Educators, coaches, family members and parents, especially dads, have an excellent opportunity to help promote healthier masculinities among boys and young men. Emotional literacy among young men can lead to healthier masculinities and relationships, whereas living with gender stereotypes can have devastating effects on all our lives.
We need to challenge harmful behaviours among boys and young men in order to promote healthier masculinities. Rather than policing boys to become "real men" — being tough, winning at all costs, never backing down, always in control, unemotional — we need to teach boys and young men to be respectful, kind, consensual, inclusive and equitable, and reward them when they adopt these behaviours. This helps promote safety and well-being in relationships, and gives men and boys the opportunity to live fulfilling lives outside the constraints of unhealthy, restricting, toxic stereotypes.
Here are a few things men can do to help raise new generations of healthy, emotionally literate, equitable men:
Express healthy emotions
Think about how you express feelings such as sadness, loss, frustration. Men are socially conditioned to shy away from emotions. Do you bottle those up or do you talk openly and honestly about them? Here's your opportunity to show vulnerability and model a full range of healthy emotions for young people around you.
Name your feelings
Young kids are often confused about their feelings and aren't always able to name them easily. Help boys understand how you're reacting to a particular situation. In other words, help them by naming your feelings, e.g. "I'm so sad about this, it's making me cry;" "I'm frustrated because I don't know where I put my wallet;" "This is too high, I'm sacred of heights." The more you help boys understand their emotions, the more likely they will be able to express them in healthy ways. This is what we mean by emotional literacy.
Understand gender stereotypes
Our lives are deeply impacted by gender stereotypes. They prevent us from making choices and living according to our wishes and desires. Whether it's limiting the roles we play in our relationships or restricting our ability to engage fully in the care of our children, helping to free our kids from gender stereotypes is the right thing to do for them and for us men.
Talk with the boys in your life about the impact that this has on our well-being. Use everyday life examples to point out these stereotypes. When we don't open up about our feelings, we may feel depressed; if we can't discuss our pain, this may come out in unhealthy ways such as violence.
Discuss the different meanings of strength
Boys are often raised to see and feel strength as a physical characteristic that is valued and celebrated. Help boys understand the difference between physical strength and strength of character. Expressing feelings and emotions is healthy, and it's a sign of strength for boys. This means being gentle, kind and respectful.
Gender stereotypes restrict how men and boys express themselves in many ways. This is reinforced through self-policing, media, peers, etc. Help boys understand that it's OK to make choices and take on any behaviours regardless of any gender.
Recognize healthy behaviours
So much has been said about toxic masculinity lately: "What We Mean When We Say, 'Toxic Masculinity'", "This Dad & His Son Dancing In Elsa Dresses Are Adorably Crushing Toxic Masculinity." So what are healthy masculinities?
This means being kind, empathetic, rejecting stereotypes, engaging in peaceful and equitable interactions with everyone. Recognize and point out healthy behaviours among men and boys and help empower boys to be confident in their true gentle selves.
Use positive alternatives when correcting behaviour
Consider logical consequences and time-outs to gain a child's cooperation, while acknowledging positive behaviours and reinforcing forgiveness. Never use corporal or punitive discipline.
Consent is key to healthy relationships
In younger years, talk to boys about consent using relatable examples such as asking permission to use a toy, or asking first before giving a friend a hug. Later on, talk about consent as an important aspect of healthy and respectful relationships.
Strict gender norms restrict gender and sexual diversity
Help boys understand that some boys grow up liking other boys; some girls are attracted to girls; and some people don't want to define themselves as a boy or girl. Healthy masculinities include respecting and celebrating gender and sexual diversity.
Educate about gender equality
Teach boys the meaning and value of allyship and how important it is to speak out against gender-based violence, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Educate boys about gender equality in all of its forms and encourage them to empathize and express solidarity in their everyday life.
Use everyday opportunities to talk about gender equality. You can do this by pointing out a respectful behaviour towards a girlfriend, sharing your own lessons and experiences from your youth, or modelling effective intervention when you hear a sexist joke.
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As early as possible, boys and young men need to grow up with healthy models of masculinity. They are looking up to us for examples of equitable, inclusive, peaceful behaviours. We can all play a positive role.
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