Boys are not normally the topic that consumes my mind when I go on runs. However, last week, boys and how we raise them was all I could think about after a mid-run conversation.
I had stumbled into a cute dog and his kind owner on the trail. We had a long conversation in which I mentioned a story about my dad. After this, the kind old man I was talking to said something that took me for a spin: “I’m so glad I didn’t have a girl because it’s so much easier to raise boys than girls.” His kindness toward me made me think he wasn’t making this statement as a barb against females. Rather, his comments highlighted the societal presumptions surrounding boys and girls and the differences in how we prepare them for the world.
Although girls have to grow into a world that has a gender wage gap, medical disparities and other forms of sexism, raising girls should not be, and is not, harder than raising boys. Raising boys is only seen as easier because we deny boys emotional and social complexity in the name of being “manly.”
Western society has a long held liking of “manly men.” This idea is portrayed most prominently in western movies. Pull up your Netflix account to see any movie featuring John Wayne and guns, and you can watch the box of masculinity at work. First, you might notice that the “good guy” is always somewhat of a lone wolf, but always admired and respected —particularly by women. Second, his stone-cut face does not show emotion. Anytime the main character lets his emotion get in the way of a decision or action, something goes badly. It is only when the character has put away his emotion, or “mastered himself,” that he beats the “bad guy” and wins the girl.
Even if you’ve never watched a classic western, maybe some of the themes sound familiar. This is because westerns aren’t exclusive to untamed deserts. Untamed galaxies such as “Star Wars” also play host to western ideals. All you need is a formulaic plot and a good, stoic, emotionless man and BAM! you have a western.
The idea of a “true man” portrayed in westerns might not have been what created this emotionless idea of males, but it has certainly continued the illusion. Out of this, we have spawned a culture of toxic masculinity. “Toxic masculinity” is a very precise term that specifically refers to norms put on men to exaggerate masculine traits to the point of detriment for males and society. It is not a term that shames men for being men or denies the fact that many men are wonderful people who contribute positively to society.
Instead, toxic masculinity is the phrase to use in a scenario where “boys will be boys” is used to excuse males for inappropriate behavior. It is the phrase to use when boys are told not to cry because it will show they’re girly and weak. It is the term that needs to be said when boys separate themselves from close friendships in junior high by saying “no homo” in any moment of affection they give to other males. It is the term to use when men shame women for being emotionally complex because they can’t see it as strength.
Toxic masculinity might seem like a harsh phrase to use for things that seem so common in our culture. However, it has bleak repercussions and needs to be talked about with all of its implications.
Many scientists have dedicated years of research following the lives of boys as they grow into men. Psychologist Niobe Way is described by TEDMED as an “internationally recognized leader in the study of social and emotional development among adolescents.” Her research and publications, “highlight the fact that boys, like all humans, are empathic and yearn for close friendships more than anything else,” but that they also isolate themselves from other boys and people in an attempt to become more “manly.” Her research shows that this isolation channels boys into acting more misogynistically toward women, even to the point of physical harm. It also greatly affects their happiness in adulthood. Another study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development has observed individuals for nearly 80 years. Although this study isn’t specific to males, they have observed that people who lack close friendships (mostly men) are more likely to be in pain or fall ill.
Based on how alive and powerful the traditional idea of men is today, I do not foresee these statistics changing in the near future unless we start from the beginning: the way we raise children. We need to start tearing down emotional barriers with boys from a young age and reassure them that it is okay to show emotion. Parents need to start this journey, but it also needs to happen in schools. School is where students compete for peer admiration and boys put down other boys for being “girly” or “gay” because these concepts differ from the traditional male ones. It is important for everyone, but particularly adult men, to tell boys that laughing at sexist jokes, shaming others and distancing themselves is unacceptable. Boys need male mentors who can teach them how to be people, not emotionless stones.
In the end, this means we need to raise boys the same way we raise girls. There are going to be differences in how we teach them about their bodies, but we need to make sure we raise both genders to be emotionally complex in order for them to draw happiness from life. Our society still has a lot of work to do to overcome toxic masculinity, but raising boys to accept every part of themselves is the first step.