Young boys learn more from what we do than from what we say. By being conscious and purposeful with your words and actions, you can teach your boy healthy masculinities.
What are masculinities?
Masculinities are the attitudes and behaviors traditionally ascribed to men and representative of manhood in society. A subset of these behaviors, though, are harmful and destructive both to men themselves and those around them.
While this page describes qualities and behaviors that anyone can express, it's focus is on how they are represented in masculinity. Here are some ways to guide your child toward skills and habits that'll serve them well in relationships and life.
Emotions can seem like a dark forest, especially for a growing boy.
Guide your child along the path to express healthy emotions by giving them the space to express natural emotions.
Not doing so risks raising boys who are disconnected enough from their emotions that they don’t recognize them in others or they substitute anger or isolation for the natural emotions of shame, guilt and disappointment.
What you can do...
1. Avoid Hardening Them.
Too often boys in pain are told to stop crying, to “man up”, or are laughed at for crying when in pain. Being shown disapproval, dismissal or ridicule when in pain trains boys not to be empathetic and compassionate. Boys who this happens to repress, shut down, and disconnect from their pain. And worse, they treat others pain as they were treated with disapproval, dismissal and ridicule. A person can’t empathize with an experience they are not allowed to have.
Link: The Clearing
2. Teach Boys to Express Emotions.
Teaching boys how to express and handle their emotions starts with you. By showing them how you cry, show excitement or feel sadness, you model a healthy alternative to bottling up and suppressing emotions. Listening to your son when he is hurting shows your son how he can support his friends and creates an opportunity to teach that though feeling emotions is natural, how we respond to them is ultimately up to us. Telling boys "boys don't cry" teaches them to be ashamed of their natural emotions. Try asking “What’s going on?” instead of “Why are you crying?” or, even worse, “Stop crying.” The first question enables a conversation where vulnerability is permitted. This tells them that someone is there to support them and not make them feel bad for what they are going through, so in the future, they are more likely to come to you.
3. Check-in with intention.
A lot of boys have a lot going on, but don't know what would happen if they told others. Form a habit of checking in with your boy. Let him know you are a safe person to come to. Check this out for some help: Link: The Check-in
Link: The Check-In
4. Be their best model of empathy.
Emotional events happen all the time for children, from dropping ice cream to tripping. Simply say “Tell me all about it.” Then “That’s hard.” Then “What else?” This is healthy coping because it teaches boys how to help themselves as they grow up and how to help other boys.
Boys cannot be what they can’t see.
- Lael Stone
The best leaders are those who serve and aren't threatened by somebody else doing something great.
But boys can quickly learn that they can gain power by exerting control or showing dominance, and that those who are powerful or dominant are the most successful.
You can curb this attitude by applauding when your son works well with others and letting him work with you. By setting aside time to work on a project together and congratulate him on being a team player afterwards, you send the message that working well with others is something to strive for.
What you can do...
1. Encourage collaborative decision-making.
Emphasize how crucial the input of others is on decision-making, especially input from those who the decision impacts. One person can’t see every perspective and the unique backgrounds of others fill gaps in understanding.
2. Note how competitive and HYPERcompetitive differ.
Praise your child for their wins and achievements, but help them see that winning at all costs disconnects you from others and can lead to a life of loneliness. The best wins come from life-long relationships because they give life meaning. A shelf full of trophies only collects dust.
3. Model receiving support.
Show your child how to reach out to friends and family for support. Explain when, how and why you've done it in the past and why it worked for you. Men are 3.7 times more likely to commit suicide than women (source). Setting this example early can help them overcome challenges later in life when the stakes become high.
4. Remind them of their inherent worth.
Let your boy know that they are valuable for their presence and loved as they are. Not from their achievement or productivity, or their ability to support a family. That nothing can change how much you love them.
Boys won’t be boys. Boys will be what we teach them to be.
- Ben Hurst
Be your child’s best mentor for and model of healthy relationships.
This means having awkward and tough conversations around dating, relationships and manhood.
So redefine "the talk" to be more than just about sex, its about how to have life-long, meaningful relationships.
What you can do...
1. Model Consent.
Begin teaching your son at an early age what consent looks like. Young men need examples of consent as an ongoing enthusiastic interaction between two people. You can plant these seeds at home in three simple ways: (1) When your son looks uncomfortable or hesitant about doing something, ask if they are comfortable with it. (2) Show enthusiasm when you say 'yes' to something. (3) Tell them that when someone says 'no', it is disrespectful to try and get a 'yes'.
2. Assume they know and make your position known.
Whatever bad examples of relationships you see in popular movies, shows or politics, you can bet your boy has seen it too. They will stumble upon these examples through memes, GIFs, Reddit threads, shared YouTube videos, and any number of other online websites. Perhaps you don't know where to start a conversation or think you won't be taken seriously. That's okay. Remember that it is better to take an awkward stand than to seem to take no position at all.
3. Speak about what pornography leaves out.
Most boys have seen pornography by the age of 11. This is because nearly all boys today have smartphones by middle school. Most pornography depicts aggressive physical acts which include choking, gagging, hitting and binding of women in humiliating or degrading positions. Because these depictions of sex leave out discussions of consent and types of intimacy, like emotional intimacy. Porn creates a distorted view of sex for boys, while affecting boys ’ brain chemistry, making it very addictive, and highly rewarding to consume. The choice between conversation and silence is one between being your boy's mentor or allowing pornography to be your boy's sex education. Expressing your opinions is a good start. Some examples to get started: • “Healthy sex normally involves conversation about preferences and consent. Porn doesn’t show that even though it is important.” • “One of the things that porn doesn’t portray well is emotional attraction. You can become attracted to someone by connecting and becoming vulnerable with them.” • “Keep in mind that porn tends to show unrealistic sex and even acts of harm. Sex requires trust, respect and being comfortable with the ones you love.” • “Porn can influence what we think our partner wants from sex. The only way to know what your partner wants is to ask them and talk about it. Make sure you do that.”
4. Label coercion when you see it.
Coercion is whenever you persuade someone to do something using pressure, threats or force. Ingrain the importance of respecting boundaries in relationships and that no one ever is owed or can be pressured into sexual favors. Predatory dating and romantically depicted sexual assault are popular in classic movies, books, TV shows and songs. The longer we ignore it, the longer we continue to allow media to teach boys myths that mistreating women is okay or desired in romance. Labeling these behaviors when you see them is a quick and easy way to teach your boy what coercion looks like.
5. Develop domestic life skills.
Help them see domestic labor, like cleaning a house, doing their laundry and cooking as universal responsibilities, not gendered ones. When only one gender performs a certain task, children learn that only that gender is supposed to or can perform that task. Let them see you doing a variety of tasks at home and then have them learn to do it too because they are life skills.