There are a lot of things I never expected to say to my sons — things like, “Don’t wipe boogers on your brother,” or my personal favorite, “Stop wrapping your penis around your fork.”
And then there are the things I said I’d never do, and yet here they are, excessive screen time and processed foods and all. My personal parenting philosophy is “never say never,” because it is largely situational, and even your best intentions can be derailed by circumstances.
But as many parenting curveballs as I’ve been thrown, I can still say with absolute certainty that there’s one thing I have never, and will never, say to my sons.
I’ll never, ever tell them to “man up.”
People go to great lengths to teach their daughters (and rightfully so!) that they can be anything and do anything that a boy can. The up-and-coming generation of women is not routinely told to “act like ladies” the way their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were. They are encouraged to break out of the traditional roles set forth for their gender, to tread boldly into territory once occupied only by the opposite sex, and to be equals at every angle. If a girl displays so-called “boyish” traits, she is lauded for being strong and having the confidence to push through the barriers of femininity.
But hammered into the psyches of our sons is the pressure to be masculine — dominant, powerful, stoic, and athletic. And if they exhibit any traits remotely perceived to be “feminine,” they are branded as weak and inferior and are set up to be run over by those who — occasionally by nature, but mostly by conditioning — don’t display those traits as readily. It’s unfair to our boys. And it’s a damn shame.
Having four sons of my own, I know a thing or two about boys. And one of those things is this: They are sweet, empathetic, big-hearted creatures until someone tells them they can’t be. They come equipped with the same range of human emotions and responses — insecurities, fears, sadness — as anyone else on the planet, but so many are repeatedly told to stuff those emotions and to suppress those responses because they’re “not manly.” Where are those feelings supposed to go? They don’t just dissipate into thin air. They fester inside, transforming into frustration or resentment or rage. And if a boy loses his tight grip on his emotional reins, even momentarily, he risks being belittled. “Man up,” someone will tell him. “Don’t be a sissy.”
As a female, I’ve always been allowed the luxury of letting my feelings show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed or hurt or angry enough to weep, and not once has anyone ever told me to stop. If my eyes well with tears of compassion at the image of a starving, emaciated child on TV, no one gives it a second thought. But heaven forbid a man reacts the same way. He can be just as appalled, just as emotionally impacted, but he’d better show it with nothing more than a frown or a head shake.
By telling our boys to stifle their feelings, we’re depriving them of the chance to develop crucial emotional skills. They can never fully connect with another human being if they aren’t allowed to experience their emotions and clearly communicate that experience. They can never completely understand and relate to anyone else’s feelings if they aren’t familiar with their own. Society’s pressure to be constantly unemotional is cheating them out of the chance to be more well-rounded and successful in every facet of their lives, from their personal relationships to their professional development. Why would we want this for the boys we love? Why would we want this for the men they’re growing up to be?
One of the most important gifts I can give my sons is the freedom to express their full range of emotions. I will never tell them not to cry. Instead, I hug them and tell them that it’s okay to be sad. It’s normal to be disappointed. It’s natural to respond with tears. I will never tell them something they feel or something they like is “not for boys.”
My 4-year-old’s favorite pair of shoes happens to be a sparkly pair of pink-and-purple My Little Pony Crocs, and he wore them proudly around town until a boy at the playground told him they were girl shoes. He asked me, his brown eyes full of concern, if that was bad. And I told him what I thought: They’re awesome shoes and he loves them, and he should continue to love them no matter what anyone else says. Personal preferences, like natural temperaments and dispositions, should never be defined according solely to gender.
This is why I’ll never tell my sons to “man up.” As long as anyone considers sensitivity, empathy, and compassion “girly” instead of simply human, we’re doing a huge disservice to both our sons and our daughters. There is no lesser; we’re all privy to the same emotional responses, and we should all have the ability to display them in whatever way they come out.
Boys will be boys — warm, loving, feeling boys — until society tries to teach them to be men.
It’s time to rethink our definition.
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