Each session of Camp Nick, a “masculinity camp” for boys age 8 to 11 held in a bucolic park in Santa Monica, California, begins with a chant.

We do what we HAVE to do before we do what we WANT to do!

Nick Tucker, the camp’s leader and namesake, sits cross-legged on the grass surrounded by seven boys, most of whom are sporting long hair — indicative more of Southern California style than anything particular about masculinity. “What does that mean? How does it pertain to your life?” Tucker, who could pass for an NFL defensive back, asks the boys. (In reality, he’s a teacher’s assistant at the local elementary school.)

“Brush your teeth before you play video games!” Riley* explains matter-of-factly. (*All the boys’ names have been changed out of respect for their privacy.)

“You do what you have to do to survive,” Damon adds. “Like keeping your house safe from hurricanes and washing the dishes and taking a bath.”

“Okay, and what do we call those things?” Tucker presses.

“Responsibility!” the boys shout in unison. Everyone is fired up, like the characters from Pee Wee’s Playhouse stumbling upon the secret word.

Dylan leans over and whispers in my ear. “Mr. Tucker really likes the word ‘responsibility,’ write that down.”

The Camp Nick curriculum is designed to help participants better understand themselves and how they fit into the world around them. The fundamentals of football are drilled, as are lessons on what it means to be on a team. “If you have any pointers on how to better guard someone, respectfully offer them,” Tucker directs during a flag-football game.

The end of each session is reserved for journaling, when the boys reflect on the session, the day or their life in general. Those with special needs who can’t write are asked to draw pictures representing their feelings. “It’s an important aspect of this camp because it’s a valuable tool to develop,” Tucker explains. “I remember going through college and having dysfunctional relationships just because I didn’t know how to express myself.”

“They’re kids!” says Jaclyn Lafer, a friend of mine who’s a psychotherapist and early childhood specialist. She’s extensively researched children, childhood and curiosity and recently earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She last spoke with me about the value of boys wearing dresses, so it’s safe to put her on the port side, politically. “In Freudian terms, age 8 to 11 falls in the period of latency, where there’s no sexuality going on. So I’ve never heard of a ‘masculinity’ camp for boys this young. To be cultivating masculinity years before boys enter puberty sounds ridiculous to me.”

Nonetheless, each Camp Nick session opens with a discussion relating to social influences, peers, males in media and developing a stronger sense of self. “There’s a billboard I’ve seen in the neighborhood for a show called The Outsiders,” Tucker says. “It’s a guy with an angry face clutching a machete and an axe. I pose questions like, ‘If you don’t look like that, are you any less of a boy or a man?’”

Heady stuff for third-graders.

A few of the kids engage in the conversation, Tucker says, but he admits others are restless and only there because their parents want them to be. “Then you get the kids who are rolling around throwing grass in the air, which is to be expected.”

Camp Nick began in January after parents asked Tucker if he could develop a boys’ equivalent to the after-school programs they had for girls — like yoga and Girls on the Run. It was inspired by mindfulness practices in the curriculum at Citizens of the World elementary school, where Tucker teaches, but also by his personal story. “Growing up I played sports that were hypermasculine — football, basketball, lacrosse — and remember how they shaped my mindset and influenced my actions, both positively and negatively. It was cool to say, ‘I got in a fight at the bar last night.’ I know what I know now, but I also know what I didn’t know when I was their age,” he explains. “There’s a pack mentality when you’re with a group of guys. You tend to do things you otherwise wouldn’t; it’s cool to be overly aggressive and talk about getting in fights or disrespecting girls.”

Tucker chose this age range — again, 8 to 11 — because that’s when he says pack mentality sets in and boys begin changing their behavior to fit in. He’s seen it with boys in and out of the classroom. “Third grade is a good time to start these conversations because they can begin to understand the concepts we’re talking about. My primary goal is to help them not conform based on what anyone else says and learn to be comfortable with themselves.”

In many ways, Tucker’s giving the boys of Camp Nick a head start on an effort currently sweeping college campuses. For example, a mandatory freshman orientation training for men at Gettysburg College included a documentary stating in part that the “three most destructive words” a boy can hear growing up are “be a man.” Brown University has a program to “unlearn toxic masculinity.” Duke offers men a safe space to do the same, as do the Claremont Colleges, Ithaca College and Oregon State University.

