Boys will be boys, right? Anyone who parents a boy or works with them knows boys are unique. Many boys have a lot of energy, are eager to please, and some talk incessantly– at least at first.
They are a joy to have around, yet boys stump parents with their decision to refuse a coat when it’s cold, or to treat the furniture like a trampoline, or to spit while playing sports.
Some of these behaviors may be inborn male traits, but there are several factors that ultimately influence a boy’s view of himself as male.
The differences between boys and girls can become apparent early on. For example, young boys who have never viewed violence on television may still create weapons out of whatever is at hand, whether it is sticks – or even toast on their breakfast plate.
In addition, it is not uncommon to see boys wrestle and put each other in head locks in the friendliest of manners. Boys tend to be more physical in their play than girls; though it’s important to remember that not all boys prefer roughhouse games and light sabers.
Some parents notice at some point that their once chatty, sweet little boy suddenly becomes aggressive, sullen, and barely grunts when spoken to. While this shift in attitude and conduct can be a temporary, age-appropriate response to growing up, parents should realize that some boys may be quietly struggling to find their place in a society that all-too-often narrowly defines masculinity.
What it Means to Be A Boy/Man: Parents Set the Tone
From the time boys are very small, they receive messages about what it means to be a boy. These messages come primarily from their families, but boys also absorb these lessons from movies, books, music, the school playground, and, later on, the locker room, among other sources. Boys’ sense of masculinity is born when they are born. It starts when parents marvel at how strong their son will be and continues when they first place a ball in the boy’s hand.
Without even realizing it, parents set the tone for how a boy will define and view himself in the world. Consequently, when parents dismiss a boy’s pain– whether it is physical, mental, or emotional– and insist he not cry, parents send a message about what it means to be a boy. Further, when a person tells a boy that he may not play with dolls or stuffed animals, again, he learns his family’s view of masculinity.
Even when well-meaning parents encourage their boys to compete in the often ruthless world of sports, boys learn lessons about what it means to be a man. Of course it’s natural for parents of boys to want to get them off to a solid start in the world. But awareness and balance can help set boys up for success.
Ultimately, the boys who are able to balance traditional views of masculinity with much-needed skills that many boys lack are the ones who will be more resilient as adults. Parents and teachers who have this awareness are more likely to have success at supporting the boys in their lives.
Masculinity and the Whole Boy
A boy’s sense of masculinity will, in turn, impact other facets of his development. The way a boy views himself is interconnected with his sense of emotional literacy, communication skills, and his empathy for others. Just as not all girls prefer to wear pink clothing and play princess and dress up games, not all boys are high energy and love to play sports.
There is a definite continuum involved. It is natural and normal for all children to come to terms with societal norms for masculinity or femininity; but some struggle more than others as they embrace views, toys, or hobbies that may be out of sync with unspoken rules. This may be even more challenging for some boys.
Masculinity: Where Does He Stand?
Media plays a major role in how young boys view themselves. Messages bombard boys everyday with how they should behave. From movies, books, and songs, boys learn that they should act tough, refrain from compassionate acts, and even taunt and tease others. Video games and sports channels send sexually explicit and degrading messages on how to treat women, and advertise alcohol that even the youngest boys understand.
By the time they reach the primary grades, many boys fear being perceived as weak or feminine. Accordingly, some boys distance themselves from their friendships with the girls they played with in preschool and kindergarten. Others cope with this insecurity through bullying or teasing boys who are on the margin. On the other hand, some boys are happy with who they are, regardless of societal standards.
Boys and Sports: Size Matters
Whether boys are involved with sports or not, athletes– local as well as professional ones– can be a driving force in how boys compare themselves to one another and masculine ideals. Boys tend to be competitive by nature, so many will gravitate toward famous athletes who set a high bar for defining masculinity.
If left to themselves, some boys can become depressed and frustrated when they fail to measure up to the appearance and accomplishments of professional athletes. Just as girls can become obsessed with looking like models on the front of fashion magazines, boys can put too much emphasis on body size and strength.
