The Larger Context: A Series of Dances
This article gives an example of how 'adolescent romantic formation' could be encouraged. The focus here is mainly on boys and how they can grow in confidence and understanding in their relations with girls.
The context is a program of dances held, say monthly, throughout a year. It combines education-formation with celebration, the celebrations in this case being the dances. They are not 'mere' social events or diversions, but part of an intentional formative program.
It envisages 'debrief' meetings between dances, in which the boys and girls meet in separate small groups, each group having an adult mentor of the same sex. Before each dance the mentors introduce their groups to a specific 'formative task' which is their main focus for the next dance. Each dance adds a new increment of learning.
The mentors also debrief their groups on how the previous dance went, what happened, how they felt and what they learned. The learning is not primarily intellectual, but the lessons to be learned are embodied in social customs to be practiced and understood.
Boys and the Importance of Action
The focus for boys is on developing conscious awareness of how to identify their emotions in relation to girls by expressing them through actions. As boys try to do this the focus for girls is on understanding how boys experience emotion and to learn how to accept and respond to boys' expression of romantic feeling through action.
Adolescent boys commonly have strong sentimental feelings towards girls, evoked by feminine beauty and presence. This is usually accompanied by a significant amount of angst, uncertainty and lack of understanding. It is difficult for boys to foster their own emotional development in this regard because these feelings are essentially private, and do not lend themselves to verbal expression. The strategy for emotional development then needs to revolve around the expression of feeling through action.
Boys are already familiar with this in their relations with other boys and this often involves games or gamelike interactions. When it comes to girls, and the boys' own romantic feelings, they need to learn a new manner of expression. However, this will not be possible unless cultural conventions are developed so that these expressive actions are understood by the girls as well as the boys. The initiative in developing or recovering these conventions will need to come from adults.
It is essential that these conventional expressive actions are understood as emotional communications. They are not perfunctory or empty signs, but they are intended to signify something. This involves a learning process for both boys and girls. These conventions are not incidental to the main game but they constitute the main game itself.
The Smaller Context: A Particular Social Custom
For boys it begins with practising the actions simply as performance. In this example, we will consider the following social custom: a boy takes his partner's arm and escorts her to her seat, assisting her to be seated. At first this can seem merely a convention in which neither boy nor girl sees much significance. It is simply a 'nice' thing to do.
Each of such conventional actions needs to become part of an intentional formative process, so as to become more deeply imbued with meaning and more clearly expressive of feeling in a self-aware manner.
First we identify the meanings embodied in these actions, and then apply these clarified meanings to the movements of emotion involved. It is a gradual process in which boys can learn to become centred and calm, having a heightened awareness of their feelings while performing competently in public. Let us spend some time examining the example given above.
At first, a boy who is unfamiliar being with girls in such contexts might only be aware of his heart pounding, his focus like tunnel vision, happy just to get through the action without making a fool of himself, the girl's own interior life being incidental to his state of emotion. Once he acquits himself well a number of times he can calm down and begin to be a bit more broadly aware.
If there is no intentional formative process that draws a deeper meaning from it, connecting it to his emotional state, it will tend to become merely an exterior action. He learns it is something he should do as his social duty on such occasions, but it then sinks into the background. He feels competent to do it as an action, adding it to his repertoire but making nothing more of it.
The Meaning of the Action
What then is the meaning of this action? Let us break it down into several steps to see what they might imply.
- She is his partner.
- He takes her arm.
- He guides and accompanies her to her place.
- He assists to be seated.
1. She is his partner.
The social occasion has already paired them as partners. This implies the complementary natures of male and female, that there is something both natural and desirable that a boy/man and a girl/woman would be together as partners. For adolescents, such a pairing is temporary and preferably conventional rather than personal. In the context of the intentional formative process there is an appropriate distance maintained. It is not about being boyfriend-girlfriend, but about learning to be socially competent with the other sex and to learn through this a deeper emotional significance in it.
2. He takes her arm.
Firstly, this implies a role of initiative for the boy. This is not a prescriptive matter in a uniform sense, for the girl also takes initiative in particular ways. Its role here is to give the boy a clear task and a convention which defines it as proper and expected for him to take the initiative in this situation. It also defines the girl's role to accept his initiative.
