Raising Boys with Positive Masculinity
Concerns are still being raised by many mental health professionals regarding how boys are raised in America.
I also have some personal perspectives on the issue, having raised, with my wife, three sons, helping an informally adopted a fourth, and working as an eductor for over 25 years working with thousands of boys.
The following contains excerpts are from my book, Macho Men: How Toxic Masculinity Harms Us All And What To Do About It and I’ve added some additional research.
The Stereotype of the American Male as a Model for Boys
Researchers have defined “toxic masculinity” as a group of beliefs and behaviors that include the following:
- Suppressing emotions or masking distress. Men shouldn’t display “feminine” traits such as emotional vulnerability, which show weakness.
- Anger, aggression and being violent are the best ways of solving conflicts.
- Parenting is not a man’s main responsibility.
- Men should never admit they were victims of abuse; they should feel shame if they were.
- Men should always be the dominant one in the relationship with a female.
In an article in the New York Times, “We are Not Teaching Boys to be Human,” Ruth Whippman who is the author of America the Anxious, is writing a book about raising boys in the age of #metoo, misogyny and male rage, says “Probably because of this difference in socialization, [in home and school] boys score lower than girls of the same age on virtually all measures of empathy and social skills, a gap that grows throughout childhood and adolescence. This has implications across the board. Among first graders, social emotional ability, including the skills to form and maintain friendships, is a greater predictor of academic success than either family background or cognitive skills. Boys are now lagging behind girls academically at every grade level through college, so providing them with a more nuanced and people-focused emotional world — in what they read and watch, and in the conversations we have with them — might go some way toward closing that gap. The impact on boys’ mental health is also likely to be significant. From a young age, girls’ friendships tend to be more intimate, deeper and more emotionally focused, providing a support structure that is often sorely lacking for boys. According to the American Psychological Association, this lack of support, and the masculinity norms that underpin it, can contribute to a range of serious mental health problems. Adolescent boys are also at almost twice the risk for death by suicide”
According to the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.), aggression and violence are taught by parents, significant others, and our society, leaving boys and men at “disproportionate risk for school discipline,academic challenges and health disparities,” including cardiovascular problems and substance abuse.
Sociologist Raewyn Connell argues that common masculine ideals such as social respect, physical strength,and sexual potency become problematic when they set unattainable standards.
Connell argues that not being able to reach that standard can make boys insecure and anxious, which migh tprompt them to use force to feel dominant and in control. Male violence in this scenario isn’t innate and not a natural part of masculinity itself. Rather, it comes from men’s expectations based on social norms, which then create inner conflicts over social expectations and male entitlement.
A report by Promundo and AXE titled The Cost of the Man Box: A Study on the Economic Impacts of Harmful Masculine Stereotypes in the US, UK, and Mexico, concludes the following:
- Internalizing harmful masculinity puts boys and young men in the “Man Box,” and it has seriousconsequences for all of us.
- Boys and young men in the Man Box are up to six times more likely to have been sexually harassed; up to seven times more likely to have used physical violence; and twice as likely to have had suicidalthoughts in the previous two weeks.
- If we got rid of the Man Box, we could reduce sexual violence by at least 69%; eliminate at least 41% oftraffic accidents; 40% of bullying and violence; 39% of suicides; and 24% of depressive symptoms among men (18–30) in the US, every year.
- The minimum cost that could be saved annually by the US economy if there was no Man Box is $15.7 billion.
A 2018 national survey of more than 1,000 ten-to-nineteen year-olds commissioned by Plan International USA and conducted by the polling firm PerryUndem found that young women believed there were many ways to be a girl — they could shine in math, sports, music, and leadership, whereas young men described just one narrow route to success — being masculine and dominant. One-third of the males in the study said they felt compelled to suppress their feelings, to “suck it up” or “be a man” when they were sad or scared, and more than 40 percent said that when they were angry, society expected them to be combative.
In another survey by PerryUndem, Americans young men reported more social pressure to be ever-ready for sex and to get with as many women as possible; they also acknowledged more stigma against homosexuality; and they received more messages that they should control their female partners, as in: Men “deserve to know” the whereabouts of their girlfriends or wives at all times.
The definition of masculinity seems to be in some respects contracting today. When asked what traits society values most in boys, only two percent of male respondents in the PerryUndem survey said honesty and morality.
In the spring of 2019, at the politically progressive Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, two fraternities disbanded after student-run publications released more than 100 pages of “minutes” from house meetings a few years earlier that included, among other things, jokes about a “rape attic.”
According to a study by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) 11.2% of all undergraduates and graduate students have experienced rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence ormanipulation.
When women in the tech industry came forward recently with accounts of sexual harassment and assault, their reports exposed the harmful underbelly of a strain of toxic behavior that has come to be known as “bro culture.” Over the past few years, the term has become a label for the dangerous normalization of sexual objectification, harassment, assault and homophobia.