While sports can offer boys opportunities to learn teamwork and other valuable life lessons, the sports world can also serve as an arena for all sorts of unsavory behavior.
Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys- Why Boys are Different- and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men, agrees: “Where are you most likely to see real-life demonstrations of violence, egotism, bad temper, sexual crudity, alcohol abuse, racism, and homophobia? At any sports field!”
Sports, then, can play a role in how boys view themselves in the pecking order of boy world.
Boys and School: Group Dynamics
Ever notice that boys tend to get in more trouble at school than girls? Of course, there are many reasons why kids, in general, act out; but often boys get in trouble for trying to assert their masculinity. Boys learn early on that they must be the winner and the quest for competition ensues.
Not long after boys enter school, they gather that they must figure out where they stand among one another. While some boys are happy to bow out and do their own thing, many boys line up to participate in (often under the radar) competitions that establish a winner or an alpha male. Just as a group of girls usually has a queen bee with a side kick, groups of boys, too, have an order that can create strong classroom dynamics.
The alpha male can greatly influence how other boys choose to behave. What appears as disruptive behavior to the teacher– excessive talking or off-task laughter – often involves a competition among boys to see who can show off the most, who can appear the funniest, or who can best annoy the girls in the class. Most of the time, these behaviors are benign, but power imbalances can occur with boys as well as girls.
One of the first lessons many boys learn is to avoid crying. For some, crying signals weakness, for some, it communicates a lack of control. Some parents reinforce this perception. One can hear parents at the soccer or baseball field, for example, as well as the local playground tell their boys to “shake it off,” “toughen up,” or “rub some dirt in it” when their sons get physically hurt.
In addition, adults often advise many boys who reluctantly admit that a friend hurt their feelings to just ignore the situation. Some boys come to believe they are not allowed to acknowledge pain lest their growing sense of masculinity be threatened. When adults scold boys for crying or responding to stress, many learn to deny their physical, emotional, and mental pain.
Unfortunately, turning away from stress can cause pain to reemerge as physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as boys get older.
For some boys, alternatives to crying can include lack of verbal communication, acting tough, or engaging in aggressive behavior. Perhaps a more lasting consequence involves a deficiency in the ability to label emotions. When boys repeatedly push down their feelings, they can become out of touch with exactly which emotions are rising to the surface.
This, in turn, can have a lasting effect on a boy’s self-esteem as well as how he interacts with others. So how to encourage emotional literacy?
According to Dan Kindlon, PhD and Michael Thompson, PhD, authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys,
“Boys need an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression. They need to experience empathy at home and at school and be encouraged to use it if they are to develop a conscience.”
Discipline: Build Character with Calm Guidance
All children require discipline and occasional punishment at some point in their upbringing. Some boys, however, often receive harsher consequences than girls. Boys, in general, tend to be more impulsive and active than girls, especially during the early years.
Many parents carry on long-held generational beliefs about discipline. While more and more parents are coming to terms with the consequences of spanking and constant yelling, just as many utilize the punishments that their own parents used. Often, this involves a gender injustice: girls get lectures or grounded while boys incur more physical punishments.
Kindlon and Thompson note, “Where we see harsh discipline or abuse in boys’ lives, we see boys who struggle with shame, self-hatred, and anger. Many boys simply shut down emotionally at a young age and stay that way, unable to understand or express their feelings as they move into adult relationships in work, marriage, and family.”
All kids need clear, consistent boundaries and rules to follow; but boys will especially benefit from loving discipline rooted in respect that does not involve shaming. Boys who consistently encounter angry adults who attempt to shape their behavior are likely to defy authority figures as they get older.
Boys on the Margin
Many boys are not interested in engaging in rough and tumble activities. These boys take pride in their academic achievements, enjoy playing an instrument, or have an affinity for one of the arts. Or a boy may be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Many may reject traditionally viewed masculine games; yet they are comfortable in their own skin and have support from like-minded friends and family members.
