Carla Morton remembers the day she was running errands while her sons, Collin and Ben, now 10 and 8, were buckled up in their car seats practicing gender identifiers.
“You are a …?” she prompted.
“Boy!” Ben and Collin chimed in.
“Good! And Daddy is a …?”
“Yes!” praised Morton. “And Mommy is a …?”
The boys thought for a moment.
It was a proud moment for Morton, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth. She continually tries to break the molds of what we consider traditional gender stereotypes in hopes of giving her kids—and any child who needs a voice—the freedom to express themselves independent of social norms.
“In my home, we are very progressive and have less-set gender roles,” she says. “My boys may see their dad doing the dishes or housework while I do the finances or computer repairs. That’s their ‘normal.’”
We are in a transitional era in which society is becoming more accepting of women and men who depart from stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. But there are still definite expectations that society has put on our boys when it comes to what it means to be a boy—and a man.
Some of those expectations are prohibitive; others, overly permissive. “Historically, we have excused certain behaviors in our boys, more so in socially conservative circles,” Morton says.
“Boys will be boys” is a phrase tossed around (often endearingly) by loving parents, well-meaning teachers and doting grandparents. And there is some truth to it—testosterone is widely understood to increase aggression and dominance in boys and may affect cognitive performance, too. But often the phrase is used to justify otherwise unacceptable behavior. Little Jake called Sophie ugly at lunch today? “Aw, he has a crush on her!” Matthew wouldn’t mind his teacher when it was time to come in from recess? “He is such a boy!”
Thanks to recent events—the #MeToo movement, for one—the restriction that “boys will be boys” is being challenged. It hasn’t escaped society’s notice that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of sexual violence perpetrators— against women and men—are men. And so behavior that was previously written off as either playfulness or biologic inevitability (like inappropriate jokes or unwanted advances in the workplace) has come under long-overdue scrutiny.
At the same time, society still feeds our boys catchphrases like “boys don’t cry” instead of teaching them how to healthily process and express their emotions—and then we wonder why they act on their feelings in inappropriate, uncontrolled ways. Ah, well. Boys will be boys, right?
Yes, boys will be boys—and inevitably, men. And the way we respond to our boys’ emotions and behavior now is creating the structural boundaries for who they will be and how they will perceive manhood as adults.
Boys Versus Girls
It is undeniable that we manage boys and girls differently. The way we react to a variety of behaviors depends on the child’s gender. Alex Wade, a licensed professional counselor intern at Curis Functional Health and Apple Counseling and Consulting in Dallas, says that as a therapist, she tries to be aware of this proclivity and treats both her male and female patients similarly.
“[Parents] often speak to, discipline or even defend their children depending on genderrelated grounds,” she says. “When I point it out during the parent consultation, most of them aren’t even aware of what they’re doing.”
In 2017, the BBC conducted a social experiment in which they dressed a male child in girls’ clothes and a female child in boys’ clothes and placed both kids in a child care room with unsuspecting employees. The caregivers spoke to the kids differently (coddling and cooing more to “Sophie,” whose actual name was Edward) and offered them different toys to play with. When confronted with the swap, the employees admitted that they were acting on gender bias.
“Think of how we respond to potty words,” says Brooke West, a play therapist and owner of HOPE Child and Family Center in Dallas. “When a little boy says a bad word, a dad is more inclined to laugh about it while saying, ‘Now we don’t say that,’ which sends the little boy a contradicting message. But if his little girl says the same word, she isn’t using her princess manners and is immediately sternly corrected.”
West, who has a doctorate in psychology, has two boys, ages 6 and 2, and a girl, 9. She believes that mothers of boys tend to tolerate or overlook inappropriate behavior by reasoning that boys are more energetic and therefore harder to rein in.
Benbrook mom Brandi Thomas agrees. “Boys definitely have more latitude to be wild and crazy,” she says. Her two boys are 11 and 6. “The expectation for them to be able to sit quietly through the same activity as a girl just isn’t there.”
Bottle It Up
At the same time, 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 use emotional words and content with their toddler daughters than with their sons. This mo
dels to our children that sentimental conversations are to be reserved for female interactions.
“As a society, we have not emotionally coached our boys to identify, express or cope with their feelings appropriately,” West says. “When a little boy falls on the playground, parents are more inclined to say, ‘You’re OK—brush it off,’ when really, that boy is feeling sad, hurt or lonely.”
La Tonya Davison, a licensed master social worker, social psychologist and host of the radio show Mental Speak, agrees. “The number one statement that we make to boys that suppresses emotional expression to pain is, ‘You’re OK.’”
This simple phrase, meant to toughen up our boys and teach them how to be strong, could instead be detrimental to their emotional well-being by enforcing the idea of locking away or dismissing their feelings. “Boys are seen choking back tears although it is a naturally triggered response to physical or emotional pain,” she adds.
For a year and a half, Davison was an adolescent boys’ therapist at a mental health facility in Arlington. The most common issue she dealt with? Boys suppressing their emotions and thoughts. “The suppression is directly related to parental belief systems of how boys ought to react when emotionally triggered,” Davison explains. She’s spent a lot of time helping boys process their feelings regarding these conditioned behaviors but doesn’t believe that they readily associate this with the term “masculinity.”
“From an early age, we teach boys that it’s not appropriate to cry, and that if they do, they are not being masculine,” says Paul Bones, an assistant professor in the sociology department at Texas Woman’s University.