Bro culture uses the formidable elixirs of power and status to create a toxic social environment, and tends to be characterized by manipulative charm, entitlement and a so-called “rules don’t apply attitude” — as well as an inability to express emotion, show remorse or be vulnerable.
Although the culture is typically associated with college fraternity life, evidence suggests that its seeds are planted in elementary school or earlier. The ways we talk to and interact with boys — the language we use, potentially celebrating masculinity at the expense of empathy — can limit boys’ social and emotional development according to Andrew Reiner, writing in the New York Times.
The organization A Call To Men, talks to men about the collective socialization of manhood. It says: “we show them how all men have been taught — sometimes unintentionally — that women are objects and property, and have less value than men. That collective socialization explains why everyone can finish the sentence: ‘Come on son, you have to throw harder than that — you throw like a ______.’ It explains why, far too often, men are silent when a friend or co-worker makes a demeaning joke or harasses a woman in the street. If we question another man’s behavior toward a woman, we know our Man Card will be challenged. ‘Bros before _____, right?’”
The first component of emotional intelligence is emotional awareness which includes emotional expression. But the rules of society mean that boys have to censor what they express, (with the exception of anger and rage) and sometimes the only way to do that is to convince themselves that they’re not feeling what they’re feeling. To become numb and detached. And if they’ve cut themselves off from their own feelings, they are going to be less perceptive about what they are feeling, which means they are going to behave in a relationship with less skill and deftness.
Youth sports, once thought of as a critical tool for developing key social and emotional skills, may also inadvertently contribute to bro culture. A 2013 review article published in the Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that early and excessive emphasis on youth sports and early sport specialization — or participating in one sport year-round — can shift youth focus from fun or “deliberate play” to performance and has been linked to increased psychosocial problems, antisocial behaviors and negative peer interactions.
“When you have young athletes who at very young ages are identified as special, as unique, as having a particular kind of talent that very few people have access to,” said Mark Anthony Neal, professor and founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. “They are granted a certain level of entitlement because of that — what kinds of classes they get to miss, what kind of opportunities to travel they get — all of this gets embodied into this notion of bro culture.”
As sociologist Michael Kimmel found, as described in his book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of An Era, most school suicide-murder shootings after 1990 have been carried out by white boys. Instead of exhibiting resilience or asking for help, some white boys who are bullied, under threat or disrespected turn to aggression and revenge as a toxic salve, using prior accounts of past shootings as a script for their own acts of suicidal mass violence.
This way of imagining manhood amplifies the worst messages culture offers — that men should not demonstrate pain and vulnerability or seek help. Instead, a toxic masculinity emerges to put forth the idea that when white men are hurting, they therefore they are entitled to act violently against others to cover feelings of vulnerability.
The literature on fraternities and sexual violence has suggested that some fraternity members have adopted and maintain the values of hegemonic masculinity. College fraternities are populated by mostly white males who have a very narrow idea of masculinity. Psychologist Terrence Real says, “Boys don’t hunger for fathers who will model traditional mores of masculinity. They hunger for fathers who will rescue them from it. They need fathers who have themselves emerged from the gauntlet of their own socialization with some degree of emotional intactness. Sons don’t want their father’s ‘balls’; they want their hearts. And, for many, the heart of a father is a difficult item to come by.”
Childhood and Masculinity
With the influence of parents, school and peers, children learn at an early age, what it means to be a boy or a girl and are quick to demonstrate that they understand these roles. This notion of “doing” gender involves differentiating between boys and girls from the day they are born and feeds into social norms of masculinity.
Terrance Real highlights numerous studies which find that parents often unconsciously begin projecting an innate “manliness onto baby boys as young as newborns. While this implies the boys were born with these manliness characteristics, research shows clearly that gendered behaviors are absent in babies; most male infants behave in ways our society defines as ‘feminine.’”
As Real explains, “little boys and little girls start off… equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equallydesirous of physical affection. At the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.”
Yet both mothers and fathers from birth believe and can imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys. For example, researchers have shown that parents overwhelmingly reported that baby girls were more delicate and “softer” than baby boys; they imagined baby boys to be bigger and generally“stronger”, even when there was no physical evidence to support those conclusions. One study showed that when a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.”
As a result of these perceptual differences boys from birth receive correlating differences in the kind of parental treatment. Kali Holloway, in her article “Toxic Masculinity is Killing Men,” in AlterNet, says “In the words of Real and other researchers ‘it would seem reasonable to assume that a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.’ That theory is bolstered by other studies Real cites, which consistently find that ‘from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurturedless. To put it bluntly, we begin emotionally shortchanging boys right out of the gate, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.’”
This pattern continues into adolescence. Real cites a study that found both mothers and fathers emphasized “achievement and competition in their sons,” and taught them to “control their emotions”. Similarly, the study found that parents of both sexes are more punitive toward their sons, presumably working under the assumption that boys “can take it.”
