Recently, our society has finally been addressing gender equality and the challenges facing our daughters.
But what about our boys?
Issues facing boys can often fly under the radar since they are known to talk and express themselves less than girls. But believe me, under their macho bravado, our boys are suffering to meet up with today’s standards for manhood.
Outwardly, some guys take the “bro code,” made popular by Barney Stinson of the hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother," seriously. But in reality, we have created a toxic space for boys.
Researchers report that a boy will know his gender by the time he can speak. By the age of six or seven, most of the really big lessons in male socialization are complete. One of the biggest lessons they learn is "how to be a boy."
And what they learn is that you must absolutely NOT be like a girl.
Culture socializes our girls to be nurturing and affectionate — they are caregivers and collaborative. Other qualities include being weak, vulnerable, emotional and dependent. Thus, they are told they are the "softer" gender.
Boys, however, are socialized to reject so-called "feminine" qualities by being tough instead of weak or vulnerable. This means boys are chastised for being a "sissy" if they show emotions or act sweetly to others.
Our sons are taught they must be independent, aggressive, competitive and strong. They are taught to not show their emotions and to cover up their vulnerability. Oh, and if you can grow a beard and have a six pack, well, you’re going to get any sex partner you want. And when you get that sex partner, don’t fall in love — think of it more as a conquest.
The truth is, boys have just as many emotions as girls. Boys fall in love just as hard and feel hurt just as much. But they are socialized to pack away their emotions and not to reveal their authentic selves. This is problematic because human beings need to feel a sense of connection and belonging. We are wired as social creatures whose survival and mental health requires us to be in healthy relationships.
How can you connect deeply when you are following a "boy code," which essentially means putting up a façade? Our boys hide behind masks of social expectation and feel lonely, unseen, embarrassed and even afraid. This is true for heterosexual boys, and is that much more painful for homosexual youth who often don’t come out until they are older, building the courage to express themselves authentically for fear of rejection by their friends and families.
So how can we help our boys?
1. Be aware of how we send our sons gender specific messages.
Do you allow your son to wear nail polish? Or is that "just for girls?" Is there a doll or house items in your playroom? Notice how brands develop their products for boys and girls and discuss this with your boys. Point out that it’s weird that the toy isles are distinctly segregated into pink and blue toys. Let them know they can play with toys and items targeted to girls — colours, beauty products and toys don't make boys any less "manly." Ask them if they think boys can have an Easy-Bake Oven. After all, there are so many men chefs, how do they learn?
2. Never tell a boy to "Act like a man" or "Don’t cry."
These comments only support old-fashioned ways of thinking and they teach our boys to put away their emotions. Instead, normalize that all feelings are OK and it’s good to emote. Prove that you are a safe person to open up to about their feelings. Learn to be a skilled listener that can hold a safe place for boys to be real and authentic without fear of judgment or reprisal.
3. Find male role models.
Expose your son to friends, or story and TV/movie characters that provide role models outside of the gender stereotype. For example, "The Big Bang Theory" has a whole lot of examples including Dr. Leonard Hofstadtr, the scientist. Look for others — Jason Seigel plays a lovable, goofy character named Marshall on "How I Met Your Mother" who breaks a lot of the bro code rules that his pal created.
If we want our boys to feel good about themselves, regardless of how close or far they are from the culturally established "boy code," we need to help them feel they are lovable and valued just the way they are. Continuous experiences of non-conditional love and feeling valued in the family provides the best protection.
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