Parents want so many things for their children: to find joy, to make friends, to explore the world, to live free of judgment and discrimination.
Making these dreams reality is never easy, but parents raising boys face a unique challenge. The traditional definition of what it means to be a man — stoic, self-assured, strong — is in the midst of a significant transformation. Men are being encouraged to reject harmful stereotypes that prevent them from expressing the full range of human emotions.
At the same time, boys still live and play in environments where those stereotypes are enforced, sometimes brutally. Parents want to raise emotionally intelligent boys who can be their true selves, but none of them want to see their child bullied, ostracized, or beaten as a result.
The two organizations surveyed 801 parents of boys ages 4 to 14 in the U.S., and more than half said it was “very important” for their sons to have emotional strength, yet they also recognized that boys aren’t comfortable sharing their feelings. At the same time, the report found that even as parents recognized the unhealthy expectations put on boys, some also actively or inadvertently perpetuated those views by saying, for example, that it’s important for their sons to act like a boy and, specifically, not like a girl.
Such expectations are what Gary Barker, CEO of Promundo, refers to as the “man box.” Stereotypes about masculinity restrict boys and men to a very narrow idea of manhood and they often find it difficult to free themselves of those restraints.
Barker says he believes parents mean well when they purposely or accidentally reinforce outdated stereotypes. They want their children to fit in or escape bullying, but in the long run it can cut men and boys off from their positive emotions.
Men are less likely than women to get medical care, they have shorter lifespans, and more frequently die of suicide and homicide, outcomes that Barker says are linked to trying to fulfill masculine stereotypes.
“Every day we build up these ideas about manhood,” says Barker.
While most parents right now might be focused on surviving the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps relaxing some of their efforts to help their sons learn about and question traditional ideas of manhood, Barker says the crisis presents a perfect storm for boys and men.
Men actually face a higher risk of dying from COVID-19, which may be related to certain pre-existing conditions and biological factors. Rates of domestic violence and child abuse may increase as men lose their jobs and face economic insecurity. Fathers may revert to silence because they may fear looking weak in front of their sons. The extreme political climate has made interdependence a political issue, with right-wing, armed white men shutting down a state capitol in protest of shelter-in-place regulations. Such displays of stereotypical masculinity — not to mention the partisan fight over wearing masks — suggest to boys watching that being a real man means insisting we’re not reliant on each other for our health and well-being — and that the threat of violence can be used to emphasize that point.
The report lays out several recommendations for parents who want to raise boys capable of feeling and expressing emotion, even as the pandemic has made that potentially harder to achieve.
Barker discussed four of those recommendations with Mashable:
1. Talk about your fears, uncertainties, and disappointments.
Men often live with the pressure of appearing confident and in control at all times. Those expectations leave men little room to be vulnerable or cope with difficult emotions, so they may rarely show feelings like fear, uncertainty, and disappointment. Boys learn the same behavior by watching the adult men in their life and also hearing from mothers or female caregivers that they must harden themselves to survive in the world.
Barker says fathers can disrupt this cycle by first acknowledging that it’s sometimes difficult to express how they feel. If there’s a specific challenging moment or event that triggers a father’s stoic response, like being laid off or losing a loved one, Barker recommends assuring a child and then saying, “This is hard on me, and I’m having trouble expressing how I feel in this moment,” or “Something’s not working, and I’m not sure what to do, but together we’ll figure it out.”
“You don’t need to come with the answer, but at the very least, put the armor down,” says Barker.
That emotional honesty sets an important example for a boy and can open up a broader conversation about coping with uncomfortable emotions. A well-intentioned female partner, who might otherwise pressure a man to remain steely because she’s accustomed to him playing that role, can instead give him space and acknowledge that it may be difficult for him to be vulnerable. Barker adds that female partners can try to strike a balance between being supportive without carrying a man’s “emotional baggage” for him. In other words, women shouldn’t fully take on the labor of managing the family as their partner struggles to convey his feelings.
2. Acknowledge the challenges boys face when attempting to be vulnerable.
Modeling vulnerability is key but boys may not follow that example without conversations about why expressing emotions can be hard. Boys may be bullied, threatened, ostracized, or assaulted when they act in ways not associated with traditional masculinity, when they question that concept, or stand up for someone challenging that notion. Boys need to know that their parents understand this dynamic, and parents can tell their children they know it takes courage to defy masculine norms.
Barker says these discussions need not feel like an after-school special or college lecture. Rather, parents can find opportunities in commonplace experiences like watching television, playing with friends, or playing sports with parents.
TV shows, for example, portray countless stereotypes about masculinity. Parents can point out themes, plot points, or behaviors that hinge on ideas (both good and bad) about manhood. Though playdates aren’t an option for many children during the pandemic, parents should look for moments where they can talk about why boys get to play one role and girls play another or what it feels like to be bullied by a friend.
Barker recommends parents focus on making these conversations non-defensive in nature, so they feel more like an exchange and not like a boy has to explain or justify his fear of being vulnerable.
3. Demonstrate that it’s OK to ask for and need help.
Expressing fear or uncertainty is a big step for many men, but boys also should see the men in their lives need and ask for help. The two things are related yet not the same. When a man openly asks for help or acknowledges that people are interconnected and need each other, it sends a powerful message to a boy.
“There’s nothing wrong with a man showing he needs help”
During the pandemic, that might mean a boy seeing his father wear a mask despite how politicized the act has become. A father could let his son see him accept food from a pantry as an act of self-preservation rather than cause for embarrassment.
“It’s not unmanly — there’s nothing wrong with a man showing he needs help…your strength is about showing when you’re vulnerable,” says Barker.
Parents can also challenge other stereotypes about needing assistance, particularly in sports when athletes are urged to play through their pain, at any cost. In general, men are less likely to seek medical care and complete routine health screenings than women, behavior that is associated with a shorter lifespan and a higher suicide rate. It’s easy to see how boys might perceive messages around pain tolerance in sports, for example, as applicable to their own physical and mental health. Parents, and fathers in particular, have the chance to show them a different path forward by starting a conversation about why men are expected to work through physical and psychological pain.
4. Seek help for yourself.
This recommendation follows the old adage of putting on one’s own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else do the same. Male caregivers who experience significant stress, anxiety, depression, or who become violent, should seek professional help and support from loved ones so they can effectively parent.
Barker says that without such help, generational cycles that force boys to adopt unhealthy ideas about masculinity will only continue.
“By being connected parents, we become better connected to ourselves and are able to be our better selves,” says Barker.