Andrew Reiner, author of his book, Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates GreaterCourage and Emotional Resiliency, says, “The world we live in today isn’t the same one our grandfathers,uncles, and even many of our fathers lived in. We live in a time when skills such as empathy, collaboration, and good communication are necessary to succeed in school and in the workplace. But for the most part, we aren’t teaching boys these skills, at devastating cost to themselves and to the rest of us.”
What Parents Can Do to Raise Positive Masculine Boys
Global experts at Plan International, an international organization that advances gender equality and children’s rights, and Promundo, a global leader in engaging men and boys in promoting gender equality and preventing violence, have drawn from their decades of U.S. and global research and experience to provide concrete tips to help parents talk to their sons about healthy masculinity and self-expression. Here’s some of their ideas for parents.
1. Encourage personal expression when it comes to toys. Introduce boys those that might be traditionally thought of as “for girls,” as well as gender-neutral toys. It’s also a good idea to avoid toys that reinforce harmful stereotypes for any gender, such as toy guns or toy trucks.
2. Use play and imagination to define positive values and qualities. When role playing with toys and stuffed animals to imaginary characters use language that is emotionally expressive, compassionate, and empathetic. For example, ask your son things like, “Are they sad? How do you know? How can we help?” Highlight that being able to express a wide range of emotions, including being compassionate,caring, and collaborative, is positive for both boys and girls.
3. Challenge harmful stereotypes when it comes clothing and accessories. One of the best ways to encourage boys to be their authentic selves and break free from gender stereotypes is to allow them to experiment with fashion and self-expression that isn’t typically advertised to boys.
4. Be clear about consent. Let your boys know that they must ask for permission to touch others, and that they also have the right to say no if they don’t want to be touched. Help your son understand consent.
5. Find books, TV shows, and media that have good role models. Read books or choose television shows and media that break free of gender norms, showing boys and other male figures (adults,animals) — as well as girls and women — whose interests, jobs, and emotional expression challenge gender norms, and model values of respect and equality. Good examples would be TV shows such as Mr. Rogers and Ted Lasso.
6. Speak up when you hear disrespectful comments. When raising a child, it’s not only you in the picture. Other family members and people who interact with your son also have a large influence. If grandparents, cousins, or family friends say something problematic, be sure to speak up in that moment and have a conversation about your values. For example, you could say, “We believe it’s important to treat everyone with respect”. One of the most startling findings from Plan’s survey is that almost 50% of adolescent boys hear their fathers or male family members make inappropriate jokes and comments about women.
7. Identify positive role models. Identify role models in the family, the community, the media, or entertainment who model positive, healthy, respectful ways to be a boy and a man. This could be someone who stays at home to support a female partner at work, someone who sticks up for his daughter’s right to be whomever she wants to be, who has vulnerable, open conversations with his friends and family. Use these role models as a springboard for discussions about healthy masculinity and expressing the full range of emotions.
8. Talk the talk. Help boys feel supported and that they won’t be judged for asking you their questions or sharing their concerns. Say, “I love you. You can always talk to me, even when you’re upset, hurt, or confused.” Make sure to stay away from language that can discourage boys’ healthy emotions, such as “boys don’t cry.” Encourage boys to connect and empathize with others, to consider the consequences of their actions, to build healthy relationships, and to express their emotions in healthy ways, rather than ignoring or repressing them. Promundo’s The Man Box research finds that most young men in the U.S. are more likely to report providing emotional support to others than they are to report being emotionally vulnerable or seeking help themselves.
9. Walk the talk. Challenge your own perceptions of gender roles and model the behaviors you want to encourage. If you feel that boys really should or shouldn’t do a certain thing because they are a boy, ask yourself why. The best way to show your son how to grow up to be a respectful, healthy, connected person is to model those qualities yourself, and in how you relate to others, including the child’s other parent. Promundo’s research from more than 30 countries found that if children see their parents sharing care work more equally — and particularly if boys see their fathers doing their full share — they tend to do the same as adults. Actions speak louder than words. Countering current stereotypes and longstanding cultural notions of what it means to be a boy or how girls should behave will take concerted effort, not just from individual families but within schools, corporate boardrooms, government institutions, and the media. Having these conversations — and reinforcing them consistently, and with actions — can be a crucial first step.
Unfortunately, we see daily the prevalence of toxic masculinity displayed in politics, foreign affairs and business. The problem is not going away easily. Surely one positive step is to reconsider how we raise boys to be men.
A study by Mark S. Kiselica, Sheila Benton-Wright and Matt Englar-Carlson included in the American Psychological Association’s APA Handbook of Men and Masculinities argues “There is something beautiful about being a witness to the lives of decent boys and men, and there are many great lessons to be learned from these admirable human beings. Boys who are raised with the belief that they have a duty to care for and respect others — particularly females — provide for others, serve their communities, be courageous and self-reliant, demonstrate empathy and compassion for others, and be ethical and act with integrity, tend to grow up to be well adjusted men and role models who make significant contributions to their families and society.”