact our society does not give young men opportunities to safely test their instincts and courage. A shopping mall is not the best environment we can give young men to discover the benefits of masculinity.

When I parked the car, I realized that the innate, biological intelligence that young men possess is not respected by society. As a result, we often relate to young men by keeping them at a distance – we are afraid that they’re going to hurt us physically or will be doing wildly inappropriate things.

The next time you see teenage males, do your best to relax and give them the space they need to feel supported to be themselves. Unless they’re doing something truly illegal or immoral, let them be socially clumsy. In a different world, they would be honored for their raw desire. They would be mentored by knowledgeable elders who would help them to channel their energy in constructive ways that would benefit themselves and their community.

Originally posted on The Good Men Project:



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