Dare We Let Boys Be Boys? Positive Masculinity and Positive Psychology

General Larking About

General Larking About

As the mother of a rapidly-growing boy (aged 8, going on 18), I was very interested to come across the Positive Masculinity Model, and wondered what I could learn from it that would be useful to me as a parent.   Below is my Positive Psychology News Daily article on the subject in full.

I probably wouldn’t have been drawn to write on this subject had it not been for Louisa Jewell’s beautifully-crafted article on Positive Psychology and Femininity, so thanks Louisa!

I’m not going to explore whether men’s happiness has gone up or down in the last 30+ years, however, although that would be a fascinating topic. Instead I’m interested in how Positive Psychology can be used to support troubled men and boys. I was interested to learn about strengths-based approach known as Positive Masculinity. As the mother of a rapidly-growing boy (aged 8, going on 18), I was very interested to come across the Positive Masculinity Model, and wondered what I could learn from it that would be useful to me as a parent.

What Came Before: New Psychology of Men (NPM): A Deficit Model

According to the authors of Identifying, Affirming and Building upon Male Strengths: the Positive Psychology/Positive Masculinity Model of Psychotherapy with Boys and Men, much work into the psychology of men and masculinity over the past couple of decades has been dominated by the deficit approach, and what has been called The New Psychology of Men (NPM).

In short, NPM is an approach to men and to masculinity which not only questions traditional norms of the male role (such as competitiveness, toughness, emotional stoicism), but also takes the view that male problems such as aggression, detached fathering, and neglecting health are the unfortunate but predictable results of the male socialization process. In other words, NPM is a deficit model of male development, which leads to a remedial approach to help men overcome their problems.

Positive Masculinity Model as an Alternative

This article by Mark Kiselica at the College of New Jersey and his colleague Matt Englar-Carlson at California State University – Fullerton, suggests that a far more effective way of working is the Positive Masculinity Model – a framework which accentuates the positive aspects of male development. The goal, they say, is to help men and boys learn and embrace healthy and constructive aspects of masculinity.

Wow! As media headlines tend to focus on the problems that men and boys cause in society (boys being disruptive in the classroom, youths making a nuisance of themselves on street corners, men showing aggression in a million and one ways) it makes a refreshing change to read something that celebrates the positive aspects of being male. Was I skeptical? Yes, but too intrigued not to read further!

So what exactly is Positive Masculinity – or more accurately the Positive Psychology/Positive Masculinity model (PPPM)? In short it’s an approach based on two Positive Psychology principles:

  • Emphasizing strengths and virtue over disease, weakness, and damage
  • Focusing on building in men and boys what is right rather than fixing what is wrong

Male Bonding

Male Strengths

So far, so good. But what exactly are these male strengths that we should be celebrating? The authors list 10 representative male strengths:

  1. Male relational styles – developing relationships through having fun, doing active things, doing shared activities (such as participating in sport)
  2. Male ways of caring – being raised with  the expectation that they must care for and protect their family and friends
  3. Generative fatherhood –  the way a father is committed to caring for the next generation through meeting the needs of his children
  4. Male self-reliance – the way men and boys use their own resources to confront life’s challenges (I’m thinking about the cave in John Gray’s Men are from Mars…)
  5. The worker/provider tradition in men – the way men naturally take on the role of the breadwinner and acquire a sense of meaning and purpose through work
  6. Male courage, daring, and risk-taking – e.g. in their choice of work or sport (but balanced by good judgment against foolhardiness and recklessness)
  7. The group orientation of men and boys – the way they band together to achieve a common purpose
  8. The humanitarian service of fraternal organizations – developing social interest and a sense of belonging through involvement in male organizations
  9. Men’s use of humor – as a way to attain intimacy, have fun, develop and maintain relationships, show they care, reduce tension, and manage conflict
  10. Male heroism – demonstrating exceptional nobility in the way they lead their lives, overcoming great obstacles, or making great contributions to others.

Hmmmmm. I’m not sure that these are the same as the character strengths that Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman describe (and on which the VIA inventory of strengths is based), or the same as  Alex Linley’s definition.

It's raining men

It's raining men

Taking a Positive Approach

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe what’s more important is taking a positive approach, and using strengths (however they’re defined) to find ways to build on what works, rather than to focus on what’s wrong. The authors suggest that professionals working with troubled men and boys in the mental health field could use the PPPM to

  1. Help clients understand their areas of growth
  2. Demonstrate respect for and confidence in their clients
  3. Help clients identify more effective alternative beliefs

With great anticipation I read the concluding case study, in which the PPPM is used with a male client who is experiencing conflict at home with his wife and their wayward 16 year old daughter. The case study primarily focuses on using the PPPM to build rapport with the client and develop his confidence and self-efficacy in tackling the conflicts. I was disappointed – I wasn’t convinced that the same result couldn’t have been achieved by any other empathic mental health practitioner without using the PPPM. Nevertheless the great value of this article is the suggestion that men may be more willing and able to overcome their normal reluctance to seek help if practitioners focused on ‘positive masculinity’ instead of on male deficits, by using the PPPM as a bridge to the real issues.

Open Questions

The topic of ‘positive masculinity’ is in its infancy and requires a great deal more development, research, and refinement.  Even so, it’s an exciting new development in the psychology of men and masculinity, which happily leaves us with many more questions to be answered. Here are a few to get you thinking:

Q.  As a man, how do you identify with the 10 male strengths outlined above?

Q.  If there were an equivalent ‘Positive Femininity Model’, what would it look like? And would it help overcome the issues raised in Louisa Jewell’s article?


Kiselica, M.S. & Englar-Carlson, M. (2010). Identifying, affirming and building upon male strengths: the Positive Psychology/Positive Masculinity model of psychotherapy with boys and men. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(3), 276-287.

Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


General larking about courtesy of garethjmsaunders

Male Bonding courtesy of Shawn Allen

It’s raining men courtesy of Ewan Thot

2 Responses

  1. kimberley Says:

    I have a 14 year old son who will not read, but loves to be read to (as long as the books have no whiff of being juvenile.) My son needs responsible, joyful, aware and respectful role models, but there are none to be seen on the horizon. I welcome any suggestions for uplifting books that I could read to him. Send suggestions to kbrownf@clemson.edu, thanks!

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comment Kimberley. Books with good role models suitable for 14 year old boys is a good question. Our son isn’t yet into double digits, but I guess we too will have the same challenge. I’ll ask around and get back to you. Warm wishes, Bridget

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