Secondly, it is a form of closeness involving bodily touch but of a light, formal kind. Even such contact can feel highly significant to a boy, for it puts him in direct touch, as well as close proximity over a short period. A boy can find this closeness quite exciting. Simply to be close to a girl like this is an end in itself, and potentially quite memorable, especially if such experiences have been rare for him so far.
The social context heightens such significance for it is structured to imply romantic complementarity. So touch and closeness take on added significance compared to the ordinary forms of everyday contact. It is exciting to have this closeness but the fact that it is in an approved formal context has a calming effect.
3. He guides and accompanies her to her place.
This is clearly of symbolic rather than practical significance. It does not imply the girl cannot find her own way, or that the boy is an expert in such things. But it is lightly reminiscent of the practical differences between the sexes, so it serves as a symbolic accentuation of masculinity and femininity in conventional form. It is about learning conscious reciprocity.
If the girl rejected his offer and pulled away on the grounds that she is quite able to find her seat herself it would defeat the purpose. It would be a failure to recognise the different mode of communication. It is communication in an emotional, not a practical, mode. It would be the same if the boy just pointed out her seat and said, 'Why don't you go and sit down. I'll be with you in a minute.'
If he accompanies her and she accepts, he communicates respect and consideration. It elevates the practical to the personal. It adds some emotional content precisely because it is not necessary in a practical sense. It is a ritual that adds a touch of uplift to the otherwise mundane.
4. He assists her to be seated.
Again this is not a practical matter, but a way of accentuating attentiveness and symbolising putting the other person first. In this case the boy signals that he is oriented towards the girl, making her his priority, and not thinking of himself. The manner of expressing this attentiveness and consideration involves a lightly physical aspect which is meant to signify that a man should be respectful of a woman's bodily nature. He needs to cultivate gentleness and consideration towards her.
This is symbolised by pulling out the chair, standing close, perhaps placing his hand lightly behind her back, and bending over to indicate he is accompanying her through the whole process, seeing she is settled comfortably. These more refined manifestations can come later. At first a boy will simply learn to come with her and see that she is seated in the right place, and perhaps help shift her chair so she is comfortable. The girl is meant to smile and say, 'Thank you'.
From Action to Meaning to Feeling
Having identified the meaning inherent in this action we go on now to consider how this can inform the process of emotional development. As outlined above, we are considering an integrated social and formation program. The dances form a sequence in which new elements are regularly added, and in which the significance of each of the intentional elements is explored in growing depth.
Let us consider the boys first since they are the initiators in this example. What does a mentor do with the boys at their debrief? First, he gets them to call to mind the experience they had. He highlights the particular matter for discussion, in this case the expressive practice outlined above. He gets the boys to share some initial reactions. How did they find the experience? Did they feel they had acquitted themselves well?
It is not unlikely that there would be some jokey comments, highlighting some mishaps, some ribbing of the others. It is good to hear this first. Even though the action concerned is fairly simple, it could still involve little slip-ups and embarrassments. For example, perhaps a boy took a girl to the wrong seat, and then had to ask her to shift. Perhaps he trod on her toes, or had some other clumsy moment. Perhaps he just felt highly self-conscious and awkward.
It is important to realise that early adolescent boys will still tend to focus mainly on the physical performance of social skills, and their first priority is to get these things right. They will not be able to give proper attention to more interior things until they feel reasonably competent in external actions.
Preparation for the next dance will often need to include some physical practice. The fact that the boys will need to practice on each other adds to the humour and helps them focus on the task while becoming more emotionally comfortable with it. They can learn in this jokey way with each other, which helps to build camaraderie so they will not feel self-conscious about possibly appearing 'unmanly' by doing these unfamiliar things.
As they come to feel more competent in action the focus shifts to exploring the meaning of these actions. This is a more intellectual stage. It is not trying to get them to express their feelings but to receive some input on why it is so important for men to express through their actions respect and sensitivity towards women. The particular actions under consideration are explained.
