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When I raised my son several decades ago, the overarching cultural belief was that even young boys were supposed to emulate the “macho” characteristics of their male elders: to be tough, to not back down and not to show emotion. While I did not specifically highlight or subscribe to this machismo in my parenting, I, like many other parents, sometimes encouraged my son to keep his emotions in check. My advice was often to “man up,” so different from the emotional nurturing girls typically received and still receive. Thankfully, my son grew into a sensitive, kind, and respectful man.
That was then. In many ways, it is trickier to raise boys who will be good men. Today from early ages, boys witness excessive amounts of real-world violence on the news: the frightening and all too prevalent school shootings and attacks on other random innocent people. They witness bullying in schools, violence in so many video games, and public shaming on social media. And yet, as several recent studies highlight, boys continue to be discouraged from showing emotion or vulnerability.
It is more important than ever for parents to pay attention and change approaches to raising boys to combat these unending, unnerving negative cues. In his new book, You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity, former college All-American and NFL quarterback, Don McPherson “sees boys being raised with a primary mandate to avoid being girls or gay men and to be tough, silent, and stoic—an essentially misogynistic approach that also, he writes, limits men’s emotional growth and sense of accountability,” notes a review in Publishers Weekly magazine.
Combatting the violence boys see
Encouraging sensitivity and empathy in today’s boys starts with abandoning the male macho stereotype. This can be challenging, particularly when we look at the media — namely the world of sports. Boys are influenced by the hyper-masculinity of sports figures who behave in reprehensible ways and are nonetheless often boys’ idols and role models. Think Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice or Tiger Woods. Sadly, there are many others.
Michael Reichert, Ph.D., founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at University of Pennsylvania and author of How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, points out and documents what parents of boys are up against: “The stronger the adherence to masculine norms, the more likely a young man was to follow poor health practices.” When compared with girls, boys use more substances, drive recklessly and in general take greater risks that often result in injury. As Reichert notes, it’s “one thing for a girl to be a ‘tomboy’, but another altogether for a boy to be a ‘sissy.’”
In an effort to battle the alarming amount of violence and uncaring attitudes that boys are exposed to, a program designed to prevent harassment and dating violence among middle school boys successfully changed the boys’ beliefs. Reported in Children and Youth Services Review, the program included one-hour sessions over four months looked at gender role assumptions including their normalization and pervasiveness, Over the course of the program, the boys learned about empathy, healthy relationships, and gender-based violence.
“By focusing on positive expressions of masculinity, such as the ability to be respectful in relationships, this program helps boys find positive ways to prevent violence and to cope with violence to which they may already have been exposed,” said Victoria Banyard, the lead author and professor at Rutgers University’s School of Social Work in New Jersey.
How parents can tweak and optimize their approach
Given the current landscape, how can parents raise caring boys who will be “good men” yet have them be able to withstand the inordinate amount of pressure they are under? How can parents encourage their sons to be respectful, upstanding human beings with empathetic outlooks, and still be able to stand up for themselves?
Dr. Reichert has made important observations in his global research and offers parents suggestions to minimize outside influences, encourage emotional expression and compassion to help purge the old masculine stereotypes. Making adjustments helps to become good men in these very different and difficult times.
Here are nine of his key lessons, among many:
- Beware of fostering traditional stereotypes that begin early in a son’s life—shaming boys for playing with dolls and other toys considered girly…or encouraging (or insisting on) playing sports particularly if your son doesn’t love competition.
- Allow your boy to follow his own path, not one you may have predetermined for him. In this way, you respect his individuality and unique personality rather than expecting him to conform to old, traditional male roles.
- Listen to what your son has to say, especially when he’s sharing his feelings, worries or fears. Listening is crucial for keeping the connection boys want…and need. Be patient and accessible.
- Encourage your son to show his emotions, from sadness to anger. Let him know that vulnerability is more than acceptable: that it is okay to cry, that he does not have to keep his feelings bottled up when he is with you even if this makes you uncomfortable.
- Help your son by “running interference” or ask if wants help in a given situation…or come up with solutions together, however, avoid taking over for him so he can build his self-confidence.
- Share your own stories of difficulties and/or embarrassment from your childhood. Let him know you made mistakes.
- Don’t shy away from the difficult conversations—be it a death in the family, your child’s poor grades, a divorce, relationships with girls—to not only strengthen your connection but also to boost openness and sensitivity in your son.
- Say “I love you” regularly as a means of telling your son that you see his efforts. He will “get” that you recognize him and accept him for who he is.
- Exercise your authority as a parent by setting limits and providing guidance at the same time. Hear your son out when he misbehaves or tests limits without reacting negatively to his emotions of, for example, anger. You can set guidelines for how that anger may be expressed in a strategic manner, not a reactive one.
Reichert’s insights and understanding of what boys need gives parents what they need to fully relate to their boys and help them thrive. Where was this book when I needed it? If you have a concern about your boy, it’s likely addressed in this book—from gaming or online addiction to violent behavior, from being socially shunned or being bullied to underachievement. Clearly, raising boys now calls for extreme attention to what we say and do as it relates to bringing up boys who will be, in Reichert’s words, “good men.”
Gloria Steinem once suggested that we “raise our sons more like our daughters.” That means showing emotion and expressing what “hurts” to understanding parents and thus, abandoning the stereotypical and ubiquitous male model that promotes toughness and allows for destructive behavior and thoughtlessness. Steinem and Reichert make infinite good sense.
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Copyright @2019 by Susan Newman