Instead, if we enable boys to be themselves, teach them to be proud of who they are, and help them connect with their emotions, they have a much better chance of growing into caring, honorable men.
The goal of this article is to help you find ways to encourage your boy to be proud of who he is. Whether he naturally gravitates toward trucks or dolls is irrelevant. The relevant piece is to let him play with either one so he can explore who he is without stressing about who he thinks other people want him to be. Here are some suggestions:
Examine your own judgements.
One of the hardest things we have to do as parents is to look at ourselves objectively to make sure we actually believe the stuff we’re telling our kids. Really believing in gender equality means that you think men and women should have equal access to the exact same resources and opportunities, regardless of gender. Ask yourself if you truly want your boy to grow into a man who advocates for this notion.
If you’re sure about your conviction, fantastic!
Be vigilant. He’ll hear lots of differing opinions from outside sources. Keep taking stock of what you believe and hammering away at the values you want him to learn as he grows.
Allow him to have a full range of emotions.
Requiring boys to differentiate between what they show the world and what they actually feel inside happens really young. A boy grows into that mask to the point where the mask becomes how he thinks of himself. He becomes cut off from his heart. And boys who sever ties with their own feelings are less perceptive about what they’re actually feeling. They don’t know how to behave fairly in a relationship.
Instead, teach your boy that it’s possible to be strong AND sensitive — the two are not incompatible. Keep your explanations simple so there is a better chance that he’ll remember what you say. Here are some ideas:
Emotions. Explain to your boy that emotions are for everyone and that it’s important to be able to feel all of your feelings in order to let go of them and move on. Point out emotions in a really practical, basic way (happy, sad) and support him through the hard ones (grief, jealousy).
Crying. Boys cry. Girls cry. Men cry. Women cry. Everyone cries. Crying is a normal human reaction to grief, to hurt, to pain, to disappointment and even anger. Crying is what lets the emotions out and allows you to process something that is disturbing. It is cathartic; it is essential. Tell him he shouldn’t be ashamed of tears—you’re not embarrassed if he cries—expressing feelings doesn’t mean he’s weak.
While he’s crying, explain why it’s okay to cry. Tell him that emotions don’t go away and if you keep them inside, they’ll keep stacking on top of each other until eventually there’s no more room on the stack, and all the emotions will burst out at once. It’s much better to let each emotion out one by one when you feel it. (Note: Use visuals here of stacked objects if you think that will help to drive home your message.)
Books. Depending on his age, encourage him to read realistic books like Tough Guys Have Feelings, Too with characters like a losing wrestler and a homesick astronaut feeling sad. Books like this show boys that sad or negative feelings are normal and nothing to be embarrassed about.
Another idea is to create a bookshelf with very masculine books on one end, gender neutral books in the middle, and emotional books at the other end. Casually tell him there’s a new bookshelf filled with books he might enjoy. Take note of which books he gravitates toward. This will tell you a lot about how to move forward with his current sense of himself.
Toys. Let your boy play with anything he wants (within reason). The important thing is that the toy feeds his curiosity and helps him develop skills that will eventually assist him in navigating the world as he grows. Nurture his nature and interests, whatever those may be. If that means he wants to play with toys that are traditionally associated with girls, let him. Or if he wears colors or clothing that has sometimes been stereotyped, so be it. Support and encourage him when and if he picks stuff that you think isn’t masculine.
Media. Many of our most toxic ideas about masculinity are passed down through entertainment. This is doubly troubling because the effect is that we not only receive these toxic messages, but we also enjoy getting them because of the medium. While you still have some control over the media your boy digests, steer him away from anything that features violence, misogyny, submissive women, and/or gender-exaggerated superheroes. The less he’s exposed to this harmful culture, the better.
Try to provide exposure to as many girl-power examples as possible. Watch Wonder Woman together and make comments about women’s abilities. Even if he protests and tries to refute your opinion, the message he’s getting will click eventually when his mind gathers enough evidence. Everyone has their own tipping point for how they formulate beliefs.
Inner voice. Teach him to follow his inner voice instead of peer pressure. A boy who learns to trust and value his own inner thoughts, can lead others. Make sure he knows that standing up for the rights of the marginalized, like girls and women, or even himself, is actually quite brave — and should be admired.
Choices. Celebrate who he is by supporting his choices. Let him make the small decisions like what he wears. He needs to feel like he has some control over his own life. Once you turn the choice over to him, stand back, bite your tongue, and let him make the decision (unless it’s harmful to himself or others).
It takes patience. We all know how long it can take a child to choose, and while he’s choosing, it’s easy to worry about whether or not you’re doing the right thing. But, nudging him one way or another, even if our intentions are good, defeats the purpose — which is to teach him to make choices based on his feelings.
Play. Let your boy explore a range of experiences and play including games with gender-neutral toys. Don’t over-emphasize physical play. Parents tend to let boys play roughly because “boys will be boys.” While it’s fine to let your boy roughhouse, it’s important to help him learn empathy by talking to him about the feelings of the children he’s playing with and helping him understand how his actions affect others.
Let your boy know that he doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s definition of manhood, and that who he is just fine by you. Tell him, repeatedly, that he is loved and accepted no matter what.
Allow friendships with girls.
When boys have equal opportunity to interact with both boys and girls, there is less likelihood that they’ll grow up thinking of girls purely on the basis of romantic or sexual partners.
Encourage your boy to cultivate diverse friendships. This will bolster his understanding that we are all just people, and that there are lots of things to like about a person that have nothing to do with gender.
If he develops a friendship with a girl, definitely don’t call them “boyfriend and girlfriend.” Boys and girls need to understand they can interact in friendly ways that have nothing to do with romance.
Birthday parties and playdates are great opportunities to help him think about boys and girls on a universal level. Be wary here though — there’s no need to “push” friendships with girls. Your boy will naturally gravitate toward the playmate he’s comfortable
Just be ready to be supportive either way.