How To Raise Boys Without All The Stereotypes About Gender & Masculinity
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
These days in countries like the U.S., it's a lot easier than it has been in the past for girls to pursue hobbies, careers, and preferences once thought exclusive to boys. There's, of course, still much work to do in creating truly equal opportunities and access, but the good news is that there's much less of a push to shove all girls into traditional caretaking and homemaking roles. Some parents may even be eager to support and celebrate their daughters' interest in sports, science, adventure, and the like.
How about our sons?
Ask yourself this: How would you feel about your son wearing skirts and makeup, joining the cheerleading squad or ballet, and spending a lot of time giggling on the phone talking with his friends about schoolyard crushes?
Why many parents struggle to let their boys be "feminine."
A 2018 study in the Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity found parents tend to be more uncomfortable with their child having gender-nonconforming behaviors when their child is a boy than when their child is a girl. Parents were also more likely to try to change boys' gender-nonconforming behaviors than to try to change girls. In other words, parents are way more OK with girls doing "boy stuff" than with boys doing "girl stuff." (Those words don't actually mean much, of course, but we'll get to that.)
That discomfort from seeing boys display traits we associate with femininity stems from a combination of sexism and homophobia, explains Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York.
"Sexism is rooted in the belief that men are superior to women and masculinity is superior to femininity," they tell mbg. "As such, 'male qualities,' or masculinity, is inherently more acceptable and desirable. Boys deviating from masculinity are then viewed as offensive and inferior."
The above study also found that parents who showed more "warmth" toward their son were more likely to try to change his gender-nonconforming behaviors. The researchers posited that this finding suggests parents who intervene to guide their sons back toward traditional "boy" behaviors might be doing it because they think it's good for him. For example, perhaps these parents feel like their son will get bullied or shamed for their "girly" behaviors, and so they believe steering him away from those behaviors is the right thing to do for his well-being.
But in truth, denying a child's authentic self can create major physical and mental health problems for them down the line: everything from social alienation to lack of proper health care access to increased suicide risk.
"Protective instincts are rote and innate, and they tell us that when something feels dangerous, we should take the easiest and quickest route to restore safety," sex educator and crisis counselor Cavanaugh Quick, LMSW, tells mbg. "The problem is that restoring safety isn't inherently the same as eliminating the threat. Confronting the negative behaviors from others, reinforcing positive reception and love with our young people who experience them, and encouraging an expanded possibility for this kind of expression in our boys both restores safety and targets the threat directly."
Kahn adds, "A lot of research has shown us the power of acceptance from one's parents. The strongest protection a parent can offer is supporting their child, which begins with examining their own judgments."
How to raise sons without pigeonholing them into gender stereotypes.
1. Remember that "boy" doesn't really tell us anything specific about someone's interests or habits.
Don't assume you know what your son will like or how he'll act just because he's a boy. "Boy" doesn't really mean anything in particular, after all—we have associations about what being a "boy" and a "man" mean, associations that we're taught growing up and that get reinforced by our culture and by the media. Then we start teaching them to our children. Research has shown us time and time again that parents treat girls and boys differently, affecting everything from their color preferences to their emotional intelligence to their STEM skills and much more.
"Listen to and stay curious about your child's interests; if they deviate from your gendered expectations, challenge yourself to both allow your child to engage in that activity as well as be supportive (as supportive as you would be of something you deem more acceptable)," Kahn says. "If a parent is nonresponsive, appears uncomfortable, less interested, or less excited about something their child is doing that is considered nonconforming, the parent is reinforcing their beliefs regarding gendered expectations. Kids pick up on that information."
Do your best to avoid making assumptions—or being outwardly surprised if your son does something outside of your assumptions. Just remember this: There's nothing innate about boys liking blue, trucks, sports, girls, or action movies, nor is there anything innate about boys being unemotional or bad at cooking and cleaning. If most boys are like that, it's because we've collectively taught them to be like that. There's nothing wrong with them developing those traits, of course, but there's no reason to actively push your child into any of them just because he's a "boy."
2. Actively offer your son the "feminine" options.
Just like with the word "boy," the word "girl" doesn't really mean anything unless you make it mean something. Whatever it is you typically associate with girlhood, make sure your son has a real opportunity to choose that if it appeals to him.
"That means not just saying 'I'm OK with it if you want to do this' but actually making stuff available and actively participating in offering expanded options to your young people," Quick explains. "Take them down every aisle in the clothing/toy/school supply/etc. store when you're shopping and just ask them what they like. Make space for them to make decisions when possible, instead of being directive. Support and encourage them when and if they pick stuff that you think isn't masculine."
3. Watch your gendered language.
Watch out for things like "man up," "be a man," "tough guy," and "boys will be boys." And when boys and men around your son do something that conforms to your familiar definition of masculinity, try to avoid making comments about that behavior that imply it's inherently masculine. (Some examples: "Boys always play so rough!" or "Of course all the dads stayed home to watch the game tonight!")
"When speaking to children, parents unconsciously use feminine adjectives to describe their daughters and masculine adjectives with their sons," Kahn adds. "Don't use language that boosts gendered expectations about how people of specific binary genders are 'supposed' to act."
4. Introduce your sons to people who are gender-nonconforming.
Kahn also recommends introducing your kids to gender-nonconforming and trans people, whether in their lives, in history, or in the media or TV shows. That exposure can help kids start to understand gender for what it really is—not something set in stone based on body parts but rather something that's just about what behaviors and traits feel comfortable and authentic to any individual.
"Teach [your] children that gendered constructs are not facts, and successfully communicate that their interests, identities, [and] presentations don't have to be confined to an assigned gender or role," Kahn explains.
5. Keep educating yourself.
"You can't teach what you don't know," Quick points out. "Talk with yourself about what your gender (nonconforming or not) means to you and why it's important. Why do you make the choices you make? How do you feel when someone forces you into something different? … Asking and exploring these things for yourself gives you more insight and helps you model that exploration for your young ones."
If you have no idea where to start, pick up a book about gender to read in your downtime. Kahn adds that seeing a gender-affirmative therapist can also be a really helpful way for parents to educate themselves and figure out how to best support their child, especially if their child is queer or trans.
6. Be an advocate in your community.
Your son might have the most traditionally "boyish" gender expression ever (whatever that means); that's totally cool. Just remember it still doesn't give you a pass to go back to passively or actively supporting stereotypes. No matter your kids' gender identities, raise them so they know how to actively question the gender norms they'll inevitably encounter outside the home, so they can choose for themselves who they want to be. Support their growth into open-minded and accepting young people who'll be able to support the gender identities of their peers, whatever they may be. That also means correcting your kids when they're making gendered comments about their classmates or about TV shows.
You should also stay engaged in conversations around gender, especially around your children's schools and your family's larger community. Does your kids' school have a weird, gendered policy about girls being allowed to wear nail polish but boys aren't? Or about which uniforms or bathrooms trans kids are allowed to use? Use your voice to advocate for freedom, expression, and inclusivity.
"I believe in focusing on changing the environments we live in so that a gender-nonconforming child doesn't have to fear being teased, bullied, or have to change as a means of protection from judgment," Kahn says. "That change starts at home."
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