Most parents aim to raise good humans no matter their gender, but sometimes society comes in and muddies the water a bit. You can’t turn on a device without reading words like “gentle parenting” or “toxic masculinity.” A wild guess tells me that most people don’t want to raise boys that grow up to fall into the category of toxic masculinity, but there don’t seem to be many instructions on how to prevent it.
I won’t pretend that I have all the answers and I don’t want this to read as a humble brag because kids have a way of nevering like they never did before when we dare to say, “my child would never.” It’s just science. Well, maybe not science, but definitely an anecdotal observation.
What I can tell you is the things I’ve been doing to help combat the temptations of toxic masculinity. I have three boys, two of whom are teenagers, and while I would never say never, I can say they have been praised by teachers and authority figures. I’ve also been asked what I do differently, so I figured I’d share.
I’ll admit, it’s a little hard for me to pinpoint because I’ve instilled these messages in my boys since their birth, so they’re not things I give much thought to anymore. But to identify what I do differently, I enlisted the help of my sons and, lucky for me and hopefully you, they gave me a list of three key differences they notice.
1. If it shocks you or makes you angry, research it.
If there’s one thing that tends to make people more empathetic humans it’s education. A lot of times people react emotionally when they hear something they don’t believe or that’s upsetting. Instead of stewing in the anger and digging their heels in, my boys know how to research whatever the issue is using nonbiased phrases.
An example of this is when my 14-year-old shocked the snot out of me by saying that most women falsely accuse men of assault. This was really upsetting to him to “know” because, of course, he didn’t want to be falsely accused of anything. I didn’t get upset, I only asked where he got the information and empathized how hearing that could make him feel. Once we got the feelings out of the way, I pointed him to Google and showed him what reputable sites looked like. We even talked about using Google Scholar.
Education makes things less scary and helps people unlearn myths or give context to inflammatory information they read on the internet.
2. Everyone experiences every emotion. Feel them, express them and talk it out.
Boys can experience other emotions outside of anger and happiness. I encourage my kids to name their emotions and to express them, whether it’s at me because I’ve messed up or just in general. Once the feeling is named and expressed, let’s get down to whatever the underlying emotion was. Sometimes it turns out to be disappointment and not sadness, or embarrassment, not anger.
If we can name the actual feeling, we can talk it out. They can find ways to address the issue that caused the feeling or take responsibility if it’s something they did. Walking them through the whole process takes practice but it’s worth it in the end because then they can effectively express their feelings to peers, partners or teachers all while remaining respectful.
3. Speak up even when it’s hard.
Speaking up covers a lot of ground. It’s not just about calling out injustices when they see them. When I talk to my sons about using their voices, we talk about consent and what it looks like to properly ask for affirmative consent. It also covers speaking up when you witness inappropriate behaviors toward girls and vice versa.
When my 17-year-old was in middle school, he had instances where this lesson came in handy. On one occasion, the school bus was being loaded at the end of the day and after my son took his seat, he noticed two boys grabbing at a girl’s behind as she told them to stop. He spoke up then informed the bus driver and principal of what happened.
While these three “rules” are helpful in combating toxic masculinity, they’re also helpful to teach all children. Kids are influenced by what they see outside of their homes and on the internet, and if parents can be the counterbalance, we can all put good humans out into the world.