The “Men and Masculinities Center” at University of Massachusetts, Amherst is where students can “interrogate and deconstruct traditional forms of masculinity.” Vanderbilt University hosted “Healthy Masculinities Week” last semester, led in part by Jackson Katz (who recently explained to me how U.S. presidential elections are always a referendum on masculinity). Eastern Michigan University says its “Men of Strength” program is designed to promote “an understanding of the ways traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault.” And the University of Regina, in Canada, hosted a four-day event in March at which students could enter confessional booths to reconcile the “sin of hypermasculinity.”

“We don’t have to continue to live in a misogynistic society,” a Regina football player told the Washington Times. “I think [changing this] falls on everyone and especially men because quite frankly we are the problem right now.”

Even Axe Body Spray — the eau de toxic masculinity and a brand synonymous with alpha male stereotypes — is now forcefully opposing them. “Seventy-two percent of guys have been told how a real man should behave,” opens a new Axe commercial entitled “Is It Okay for Guys?” (…To cry? To be skinny? To be the little spoon?). The commercial ends with a question central to Camp Nick’s mandate: “Is it okay for guys to be themselves?”

Tucker also wants Camp Nick attendees to know it’s okay to share their feelings. Case in point: During the flag-football game, he notices Riley has stepped off the field in tears and asks him what’s wrong. After a brief chat, he stops the game to allow Riley to share his frustrations with two other boys who have been making trouble all day. “I came here to play football and learn,” Riley says meekly. “I get really upset when you mess around because you’re making it really hard for me to even have fun — ”

“I don’t like when you judge me,” Damon interrupts.

“When I give Riley the floor to express his feelings, it’s not a time for debate,” Tucker scolds. “He was expressing something that was visibly affecting him and you went right to being defensive and unwilling to listen and participate in what we’re doing. Quite frankly, it’s really selfish.”

“I just don’t like that he’s judging me,” Damon repeats.

Damon’s not alone. There’s been a backlash to what some perceive to be an assault on masculinity in America. As Todd Starnes of Fox News put it, “Instead of a country full of manly men, our universities want a nation full of Pajama Boys. Could you imagine the Greatest Generation flitting about town after a spa and dishing about their innermost thoughts with life coaches?”

Lafer, obviously, isn’t as dic-ish as Fox News, but she does question whether Camp Nick’s mission should be gendered in the first place. “It sounds like what he’s doing is creating a sense of confidence, increasing an empathic response to others and developing a mindful way of being in the world,” she says, “which could be a benefit to either gender of child. Increasing a sense of who are we, how do we interact with others and realizing we sometimes have to postpone gratification and do things we need to do to be responsible in the world — all of those things can have value… for boys and girls. And adults. It’s surprising to me that parents in the liberal bastion of Los Angeles would be sending such young boys to ‘masculinity camp’ to learn these things.”

As Camp Nick draws to a close, Tucker asks the boys to huddle up. “We had our moments today,” he says, nodding at Riley and Damon. “One of our friends was upset, and we gave him space to express himself. After that, I noticed a big change in behavior which I’m really proud of you for.”

He distributes notebooks and pens to everyone.

“I know this isn’t everyone’s favorite. But I saw a lot of big feelings today, and I think we should maybe put them in a journal. Just remember, you get out of it what you put into it.”

And for the first time today, a hush falls over the park as everyone — including me — scribbles in a notebook.

“There’s definitely distance between your heart and your mind and your mind and your mouth,” I write, quoting Tucker. “If you can connect those three things and be able to say how you feel it could save you a lot of grief as you get older.”

Amen, I think to myself. (And it’s a hell of a lot easier to do sober.)

C. Brian Smith is a staff writer at MEL. He last wrote about a drinker’s guide to deliberately pissing yourself in public.

More masculinity:

The Fallopian Dudes Urge Men to Stand Up for Women’s Health in Trump’s America
Presidential Elections Are Always a Referendum on American Masculinity
How to Be a Guy

Originally published at melmagazine.com