From an early age, boys are encouraged to “act like a man,” “man up,” “tough it out,” or “suck it up.” These expectations give boys a very narrow view of masculinity. I grew up in a single parent household, and people always told me that I was the man of the house and should behave accordingly. However, I had no idea what that meant. I had a steep learning curve and picked many of the wrong lessons by watching older men and boys in my neighborhood. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I encountered more positive images of manhood and masculinity.
Now, I work with young boys to help them cope with their own masculinity. Many of them are confused and have distorted views on what it means to be a man. But there is hope, and it starts with parents. It’s crucial for parents to offer their sons a more holistic view of masculinity. Here are 7 things parents must teach their boys about masculinity.
Boys’ Masculinity 1 of 8
It’s okay to cry and show a full range of emotions 2 of 8
We've all heard the phrase, "Boys don't cry." When I was growing up, I heard it more times than I can recall. If I even thought about shedding a tear, I would be teased or reprimanded. Parents have to teach their sons that it is okay to cry and express a full range of emotions — fear, joy, sadness, disappointment, love, anger, etc. Our emotions are what allow us to connect with our humanity and with one another.
Girls aren’t the worst thing 3 of 8
We've also heard parents tell their sons to stop acting like a girl, as if being a girl is the worst thing in the world. Through our language and attitudes, we can inadvertently send subtle messages to our sons that girls are inferior. These degrading comparisons lead to distorted views on masculinity and male/female equality. It is important to teach boys that true masculinity requires a healthy respect for girls and women.
There is no need to constantly prove your masculinity 4 of 8
In our society, boys often feel that their masculinity is constantly under scrutiny. From macho posturing to trying to be the alpha male of their group, many boys feel the need to prove their masculinity on a regular basis. In addition, boys feel challenged and want to defend their manhood when people use insensitive comments, such as the aforementioned ones about acting like a girl. We must teach sons to be self-confident (not arrogant) and let them know that it's okay to let their guard down and be comfortable in their own skin. We must also let them know that the tough, hyper-masculine image is not the only example of masculinity.
It’s okay to suck at sports 5 of 8
As a child, I was a terrible baseball player. I struck out nearly every time I stepped to the plate. The other boys insulted me and yelled at me because of my lackluster skills. It took me several years to erase the shame I felt for underperforming in the baseball field. Boys feel tremendous pressure to excel at sports, and boys who don't like sports are viewed suspiciously. We have to teach our sons that their masculinity isn't tied to their ability to swing a bat or catch a ball.
Your sexual consquests don’t define you 6 of 8
You can talk about your feelings 7 of 8
Many men bottle up their emotions and refuse to talk about them because they believe that expressing emotions and being vulnerable are signs of weakness. As a consequence, boys learn to do the same. We have to create a safe environment where boys feel comfortable talking about their feelings. More importantly, we have to listen when they share.
Violence is not the answer when conflicts arise 8 of 8
Many boys feel as if violence is the only way to resolve conflicts. I've seen boys result to violence because they felt disrespected or threatened in some way. Violence was a constant part of my life when I was a child. I fought other boys and had to defend myself against attacks. This constant aggression was unhealthy and affected my relationships. We have to teach our sons healthier conflict resolution techniques. Violence usually leads to more violence. Masculinity isn't defined by our ability to hurt and dominate others.