They are asked to consider why a woman might welcome this sort of action by a man. Why are women alert to see signs of gentleness and consideration from men? Explain that women feel more precarious about their bodily safety than men. Get the boys to think about what actions of men might make women feel unsafe.
Then take the next step, explaining that even when safety is not an issue, women want to see positive signs that men care about women's bodily well-being. They do not want to be treated roughly, or even taken for granted. Appeal to the boys' protective instincts. Why is this a good thing? How does the expressive practice under discussion demonstrate good intentions? How does the desire to be protective expand to become a desire for women's positive well-being?
Spending time talking through these things engages boy's feelings. They feel a movement within themselves to be good, and to value feeling good about their role with respect to women. It is aimed at cultivating this feeling of positive strength and channelling it into their intentions towards women and girls. Then the link is made explicitly between this feeling and the intention behind the expressive practice.
So at the next dance, the boys gather with their mentor just before it begins, calling this to mind and resolving to be mindful of their feeling while they escort their partner to her place and assist her to be seated. This same spirit is meant to permeate the whole evening, and the series of expressive practices they self-consciously develop become a series of reminders calling them back to this feeling. They cannot stay intentionally focused the whole time, but they can refocus each time they do one of the highlighted and rehearsed actions.
Through repetition this link between practice, meaning and feeling can become ingrained. It needs both the action and the reflection, and the reflection needs to include both the meaning and the link with feeling. It is important to note the essentially positive nature of this process. It does not dwell on the negative of disrespect to women and haranguing or nagging about a duty to respect. It is learned within the positive context of the desire boys have to spend time with girls and the positive reinforcement of growing competence in social skills deepened through a formative process linking action with understanding and feeling.
This is the nature of the formative process in a nutshell. We could go through a whole series of expressive actions in similar fashion. Another example is listed below, from a typical traditional style dance.
A boy asks a girl to dance
A boy approaches a girl and asks her in a simple but gracious way if she would like to dance. It is good to practice a formula and make it clear that a formula is fine, and an individual style is not needed. It is good to practice a standard formula such as, 'May I have the pleasure of this dance?' This helps boys to overcome the awkwardness of formal speech, and not to settle for an easier and supposedly more cool, 'Wanna dance?'
The extra effort of formality in this also lays some groundwork for later when the boys are older and they need to begin working on their verbal expression in a romantic context. The girls could likewise adopt a standard response such as, 'I would love to!' It helps the boys relax and feel good because it feels like positive success.
While these things are explained to the boys in their group, it is also explained to the girls. They will be told that the boys have been taught to use a standard form of invitation, and what their response should be. They need to realise that the boys are nervous too, and that girls have the means to make them feel at ease by smiling and accepting the invitation.
Being Gracious to All
It is important in the formative process to prescribe partners and mix them up so that the general skills are practised, not linked to particular attractions, but as courtesies extended to all. It is important that a boy feel confident that his request to dance will be accepted. For girls it is important to know they will not be left out but will be asked to dance every time. This is especially the case early on, and indeed for a prolonged period in early to middle adolescence.
This is why it is so important to structure most of these occasions, taking chance out of the equation and giving everyone a predictably positive experience. It is not a priority at that age to give space for special friendships, but to encourage general mixing and generosity, with a consistent practice of courtesy to all. Naturally there will be special attractions, but these need no encouragement.
As they get older, space can gradually be opened up for this with some 'boys choice' and 'girls choice' dances during the evening. By then there should be sufficient comfort and familiarity in the group that no one should be left out. It is much better to lay a firm foundation of emotionally safe, positive experiences to provide confidence and resilience for the more complicated feelings that will arise when older and seeking a preferred partner.
It does everyone a favour to downplay this earlier on, not just for the less confident and attractive, but for the most confident and attractive as well. It is a much better foundation for a serious relationship to have learnt selflessness, cultivating deeper and stronger patterns of feeling rather than being caught on a constantly fluctuating rollercoaster of emotion, worried about being wanted or not.
If everyone is in it together and follows the rules, it also allows people to be more gracious and attractive without worrying it will be taken too personally. The formulaic assignment of partners provides an emotionally safe environment, and encourages a focus on the other's feelings rather than one's own.