We’re in a transitional era in which society is becoming more accepting of women and men who depart from stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. However, there are still definite expectations society has put on our boys when it comes to what it means to be a man.
Some of those expectations are prohibitive, while others are overly permissive. Historically, we’ve excused certain behaviors in our boys by tossing out the phrase “boys will be boys,” often endearingly and by loving parents, well-meaning teachers, and doting grandparents. There is some truth to it. Testosterone is widely understood to increase aggression and dominance in boys and may affect cognitive performance, too. But the phrase has also been used to justify otherwise unacceptable behavior.
The idea that “boys will be boys” is being challenged by the #MeToo movement, for one. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of violent sexual perpetrators against both women and men are men. Therefore, behavior that was previously written off as either playfulness or biologic inevitability has come under long-overdue scrutiny.
At the same time, the fact that society still uses catchphrases like “boys don’t cry” instead of teaching them how to process and express their emotions in a healthy way is a problem. We wonder why boys act out their feelings in inappropriate, uncontrolled ways, when they’ve never learned to deal with their emotions.
Yes, boys will be boys and inevitably, boys will become men. The way we respond to our boys’ emotions and behaviors now is creating the structural boundaries for who they will become as adults and how they will perceive manhood.
Boys do not have the same latitude as girls to express and work through their emotions. A study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that mothers are more prone to using emotional words and content with their toddler daughters than with their sons. This models to our children that sentimental conversation is to be reserved for female interactions.
It’s hard, in the moment, to picture our rambunctious little boys as grown adults, but it’s crucial that we turn our focus to just that. The definition of masculinity is rapidly changing. The nature of what masculinity has been and what it’s becoming is contingent upon changing our past beliefs. Parents need to adopt to what boys are saying and what they require emotionally and mentally. This means policing the language we use with our boys to encourage emotion, and paying closer attention to the behaviors we promote and accept.
Last year, the #MeToo movement provided a platform for this reformation of manhood, similar to the cultural changes we experienced within the last generation regarding our girls. It used to be that girls needed to be quiet, passive, and ladylike, until we realized those weren’t the best messages for them. In time, society began to encourage girls to be more assertive, independent, and true to themselves. We didn’t brand or demonize femininity, we just decided to drop some of the damaging ideas of what it means to be a female.
We’re not dismissing our role as parents, but unlimited exposure to screen time, which often exposes impressionable and vulnerable minds to violence and crude behavior, must have some effect, even while studies disagree about the long-term impact of violent entertainment. Some parents are taking back the power from tablets, video games, and smartphones in order to reestablish relationships with their children.
It’s tough raising an emotionally healthy, respectful, and compassionate son in a cruel culture that glorifies violence. However, by listening to your boy, showing him unconditional love and support, and granting him permission to express all of his feelings, you can help him develop into a well-rounded, respectable, kind man.
Lisa Alexander is a freelance writer