Let's get right to it: Why are we writing about raising boys? And why now? Some may argue that boys, being members of the dominant gender, coast through life on a cloud of male privilege. After all, by age 5, boys are already more likely to be seen as "really, really smart."
When they get to school, male students are not only called on more often by teachers, they're asked more sophisticated questions and are given more extensive feedback. They're more likely to take on leadership roles in math and science classes - and are more likely to be viewed as leaders in general. They go on to become the CEOs of 95% of the Fortune 500 companies and hold 76% of seats in the United States congress. From the outside, boys seem to be doing just fine.
When you look closer, though, it's clear that today's men are in crisis. In January 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued its first-ever guidelines to help psychologists work with men and boys because, it says, "something is amiss for men." The organization paints a bleak picture: "Men commit 90% of homicides in the United States and represent 77% of homicide victims. They're the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women's."
According to the APA, manhood itself is the problem - at least in the way it's come to be defined. "Traditional masculinity," the guidelines state, "marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression is, on the whole, harmful."
Being stifled by rigid expectations of masculinity is something that Ted Bunch calls being put in the "Man Box." As the chief development officer of A Call to Men, an organization that seeks to promote a healthy and respectful manhood, he's worked with Scholastic to develop a curriculum designed to prevent violence and bullying in school sports.
"'Man Box' is a phrase we coined which really talks about how boys are taught to become men," he says. “Don't cry, don't ask for help, always be in charge, maintain control over people and things around you. When we tell boys at 2 and 3 years old, whenever they start crying, to 'man up' or 'suck it up,' we're also telling them to stop feeling. Then boys don't understand or develop any emotional literacy. The only emotion they wind up expressing is anger. They don't really get a chance to experience their full, authentic selves."
Right now, we're still leading our sons right into the Man Box. Plan International's 2018 study of 1,000 10- to 19-year-olds discovered that boys still feel wedded to that traditional masculinity: More than 80% of the young men who responded have heard someone tell a boy he was "acting like a girl," 72% say they personally feel pressure to be physically strong, and 44% of older boys (14 to 19) feel pressure to be willing to punch someone if provoked. A third of them also admit to feeling pressure to dominate those around them. (See Plan International's tips for how to foster healthy masculinity here.)
In one way or another, most of us are passing on this strict gender code. "I feel like a lot of boys at a certain age get this message that there are very specific ways of connecting," says Mark Pagán, host and producer of the podcast Other Men Need Help, which examines and dissects various aspects of the adult male performance.
"You learn you can’t celebrate the simple things that all human beings do, like deep friendships and affection towards friends and things like that. And it has these ripple effects into adulthood," he continues. "We started doing interviews with men for the podcast, and what kept coming up was this deep, deep desire for close friendships. All of them were talking about how isolated they were. And I think a lot of that starts to develop in childhood."
“I remember I had a cousin, and we were pen pals for a while," he adds. “We were writing letters right when adolescence was starting. And I remember he sent a letter once that said something along the lines of, 'Oh, your stamps are really cute.' And at the word 'cute,' I automatically put a guard up. I just wish that there was an adult angel on my shoulder that said, 'Notice that emotion, notice how you’re fighting against it. He's just trying to connect with you. It’s okay. Maintain that connection. Even lean into it.'"
What our kids need now is for us to expand our notions of what it means to be a man, and to form a space where all the warm, loving, caring boys we know can exist as they are. Some parents are already proving they're up to the challenge.
Take Martine Zoer, for example, a mom of two boys and the founder of Quirkie Kids, a clothing retailer. Her clothes are gender-neutral, so boys and girls have equal access to all the designs - even pink ones. The company started a #stillaboy social media campaign to celebrate the ways boys can do things that are traditionally seen as feminine. "Just because a boy plays with dolls or likes the color pink, it doesn't make him a girl," she says. "A boy who has long hair or wears a dress or likes to dance is still a boy."
Since starting the campaign, more than 95,000 images have been tagged using the #stillaboy hashtag, and many of them have been collected on the @stillaboy_ Instagram account. (And that playing-with-dolls thing? The same Plan International study noted earlier found a correlation between playing with gender-neutral toys and feeling less pressure to throw a punch in a fight.)
The good news is that it's possible to break boys out of the Man Box - even if you're getting a late start. Bunch is excited by all of the progress he's seen in the students that have been through his curriculum.
"One of the original pilot programs was at a school in Los Angeles,” he says. "This group of boys went through the curriculum together. Afterward, when things would happen in school - let's say one of the boys said something that was homophobic, degrading to girls, or sexually objectifying - the other boys would just point and say 'Man Box' to them. And that would be a way of holding them accountable and calling them out. So boys really want to be healthy and they want to be respectful." They’re just looking for someone to show them how. (And if you're a parent, educator, or coach interested in the A Call to Men curriculum, the organization makes it available for free.)
"Boys who come to us at the high school level - they've already had 14 years of socialization in the larger society," says Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, an organization that runs Men of Strength Clubs for violence prevention in middle and high schools. "And when we open the Pandora's Box for them, they actually see the misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism on a daily basis, in their schools, and in their communities. For us, the thing that we're always most pleased with, is that they start to use the language of equality, justice, and strength in a way that meets whatever peer group they're in.”
But if there's one thing holding our sons back, it's us. "I think the biggest challenge to today’s young boys is adults who don't allow boys to really develop their full selves," Irvin says. "We get to a place where we start to entrench ourselves in beliefs and ideals that may be reflective of our life experience, and we don't change and evolve as easily as young people do. We need to allow them to do things that are historically thought of as gendered, and now we recognize them as just behaviors, or ideals, or goals, or purposes that are genderless."
And yet, there's not a ton of support out there for parents of boys who want to do better. (I'm personally the mom of a girl, and I feel so much more awash in advice, books, programs, and products that offer female empowerment for young girls.)
That's why GoodHousekeeping.com is doing a deep dive into the ways we raise boys today. We're looking into the joys, the fears, the hopes, and the ways we can calm our anxiety as parents. We're hoping to fill in the gap, and cheer on the parents who are committed to keeping their boys open, loving, and caring in a cultural climate that makes it very hard to do so.
We talked to parents, we talked to experts, and we talked to boys themselves to figure out how we can steer them away from becoming one of the grim statistics put forth by the APA. And we aimed to do it in an honest, but positive way - not by talking about all the harm that boys could do in the world, but by figuring out the ways that we can amplify and preserve the good that's already inside of them.
Writer Lauren Smith Brody admits she thought she'd just have to teach her sons how to make their beds and say "please" and "thank you." But in 2019, it's about so much more than that - and the stakes are higher than ever.
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