My son is fourteen and he likes to listen to a specific type of music genre. The lyrics however deliver misogynistic messages and even though he pays little attention to the repercussions of the lyrics, his nineteen-year-old female cousin points this out to him and he explains he doesn’t actually preach the song, for he merely enjoys the beat and style. Nevertheless, an interesting observation to make.
While the patriarchy still has an inarguable grip on the world, nowadays, women are having their moment. We’ve reached a pivotal juncture in society in which women are being vocal and speaking out, demanding more for themselves, their sisters and their daughters. So, this raises a fundamental question for parents. Their parenting which already comprises of anxieties, doubts and inevitably, failures, now the concern is “Are we raising our boys all wrong?”
The past few years have been an eye opener for society with heavy emphasis on how our girls have changed the world and with the #MeToo movement, everyone has a pretty much reprogrammed their brains to what it means to be a woman. So, what does it mean to be a man then? There is a lot of confusion these days about what it means to be a man.
It seems as if boys have been left behind. No comparable movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man” — we no longer even know what that means.
The blurring of gender lines has made traditional notions of masculinity obsolete. It is not just human beings with a penis that aspire to the traits of sexuality, acquisition, wealth, success and authority. A century ago a man provided, a woman nurtured. Not the same anymore. “We really are in a unique time in history when traditional masculinity has been profoundly disrupted by the broader movement for gender equality,” said Michael Reichert, a psychologist, founding director of the Centre for the Study of Boys’ and Girls.
So, this raises a lot of light on boyhood overall and the sort of matters we have merely taken for granted over generations. One example of an accepted boyhood experience is the idea that young men should be impassive and deterred to show emotion. Messages such as “don’t be a mama’s boy” and “act like a man” are penetrated in society, filtering into films, music and even marriage.
Before we continue to understand how such messages have expired in the last few years and what are the best ways to reprogram our minds when it comes to raising our boys, it’s really imperative to comprehend the differences between specific terms. Quite often we hear the word “toxic masculinity” and most of us are hard wired to believe all men who say they are masculine and macho, will display a toxic behaviour. This is incorrect because being masculine can be a description you can label to a female as well.
Let me explain. First, we have sex (male or female) this is associated with chromosomes and hormones and the biological composition of the person. Thereafter we have gender (masculine or feminine). These are the characteristics and behaviours that a society or culture associates with males and females. “Gender expression can be defined as the way we show our gender to the world. Societal expectations of gender expression are reinforced in almost every area of life. Even very young children are clear about the gendered choices that boys and girls are “supposed to” make in relation to toys, colours, clothes, games and activities.” — definition taken from Teaching Tolerance.
Now what’s important to understand is, the idea that sex — the anatomy with which one is born, doesn’t predetermine gender identity. In other words, one’s sense of being male, female or another gender — or gender expression — the way one shows gender to the world.
Coming back to the term toxic masculinity, this is often brought up in discussion when the term gender is being addressed. It’s a term that’s widely misunderstood and can seem insulting, even bigoted.
The Good Men Project have a definition for it. “Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits — which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual — are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.”
What’s key is for parents to take away some ideas from this definition. It’s a complete misconception that a man / boy cannot simultaneously be physically strong and emotionally sensitive too. A man’s strength can be expressed in endless ways, including the force to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to seek forgiveness or to display empathy. By all means celebrate his victories in sports like wrestling or weightlifting. You can also cheer to his kindness and the fortitude to be gentle.
For so long the name of boyhood has received so much loss of virtue, loss of emotional connection and even characterised them as responsible for reckless driving. To be completely honest, I think the real blessing of the movement for gender equality is that we are for once able to look at boyhood more sincerely and ask ourselves, this equation needs an update now!
Parents can help their sons build on their emotional education by cultivating conditions in their relationship where the child can really be himself and show what’s in his soul.
The only way he will not fear from doing so is when he is not judged or persecuted or censored for his choices. As a parent you must rewire your reactions and respond to your son according to who he is and who he is becoming.
Parents also need to become more self-aware of the mundane myths and stereotypes that are inherently poisoning boys. The traditional parenting model has become archaic, the expectations we have from our boys in terms of skills they need to master should be remodelled. “Boys will be boys” is a classic virus that must be eradicated.
As I said earlier, your biological makeup is one thing but how you choose to interpret the gender behaviour for that sex is entirely up to society and the norms put forward. Therefore, if a boy holds a gun and is encouraged for it because his “hormones” oblige him to, well this is where the brakes must be applied. It is incorrect to blame biology when we speak of girls and women today, that seems outrageous doesn’t it? So, it’s equally ludicrous to entertain the idea that boys and men are dominated by primal hormonal desires. Are men not able to manage those impulses with their perfectly smart brains? So please don’t belittle the capacity of your boys.
A responsible parent needs to be realistic about what their sons are contending with and what they’re absorbing. If we encourage the old narrative that boys will push and jump and seek to dominate, this seeps into their minds and results in framing them to believe their place lies in the playground and their purpose is to be competitive with each other. This is the otherwise classic notion of “brutal winner-takes-all peer culture”.
We must be bigger than that, offer them the kind of confidence and safety that tells them we know them, and no masks are necessary to prove who they are. If a girls’ t-shirt can say “The future is female” and this connotes to them taking over the world, but at the same time their t-shirt also says “love first”, this delivers to us that they are also capable of caretaking. So, perhaps boy’s fashion is the first place where a change must be visually seen: “boys don’t cry” needs a strikethrough on the “don’t”.
As we are increasingly telling our girls they can do more and be more, our boys can — and should — do more too. It’s our responsibility to show them how. I leave you with a thought: We encourage daughters to play soccer or become doctors, but not sons to take ballet or become nurses? Is that too “feminine”? If so, are you not hypocritically lowering the status of the feminine gender?