“He’s going to get bullied,” I was told. If I allow my son to continue to cry the result would be bullying. And while I usually have a lot to say, I was speechless. It infuriated me that already, as toddlers, it was expected that I teach my boys how to NOT have any feelings that are considered anything other than “masculine.” Unfortunately, that has not been the only time that cultural gender norms have already played a role in the lives of my sons. On a few occasions, I have even found myself making comments like “yes, they are definitely all boy.” What does that mean exactly? What I meant by that comment is that they are wide-open, rambunctious, playful, and very very active. But why could I not just say that? Every minute of every day the boys are climbing on or wrestling me, each other, or the dogs...our poor pups. But is that necessarily a “boy” trait? Maybe. Maybe not. But while all of these traits are true of both of my boys, I also want them to be humble, sensitive, empathetic, nurturing, kind, and yes, emotional.
We are currently in the midst of a burgeoning feminist movement to empower women to shed societal norms, but there are societal expectations of men that need to also be attacked head on and squashed. Boys are told directly and indirectly that crying is feminine; rage instead. Being “emotional” is feminine; repress instead. Pain is weakness; suffer instead. Openness and vulnerability are feminine; be lonely instead. Power, aggression, dominance, competition - these are all masculine qualities.These are acceptable. Bullshit. All of these emotions are human traits.
Michael Reichart, a psychologist who specializes in male development, refers to a mask that boys grow into in his book How to Raise A Boy. A boy is taught that certain emotions are not to be shown and therefore he grows into this mask by literally masking his emotions. The mask becomes his identity. In this way, he becomes “cut off from his heart.” Research shows that men who have Emotional Intelligence end up having healthier, happier and closer relationships. The first step in developing Emotional Intelligence is to be emotionally aware. How are they to develop emotional awareness if we are cutting them off from their emotions so young? How can they know what they are feeling if we are telling them what feelings are acceptable and which are not? Here is how we can help set them up for success.
Offer space for feelings. Encourage and allow boys to express ALL of their emotions without shame and without fear of judgment. Give them permission to be wholly themselves; whatever that means and whatever emotions accompany it.
Connection. Connection. Connection. Create a deeper bond and connection with your sons where they feel accepted and safe. And when they push back (which they will), keep trying. Do not give up on the connection. The last thing we want is for them to flounder alone trying to figure it all out by themselves.
Be aware of and cautious of peer relationships that encourage hypermasculinity. This is why connection with parents is so important. We are their moral compass. We model what is okay and what is not okay. As boys grow up, peer groups have more influence on cultural norms that often include misogyny, risk-taking, and aggression. We have to show them a different example of what it means to “be a man.”
On that note, let’s not forget that the boys we raise now, are the men who will live in this new time where gender equality is finally starting to come to fruition. Our sons are the men who will love the strong, independent women we are raising; the men who will know how to respect women; and know how to treat them without objectification. It is our job to teach them that women are not here to please men and there is more to women than how they look. That message needs to start when they are young.
Now, I know that I cannot change everyone’s perception of what a boy is supposed to be or how a boy is supposed to act. But I sure as hell am going to try. I want my boys to have deeper connections with their friends and loved ones. I want them to feel confident in who they are and how they feel. I want them to trust their emotions in any given circumstance. I want them to view their emotional experience as powerful, not as weak.
So as we love and lead them into adulthood, let’s celebrate all of the wonderful qualities of our boys along the way. Every. Single. One. These qualities are neither feminine nor masculine. They are human qualities. Qualities that will allow our boys to grow up to be wholly themselves; to lead their lives with their head and their heart; and to love all of themselves despite who may tell them otherwise. And that is a wonderful thing.