You’ve probably seen the viral video - the one with the little boy who is crying and his inspirational karate teacher? (Check it out: https://youtu.be/uBDAPJpwILw). In the clip, student Bruce is trying to break a block with his hand. In his frustration, he begins to cry. His instructor, Jason Wilson, explains to him that crying is nothing to be ashamed of. “We cry as men,” he tells him. “I don’t mind if you cry. I cry too.” He lets Bruce know that it’s okay to express his emotions, and that’s exactly what Bruce needs to hear. Is it any coincidence that Bruce is then able to break the block successfully? I don’t think so.
This video gets so much right. We live in a society that values toughness in men. There’s nothing wrong with a little grit (far from it), but we do our boys a disservice when we promote hyper-masculinity as the norm. Stifling emotions can lead to anger and result in destructive behavior (there’s a reason boys are at a higher risk for suicide as well as more likely to be victims and perpetrators of violence). Research shows that boys who don’t learn to deal with their feelings are at risk of falling behind in school. It’s not only academics; if they don’t learn to be emotionally honest, they won’t be effective communicators, which can hamper their ability to succeed societally as young men. When we limit what it means to be a boy (you know, that rough and tumble, snakes and snails mentality), we limit the unique potential of individual children.
So what’s to be done? Here are some strategies for your consideration:
1)Encourage a growth mindset.
This is a good strategy for all children, but I’ll focus on boys here. Many boys are conditioned to fear failure and are shunned if they express disappointment in an emotional way. That’s why some are prone to angry outbursts. A growth mindset helps children view failure as part of the learning process, making them more resilient in the future. For more information about Carol Dweck’s pioneering work, visit www.mindsetonline.com.
2)Help boys cultivate a full repertoire of emotions.
If we want boys to develop an extensive emotional vocabulary, we have to talk about it. It’s important to label feelings (their own as well as those of characters in books and on tv). Make sure home and school are places where they feel safe to explore their emotions. Give them permission to cry. In initiating conversations about feelings, use movies like Inside Out or pretty much any superhero flick (think about it: most of them are as vulnerable as they are invincible) as an entry point.
3)Provide comfort when needed.
I understand that inclination to tell kids to “suck it up.” When my daughter falls down, I encourage her to “throw some dirt on it” and get back up. But when I see that she’s really upset, I pick her up. We need to do the same for boys. If they’re hurt or frustrated, console them, give them hugs, and reassure them that it is healthy and even brave to express one’s emotions.
4)Let boys play with a variety of toys.
First of all, props to Target and other retailers who have done away with categorizing toys by gender. I really don’t understand the big deal with letting boys play with dolls. Are we so afraid they’ll become (gasp) great fathers?? Playing with toy mops and brooms and kid kitchens will prepare them for taking care of a household and being a good partner. While over-exposure to princess culture can have a negative impact on girls, it can help boys become more well-rounded (just make sure they see more than the “damsel in distress” narrative to combat stereotypes about women as well). Dress up should be free of restrictions around gender. In a recent episode of Sesame Street, the characters learn that boys can play tea party and ballet and girls can be dentists and drummers. If Elmo knows it, it should be just as easy for the rest of us to wrap our heads around.
5)Introduce activities like art, music, and drama.
Boys who participate in these types of extracurricular activities tend to do better in school. However, many are reluctant to try them for fear of teasing. Boys who participate in the arts run the risk of being labeled “gay” or “sissies.” In fact, children fear anti-gay teasing more than any other kind. We need to take away the stigma around fine arts (as well as educate our kids about what gay means and why it’s offensive to use the word as an insult). Through examples, inclusive environments, and intolerance of bullying, we can help erase the ignorant notion that somehow these activities aren’t masculine.
6)Read books that challenge gender norms.
There’s so much good stuff out there! In The Bat Boy and His Violin by Gavin Curtis, young Reginald finds a way to share his love of music in the dugout. Sandra Bradley’s Henry Holton Takes the Ice features a boy from a hockey-obsessed family who discovers he loves ice dancing. Jacob’s New Dress, by Sandra and Ian Hoffman, is about a little boy who loves to play dress up. Perhaps my favorite is the old classic The Story of Ferdinand (also a cartoon), which is about a young bull who refuses to fight the matador because he’d rather sit under his favorite acorn tree and smell the flowers. All of these are excellent examples of going against the grain.
7)Watch your language.
If you haven’t already done so, watch this video of 48 Things Men Hear In a Lifetime (That Are Bad for Everyone): https://youtu.be/jk8YmtEJvDc. If you’ve ever uttered any of these phrases, stop now. Constant messages of shame for showing emotion can do significant psychological damage. When you hear this kind of talk, especially around young boys, call it out. Follow up with the child and reinforce that there are many ways of being a man. All being a “real man” should mean is that you identify as such.
By raising our girls to be gutsy and our boys to be sensitive, we help all children develop a broader definition of gender. It’s powerful for every child, but especially those who are gender creative or gender expansive. When kids have a bigger picture of gender and aren’t constrained by (let’s be honest) arbitrary norms, they are free to embrace and express exactly who they are…and they’re more likely to be accepting and loving of others who do the same.