What About Our Sons? Empowering Our Boys to Feel

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Almost five years ago, I welcomed my first child to this world – a little girl. For as long as I can remember she has been strong-willed and independent. My husband and I have always been first in line to encourage this along the way – “You can be anything you want to be!” And although we are still a long way from reaching any true gender equality in our society, it seems “girl power” is everywhere. Building up girls and women to reach for and achieve any goal is applauded in our pop culture (as I believe it should be), but what about our sons?

Until my almost 2-year-old son was born, I’m not sure I ever gave this much thought. I was all in on the girl power train but never stopped to think about the ways we may be failing to support young boys and men. When we talk to young girls, we say “All the choices are available to you. Want to wear dresses and bows, but be super tough on the soccer field? Great, you’re so well balanced. Want to play with fire trucks in the dirt and shop for clothes in the “boys” section? Cool. The road may be tougher, but you can shoot for any career you want.” These days girls can try to break away from traditional feminine norms without a second glance, but when it comes to boys there is still more societal hesitation to allow them to truly do whatever they want. There is more pressure to keep them from being their authentic selves if the picture doesn’t align with our traditional views. 

At first glance, it appears men are doing alright. 92% of Fortune 500 companies are run by men. 76% of seats in the US Senate and 73% of seats in the US House of Representatives are held by men. If we measure success by the ability to climb the corporate ladder, then I suppose boys and men are doing just fine. 

However, other statistics are quite alarming. Men commit 90% of homicides in the US and make up 77% of homicide victims. 98% of US mass shooters have been identified as male. Men die by suicide 3.5 times as often as women. Although the reasons behind this are likely multifactorial, I can’t help but wonder what impact our society continuing to endorse certain traditionally masculine stereotypes is having on boys in the short and long term. Society tells them they can’t ask for help.

Talking about death may seem extreme, but the effect of this “need” to adhere to specific masculine traits can impact boys and men in their ability to have healthy, open relationships with their friends, family, and themselves as well as their ability to lead and work with others effectively. And there is evidence this all starts being ingrained at a young age. 

Plan International conducted a study in 2018 of boys ages 10-19 which showed how clearly so many young boys feel tied to these traditional masculine values. 82% had been previously told he was “acting like a girl,” 72% have been pressured to feel physically strong, and 44% of older boys feel pressure to be willing to punch someone if provoked. 34% think society expects them to be strong, tough, “be a man,” and “suck it up” when feeling sad or scared. And another 33% say society expects them to hide or suppress their feelings.

I want to clarify that I am not suggesting that all traditional masculine values are “negative.” Being confident, assertive, and focused can be incredibly useful attributes, no matter what your gender identity. However when boys and men feel the need to always be tough, dominant, and aggressive while avoiding awareness of their own emotions or sensitivity to the feelings of others – this can be a problem. 

We are currently surrounded by campaigns empowering girls and women to be strong. A recent advertisement from Dick’s Sporting Goods features female athletes playing rugby, boxing, wrestling, among other sports – set to the tune of “There She Is,” the theme played for decades for the winner of the Miss America pageant. It portrays strength and courage as feminine traits. It’s amazing and powerful, and if you haven’t yet seen it I suggest you go watch it now. But my hope is that someday our society will start working just as hard to empower boys to be nurturing, understanding, sensitive, and creative – while still being confident and capable. They too can be anything they want to be.

As parents and caregivers, we can’t change the world in a day, but we can start with what’s in front of us – our own sons. We can work with our children on recognizing and working through their own emotions. This is important both when they are young (when we are trying to ward off tantrums), and as they get older when their emotional intelligence, or lack thereof, can have much larger implications. We can teach them that having feelings doesn’t equate to weakness. It makes you human. When our sons tell us they want to play with dolls or have a pink pair of shoes, we can say “okay” with as much ease as we do to our daughters when they ask for a construction-themed birthday party or a Spider-Man t-shirt. It shouldn’t be something we even have to think about. We can teach them to truly accept others even if they like different things or have a style that differs from their own. And we can stop calling kids “soft” when they aren’t acting as tough as we think they should be – even if it is in a joking manner. This only helps perpetuate stereotypes.

There is a big cultural shift that needs to take place in order for more boys to feel safe and supported in expressing their emotions and being their true authentic selves. In some sense it’s out of the parents’ hands (how about stores mix all the toys together in neutral colors instead of a separate blue and pink aisle?) But for now, let’s do everything we can to create a safe space for expression that can help all our children grow into confident, happy little humans.

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