Encouraging boys to explore their masculine strengths while also learning to explore more typically feminine emotions can be challenging, given society’s narrow stereotypes. Find out why it’s essential—and what positive steps we can take to nurture our sons into happy, healthy men.
Empower girls! The future is female! As a mother of two teenage girls, I celebrate the changes in our society promoting equality and safety. The revolutionary #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are casting bright lights on harassment and discrimination so girls and women can finally live firmly and freely in their feminine strength and power. Hooray!
But what about our boys?
We want our boys to develop fully and holistically into healthy, strong, and sensitive men who understand their place in the world and treat everyone with the same respect. Often, though, boys find themselves surrounded by messages of sexism, homophobia, violence against women, and the desensitization of male feelings.
Expressing vulnerable feelings
Some boys still feel tremendous pressure to cultivate a tough, dominant identity while maintaining a reluctance to show warm, empathetic, or sensitive feminine qualities. These restrictive stereotypes cause harm by insisting that expressing feelings, being emotionally open, or even crying are examples of girlishness to be avoided.
The pressure to be constantly strong can mean boys learn to wall off feelings. Since a large part of our life experience includes vulnerable feelings of hurt, sadness, and disappointment, boys risk losing the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence.
Side effects of suppressing feelings
Stress, mental illness, weight gain, and even compromised gut health are all possible side effects of suppressing feelings. Further, the social isolation from being emotionally shut down puts men at future risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and depression. Boys and young men of colour are particularly vulnerable to toxic stress and poor health.
Discuss everyday ways to handle stress:
- good diet
- spending time outdoors in nature
- connection with friends and family
- breathing techniques
- healthy pre-bedtime rituals that leave electronics outside the bedroom
Fortunately, cultural conditioning can be redefined. Unfortunately, a term being touted recently, “toxic masculinity,” is unlikely to foster this transformation. Those opposed to the term feel that condemning an entire gender’s characteristics as faulty only serves to induce shame and judgment that can never produce lasting, meaningful change. Labelling masculinity as harmful will never alter outdated attitudes, especially among teenage boys.
Boys will be kind
- Work with boys to acknowledge, express, and name feelings.
- Encourage displays of kindness and caring toward friends.
- Challenge stereotypes of what toys and clothes are appropriate for boys.
- Model empathy for children. Disallow the notion that “kids are cruel.”
- Expose boys to multiple versions of masculinity.
- Talk about what it means to treat someone with respect.
- Model how to admit mistakes.
- Encourage physical movement to help process ideas.
- Discipline with respect, not reactivity—never with shame.
- Nurture a family atmosphere where feelings and emotions are expressed.
What will work?
Raising boys to become caring, courageous, and ethical men is absolutely possible, according to Barry MacDonald, Canadian author of Boys on Target (Mentoring Press, 2010) and expert in mentoring boys.
MacDonald’s work centres on supporting boys to cultivate intimacy and connecting skills, along with more traditional masculine qualities. He upholds the view that the choice does not have to be either/or. Healthy boys can be proud of and embody their strengths while exploring more complex emotional abilities.
Teenage boys 2.0
- Welcome boys into the kitchen to make lunches or prepare meals.
- Lead by example to resolve conflict calmly and assertively.
- Listen to popular songs on the radio and ask what they think of the lyrics.
- Talk openly about consent and how to get it.
- Explain your views and boundaries on violent video games and movies.
- Discuss Pink Shirt Day and what it means to them.
- Walk and talk out anger and frustration.
- Reinforce that verbal and physical violence has no place in a relationship.
- Understand teenagers’ strong need to be liked, to fit in, and to be accepted by peers, while challenging them to think for themselves.
Beyond he or she
Despite pressures to behave within societal norms of either one gender or another, many people are recognizing that gender is “a giant enigma with many diverse identities,” identities that not all of us neatly fit into.
Those who identify as non-binary typically identify as—or assume expected norms of—neither men nor women, or are not men or women exclusively.
Learn to connect
The goal of a well-rounded life is met when emotional intelligence is combined with fortitude and courage. Successful people articulate feelings, show empathy for others, co-operate, and negotiate conflict amicably.
Showing compassion for boys’ tender sides will strengthen their emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-acceptance. They will learn to connect and communicate effectively so people will want to work with them and also love them.
Accept and celebrate
When we positively support our boys to adopt practices that contribute to their multifaceted growth, a brighter, healthier, and safer world is possible. Accepting and celebrating vast and diverse versions of manhood leads us all to more vibrant, balanced, and compassionate communities. Hooray!