Does engaging in these activities make them less male? There is a societal movement that encourages girls to rise above limitations and embrace girl power; but what about boys? There are no widespread campaigns or movements that encourage them to be more emotionally aware and compassionate.
Many parents are much more comfortable buying trucks, action figures, and trains for girls than they are giving toy kitchens and dolls to their boys.
While many confident boys may create their own path, they often never fully escape the sometimes not-so-subtle pressure to express their masculinity.
Tips and Suggestions for Nurturing Balance
Society imposes a narrow definition of what it means to be a boy that can be challenging to move past. But there are ways parents and teachers can offer support.
- Provide ample books with positive male characters. Books, along with media, can leave a powerful impression on boys who are searching for male models to emulate.
- Be aware that many media sources fail to offer images of boys and men who are academically successful. Point this out to your boys. How does this feed the vicious cycle of the ‘tough guy’ myth?
- Society promotes stereotypes that reinforce how boys view themselves. Even schools discourage boys from embracing their intelligence when they have “nerd day” during spirit or celebration weeks. Boys receive the message that being smart is undesirable. Some boys become embarrassed by their intelligence and attempt to conceal what they know.
- Tell boys it’s OK to talk about and experience their feelings. Hearing this from their father is even more powerful since many boys look to their dad as a model for behavior, conduct, and values.
- Explain that being in touch with their emotions will ultimately help boys be more well-rounded, mature, and prepared to effectively interact with others. This will help boys be more successful in multiple dimensions of their lives as they get older.
- Offer support to boys who don’t quite fit in, regardless of the reason. Boys reject one another for a variety of reasons; but boys who don’t meet certain unspoken standards of masculinity often have a more difficult time. Because some boys are more willing to keep their hurt to themselves rather than come to an adult and discuss it, parents and teachers must keep watch.
- Explain that big brand companies drive societal views of masculinity; these are often athletic organizations and athletic clothing. Marketing companies spend a lot of time and money trying to convince young boys they will look stronger and be more successful on the field if they are affiliated with a particular sport or wear certain clothing.
- Provide boys with an emotional vocabulary, preferably from the beginning. Boys who are taught to label their emotions will be more successful at developing emotional intelligence, a skill that can positively impact many facets of their life.
- Use firm, but patient and fair, discipline strategies for boys. Boys who receive consistent harsh physical punishment can develop mental health issues and defy authority later on.
- Monitor boys’ media consumption. Often, boys are exposed to high levels of violence, inappropriate language, and sexual content in the video games they play and movies they watch. Not only does this exposure impact their view of masculinity, it can encourage violent behavior, confusion, and anxiety/depression. Explain that once kids view games or movies with this type of content, they can’t “unsee” it. It’s difficult for parents to preview and watch everything first. Parents can obtain a review for most movies, books, apps, and video games at www.commonsensemedia.org as they help boys make wise choices.
- Reflect on your own views of masculinity. How does your background and upbringing influence your current views? Remember that boys learn their first lessons on how to be a boy at home. Boys become confused when parents teach them to be caring and kind toward others, yet scold them for “crying like a girl” or acting like a “sissy.”
Respecting the Search for Masculinity
All kids – boys and girls alike – must sort through societal and parental expectations for what it means to be masculine or feminine. For many, this is no easy task. Sometimes the messages boys receive are confusing and inconsistent. A boy who has grown up in a family that encourages him to be compassionate and pursue non-traditional male hobbies often feels conflicted when all the boys at school only want to play football at recess and make fun of boys who tend to be more sensitive.
Parents, too, must accept and respect that there are standards for masculinity. It is not always simple to support boys who are struggling to balance the values with which they were raised and survive the daily pecking order battle among their peers.
In reference to teaching boys that there are many ways to become a man, Kindlon and Thompson assert, “We need to celebrate the natural creativity and risk taking of boys, their energy, their boldness. We need to praise the artist and the entertainer, the missionary and the athlete, the soldier and the male nurse….”
When more parents and teachers are willing to discuss this issue, perhaps boys will be better able to rise above society’s limiting definition of masculinity.