“Stop acting like a little girl.” “Big boys don’t cry.” These are the kinds of things parents say that reinforce the our culture’s idea of masculinity that says men need to be unemotional, in control, and self-reliant. People have been trying to break this social construct down for the last thirty years in a quest to bring equality to women and men, but gender stereotypes continue to plague boys and recent studies have shown that their effects can impact their physical health, not just their emotional well-being.
Young boys, as any parent of sons can attest, have best friends and value friendships just as much as girls. Studies back up that boys’ friendships are just as strong as girls’ through mid-adolescence, but that those friendships start to to break down as they reach their late teens and manhood. This breakdown of friendships can be attributed, in part, to the young men associating being emotionally expressive about their feelings as being like a girl or gay. As friendships break down, it leaves young men for prone to isolation and depression and, alarmingly, national data shows that boys are five times more likely to commit suicide than girl.
Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, reports:
Decades of research, including my own survey-based research, reveal that close friendships — or friendships that entail emotional support — provide a sense of self-worth, validation, and connectedness. Having close friendships has been consistently linked with emotional and physical well-being as well as academic engagement and achievement. Adolescents without close friendships are at risk of depression, suicide, dropping out of school, early pregnancy, drug use, and gang membership.
Research also shows that men who have strong social networks and close friendships (not including their spouse or family) live longer and suffer less from depression than their counterparts who do not have as many friends. In fact, a study of 736 middle-aged men found that those with fewer friends had higher rates of heart attack, fatal coronary disease, and even the common cold!
So what can we do to help our sons retain the ability to share the love and affection that they show their childhood friends? We can strike disparaging comments, like the ones that started this article, from our conversations, for starters. We can also be open with our sons about the importance of our own friendships, talking about the benefits and how complex they can be. We can talk about our feelings over dinner and let our boys know that they can share their feelings without fear of being made fun of. And we can encourage our sons to be empathetic and help them understand that they gain respect from friends when they stick up for what they feel is right. Boys need to know that we are all emotional human beings first and boys and girls second. When we all understand and can live by that, then we can help our boys grow up to be happier and healthier.
Read more about Ms. Way’s book here.
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