I recently contributed to an article on Fatherly.com entitled “7 Toxic Phrases Parents Need to Stop Saying to Their Sons.” As is typical in articles like this, only a few of my thoughts made it into the final draft. This, along with my initial appearance on the Married AF podcast where we discussed the concept of toxic masculinity and the challenges of raising boys during the #metoo era, left me wanting to expand on the mixed and problematic messages boys receive throughout their lives about what it means to be a man.
Here are some of the common phrases today’s men grew up hearing. While many parents have softened, or removed, many of these from their lexicon they are alive and well in media and deeply imbedded into the narrative of our society.
1. “Only girls wear pink/nail polish/dresses” or “Long hair/dolls/dress up is for girls”
As women began to fight for their rights, it became more socially acceptable for women to dress like men, wear short hair, forgo makeup, etc. If we are truly working towards equality, or better yet, equity, then this needs to be a two-way street. It can’t only be okay for girls to adopt things society has deemed masculine, it also must be acceptable for boys to embrace things society claims are feminine. If girls can be fully expressive, boys must be allowed to do the same. Adopting a less binary and restrictive view of gender norms is helpful for everyone.
2. “Boys don’t cry”
This phrase teaches boys that “softer” emotions belong to girls, preventing boys from being fully human and having the full human experience. It teaches them that only certain emotions are acceptable, and others must be quashed. Part of why many men struggle with relationships and regulating emotions is because we, as parents and a society, have told them that expressing emotions other than anger shows weakness and being weak is not acceptable. Anger is easier to grab than pain, sadness, or fear. And when all you are given is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
3. “Toughen up/Man up/Don’t be a sissy”
Life is full of loss, challenges, hurts, and disappointments. When we tell boys they must be stoic in the face of life’s ups and downs, we make it impossible for them process their complete range of emotions. When emotions are not felt and processed they come out or are coped with in unhealthy ways. The results of unhelpful or unhealthy coping can be violence, alcohol or drug use, physical ailments, and mental health issues.
4. “You throw/hit/run/play like a girl”
When we say this to boys we are teaching them that girls are less than. We are giving permission for them to view women and girls as not enough, less than, unworthy. We are telling them that men are better than women and girls. Mind you boys have many important and influential women in their lives. They have moms, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, female cousins, teachers, and coaches whom they love. Yet we tell boys that doing anything like them is shameful? How does that make sense? Constantly being told that women are less than or not people to be admired or emulated can lead to entitlement and a belief that even the most reprehensible of men is somehow innately better than the most intelligent, creative, compassionate, talented, and powerful woman. See the problem?
5. “Boys will be boys”
This excuse does a serious disservice to boys and society at large. It teaches boys that they are not responsible for their own actions and are not going to be held accountable for their behaviors. In addition, it steals their self-efficacy. It says men and boys can’t help themselves. Why this is one is particularly problematic is that it feeds into societal myths around domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault and contributes to the continual victim blaming we see happening all around us.
Doing it differently
More and more parents are expressing concerns about raising boys in the aftermath of #metoo. Here are a few of the questions I have been asked in recent months:
· How do I help my sons understand consent and sexual harassment?
· How do I help my teenager understand the inappropriateness and severe ramification of asking for, sending, or receiving naked SnapChats/texts/Facebook messages, etc.?
· What can I do to counteract the messages my son is getting from friends, media, and society?
· How do I help my son grow up to have close, meaningful relationships?
· What steps should I take to ensure my son can fully express and manage his emotions in a healthy way?
There are not simple, straightforward answers to these questions, but feminist thought can provide parents a foundation for how to develop a more equitable household, and society, for the benefit of all genders. Removing a few phrases from our vocabulary, like those discussed above, and knowing some things not to do, while a step in the right direction, is only the beginning. Embracing feminism yourself and raising boys to be feminists will help them develop a healthy understanding of equality, equity, power, oppression, and empathy. The readings suggested below can spark discussion and provide opportunities to question how we’ve historically raised boys into men, and how we might do things differently moving forward
· In the #MeToo Era, Raising Boys to be Good Guys by David McGlynn
· Six Ways Dads Can Raise Feminist Sons by Kristy Ramirez
· How to Raise a Feminist Son by Claire Cain Miller
· Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
· The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks