By now we have all seen the Gillette ad addressing toxic masculinity. Kudos to them for thrusting this important conversation into the spotlight. If we want to put an end to sexual harassment and truly embrace gender equality we need to get rid of outdated gender stereotypes. The notion that boys are supposed to be strong and powerful and not be vulnerable or show emotions needs to be re-written. Our culture has done a lot of work in the last decade to let girls know that they can be brave and strong but for boys the message is still loud and clear that being sensitive is a feminine quality (and therefore bad for some reason). To show feelings is a sign of weakness. A boy that cries on the playground might be called “a sissy” or “a baby”. Even well-meaning parents treat boys differently when they fall down or get hurt with messages like “you’ll be fine” or “brush it off”.
As a parent to 2 boys, I think a lot about how I can do my part to raise a generation of men that are kind, sensitive and caring. How I can help to end gender stereotypes and show my boys that we are all humans with a wide range of emotions and interests. Here are some ways that we as parents can help to end the culture of toxic masculinity.
- Encourage boys to play with toys and read books that promote “nurturing” and build empathy. You can still buy your boys trucks & Legos but make sure they also have access to dolls, stuffed animals and cooking supplies. Your son will need to know how to cook and rock a baby to sleep someday. Build bridges with your daughter and play tea party with your son. I am not sure who decided that toys need to be for specific genders (pretty sure it was marketers) but thankfully many store are no longer categorizing toys by gender (thank you Target). Encourage your son to read books with female characters as the main character. Reading is one of the best ways to build empathy and by connecting with both male and female characters they can explore both their masculine and feminine side.
- Allow boys to see grown men being vulnerable. It is important for boys to see fathers, grandfathers, and other men in their life being vulnerable. They need to see that men have all the same emotions as women and they don’t need to hide them. Books are another great way for boys to see strong male characters being vulnerable.
- Introduce them to strong female role models. If we want boys to view women as equals, they need to be introduced to strong female role models. Let them see women that are running companies, running for office and changing the world. Books about strong female figures should not be just for girls.
- Starting at a young age, talk about feelings and emotions. Allow them to feel both positive and negative emotions. Give them the vocabulary to identify and communicate their emotions. Help them put words to their feelings. Sometimes adults even need help with this. Show them appropriate ways to express their emotions.
- Teach them it is ok to ask for help. Boys are often taught at an early age that they don’t need help. How many grown men won’t ask for directions or read the manual first? They are taught that “real” men can figure it out for themselves, but sometimes we all need some help. Let your boys know it is ok to ask for help and who they can go to when needed.
- Practice Mindfulness. By helping your son practice mindfulness, you can help him navigate these difficult feelings. Mindfulness is a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgement. Being able to take a moment to reflect on his thoughts and feelings without reacting will help him throughout life.
As parents, we might not be able to change society overnight but we can do our part to make sure our boys feel comfortable expressing emotion, are empathetic to others and comfortable embracing both their masculine and feminine sides. Here is one dad that is definitely doing his part (Dad in Frozen Video). The smile on his son’s face says it all!