There is a very public conversation happening at the moment in the media about women. Equal pay, equal rights and equal lives. Women should be able to have the same opportunities a man has, boys and girls should be aware that either can be anything they want – from a firefighter or astronaut to a nurse or teacher. Gender shouldn’t come into it but personality, skill and equality should. In this discussion, there is an onus on boys and men to change their thinking, realise they are privileged and support women. This is the right conversation and everyone should support equality (for all) but I think we need to look at how we got here, why in 2018 are we still having this conversation? A conversation that the suffragettes hoped would be a thing of the past by now.
I am interested in what we teach boys from a young age (often pre-birth) about our expectations of them. I came across this video by ArchDuke and it really got me thinking – are we raising our boys with the language of sociopaths?
A sociopath is defined as someone with impaired empathy, impaired remorse, bold, dis-inhibited, and with egotistical traits. So let’s think about that – our society teaches boys that empathy is a bad thing, to lead from the front, be the ‘alpha’ male, not to cry as it is ‘girly’, it’s ‘weak’, ‘soft’. ‘Man up’, ‘stop snivvling’, ‘be strong’, ‘brave’, ‘loud’, ‘raucous’, ‘boys will be boys’ all to become a ‘real man’. Imagine being told this monthly, weekly, daily, hourly. Why then do we wonder at our boys thinking that to being masculine equals being strong, aggressive, angry, powerful and confident (arrogant?). What’s more we know that by the age of 7 years old gender stereotypes are already set. Boys and girls know the right way to be a boy or a girl. We also know that boys are able to express anger but few other emotions and girls have a huge drop in confidence*. These are learned behaviours. As toddlers you see boys and girls left to their own devices playing with dolls. Boys and girls being compassionate. Boys and girls climbing and jumping. Boys and girls falling over, hugging, laughing and crying.
Boys learn to restrict their expressiveness as they grow up. The formal term for this difficulty is alexithymia and psychologist Ron Levant, Ed.D., M.B.A., estimates that as many as 80 percent of men in our society have a mild to severe form of it. This isn’t surprising given that we use different language to talk to our children depending on their sex even whilst still in the womb. We need to change this by changing the way we raise our boys.** Let’s teach them emotional vocabulary, listen to their concerns, let them know that it is ok to feel the full range of emotions. This is only part of the equation. We need role models for our boys who aren’t the strong silent types of an action hero. They need to know that there are many ways to be a boy and a man, that vulnerability is part of life, part of who we are and nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s correct the language we use, examine the books we read them and explain that society gets it wrong and that perceptions can and will change.
And what about those who are conflicted, who don’t feel the same as our societies definition of masculine. Who create a public persona that isn’t quite who they actually feel they are, who act the part to fit in. Think how exhausting that can be? Justin Baldoni talks about this in his Ted talk – watch it here. Even as an adult it’s hard but imagine being a child and having to do this?
We certainly need to do something. We are in a place where boys are increasingly more likely to commit suicide in their teenage years and mental illness is on the rise. Could trying to live up to this ridiculous ideal be a factor? Studies have found that exposure to these masculine norms affect the coping mechanisms men adopt meaning that they are less likely to seek help, be more relentlessly self reliant and less likely to share emotions.
If we are conscious of these things we can make change, we can make society better for our boys and our girls because if we have healthier happier boys we will also have healthier happier girls. And of course vice-versa. It’s a lovely virtuous circle. There are many different ways to be a boy just as there are many different ways to be a girl. None is the ‘correct’ way to be, we just need to let kids be kids, in whatever way they want to be.
*If you haven’t seen it watch the fantastic ‘No more boys and girls’ documentary presented by Dr Javid Abelmoneim, I wrote about it here
**For some fantastic useful and simple techniques read this on Familyeducation.com