“The number one statement that we make to boys that suppresses emotional expression to pain is, ‘you’re ok.'”
The belief that boys aren’t supposed to be timid, cautious or fearful is being ingrained into them every day, intentionally or otherwise. The result is not that our sons are any less sensitive— any boy mom will attest to that— but that our sons are holding in their insecurities rather than voicing them, causing an inability to appropriately express or interpret emotional struggles.
Terrill Richardson of Fort Worth experienced this firsthand when his son Kyle, a high school football player, broke his leg his sophomore year. He tried to get back in the game once released by a doctor, but “his heart wasn’t in it anymore,” Richardson says. “He tried, but he said he wasn’t as fast, wasn’t as agile. He was really afraid that he’d re-break his leg. A few weeks in, he made the decision to quit.”
What affected Richardson the most was not that Kyle decided to quit, but that he was actually afraid to tell his father. “I think he probably went to practice a lot longer and went to games a lot longer than he wanted to in order to please me,” Richardson says. “The thing is … I was actually relieved that he quit.”
Kyle’s reluctance to share his feelings is not uncommon, according to Davison. “Many [boys] share in therapy that they try to tell adults how they feel but have felt shut down when they attempt,” she reports.
These “shutdowns” are surfacing in areas of these boys’ lives that are supposed to provide security. To show feelings in school is to make oneself vulnerable to bullying and ridicule by other children. To show feelings at home is pointless from their perspective as they feel that they will be shut down regardless.
“When shut down, the response is depression, anxiety or uncontrollable outbursts of aggression,” Davison says.
It’s like that big splash bucket at the water park that tips when it gets too full: At some point, all those pent-up feelings have to find a release. That release could be defiant or aggressive behavior— which society often tells our boys is OK, even when talking about their feelings is not—or a serious mental health crisis. It’s worth noting that boys are more likely than girls to commit violent crime, including sexual violence and gun violence. Boys are also less likely to seek professional mental health care, which might prevent those uncontrollable outbursts.
“Guys don’t talk about their feelings, we don’t seek help when we need it, and we feel like asking for help makes us lesser,” Bones says, going so far as to link the bottling up of emotions to men’s shorter average life expectancy. “It’s because men are told that asking for help is a sign of weakness and a departure from masculinity. It’s why we don’t go to the doctor unless we’re on death’s door. And forget about seeking psychological help.”
IN NEED OF A DETOX
While parents may play a role in advancing these stereotypes, they’re far from the only influence. Society in general—and media in particular—has a big impact on how boys view masculinity.
“It’s generally between the ages of 8 and 9 that kids start becoming more self-reflective and looking to outside factors for confirmation that they are ‘normal,’” Morton says. “It’s those external factors that parents really need to concern themselves with.”
YouTube, for example, serves as a major platform for such persuasive manifestos.
Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, uses his channel to rebuke the idea of male weakness with excerpts from his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and abrasive comments such as “Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period.” These are the kinds of ideas of what it means to be a man that are promoted to our boys—and we’re buying it. More than 700,000 copies of it.
Peterson’s YouTube channel is only a fraction of the screen time equation. West is adamant that the overuse of screen time is detrimental to children’s development, for boys in particular.
“My goal is to encourage as much ‘personhood’ as I can to them versus defined ‘manhood,’” Morton says.
“What do I really think about screen time? I think that it’s creating monsters,” she says, explaining that as it becomes more and more acceptable for families to rely on electronics, our boys need a parent’s presence more than ever.
“The very first issue I address with my male clients’ parents is their screen time and use of electronics,” she says. “As a society, we are allowing unlimited exposure to these, which can model violence and crude behavior to impressionable and vulnerable minds.”
While studies disagree about the long-term impacts of violent entertainment, West believes that screen time itself, no matter what’s on said screen, is toxic. Namely, the instant gratification that comes with being constantly “plugged in” is robbing our boys of the ability to appropriately express empathy, compassion and patience.
The first thing she advises for her patients is an “electronic detox,” during which the boys unplug and are encouraged to spend more time outdoors riding bikes or playing board games with their families.
“We need to take back the power from tablets, video games, and smartphones,” West says. “If we don’t, we are losing our ability to raise our kids into good people, not just people with good behavior.”
THE NEW MANHOOD
It’s hard in the moment to picture our rambunctious little boys as grown adults, but it is crucial that we turn our focus on just that.
“The definition of masculinity is rapidly changing,” Davison says. “The nature of what masculinity has been, and what it is becoming, is contingent upon the changing of past beliefs. Parents need to adopt what boys are saying they require emotionally and mentally.”
This means policing the language we use with our boys to encourage emotional health (see sidebar at right for phrases to avoid) and paying closer attention to the behaviors we promote and accept.
“My goal is to encourage as much ‘personhood’ as I can to them versus defined ‘manhood,’” Morton says.
She urges her male clients to embrace what they like without focusing on the outside reactions from their family, peers or social media platforms. For moms and dads, it is critical to stress to our boys the value in their distinct personalities, interests and characteristics without pushing them toward what society says they should be like.
“It’s important that we encourage our boys to be individuals rather than modeling themselves after what society expects them to be,” Wade emphasizes.
Efforts such as the #MeToo movement have provided platforms 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. Then we realized that those messages weren’t the best for our girls,” Bones explains, adding that over time, society began to encourage girls to be more assertive, independent and true to themselves.
“We didn’t ban or demonize femininity; we just decided to drop some of these damaging ideas of what it means to be a girl. That’s what we’re doing with boys now.”