We all want a man who will cook and clean, but we tell our sons that kitchen playsets are for girls. We’re impressed by a guy who can tear up a dance floor, but won’t take our boys to dance class. We swoon over a man who shows sensitivity, is moved to tears on his wedding day or at the birth of his children, but boys aren’t supposed to cry. We prize involved, hands-on fathers, but won’t allow our sons to play with baby dolls.
Anything that could be remotely perceived as “girly” is off limits to little boys until … I don’t know when. There’s a problem, and it starts with us — the people responsible for shaping boys into the adults we expect them to be.
After all, how can we ask them to be a certain way as men when we discourage them from fostering those traits when they’re young?
Society at large doesn’t nurture a boy’s emotional side or caretaking skills, even though they come just as naturally as they do to girls. Boys are actual human beings with actual human emotions, who will cry when they’re hurt or heartbroken – until we tell them not to by way of “toughening them up.” We do it for their benefit, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves, because we’re afraid that they’ll be bullied if they fall outside the norms of traditional masculinity.
But what’s the benefit in denying them a chance to be the kind of well-rounded grown-ups that they deserve to be? Shouldn’t we be redefining traditional masculinity instead, challenging society to broaden the definition so that our boys are finally allowed to be the sweet, sentient people they are?
If we spend time grooming our boys to become anything, it’s breadwinners. We emphasize leadership and business savvy, which is fine, if it isn’t to the exclusion of everything else they should be learning. But so often, we forget (or maybe just neglect) that in addition to employees and bosses, they’ll also be husbands and fathers. They will spend just as much time navigating interpersonal interactions as they do business transactions, but we equip them for one and not the other. They’re prepared for their careers, but when it comes to emotional intelligence, we stunt their growth – on purpose – and then wonder why our men can’t just be a little more sensitive.
We live in a culture that tells boys to “man up,” portraying stereotypically feminine qualities as weaknesses, and then expect men to treat women as equals. We can’t tell our sons that women are just as capable as men, but think nothing of berating them at Little League practice, even in a teasing way, for hitting “like a girl.”
The mixed messages we send are damaging, and do nothing to turn our boys into balanced and versatile men. We’re doing them no favors – and we’re doing no favors to our daughters, the would-be women who will bear the repercussions of our poor parenting decisions.
This is in no way giving men an “out” for being chauvinistic or lazy or abusive, because grown-ass adults are more than capable of rising above deeply-ingrained beliefs; just like people escape from cults and survive tragedy, guys can make a conscious choice to prevail over the teachings of their childhood. If a man wasn’t raised to be sensitive or affectionate, he can change – he just has more to overcome. There is no excuse.
We read to our toddlers and download phonics apps on our phones to give them a head start, an advantage when they get to school. We need to give our sons the same kind of advantage, letting them cultivate the qualities we want them to embody as boyfriends and husbands and fathers, instead of stifling those qualities and hoping maybe they’ll develop sometime down the road.
After all, we’re raising so much more than just the future workforce. We’re raising child humans who will one day be adult humans — with all the complexities and responsibilities that entails.