What I Want To Teach My Boy About Toxic Masculinity
One of my dearest friends wrote me an email the other day.
She’d just finished reading my mother’s memoir, and was awash with nostalgia for our adolescent friendship. “Remember how we used to make each other laugh till we pissed our pants? Or how we were never afraid to tell each other what we needed to hear?”
I do remember. I remember bursting into fits of giggles over some lame joke, not because the joke itself was that great but because we simply adored each other so much. I remember lying awake and talking for hours about the boys we were in love with or the trouble we were having with our parents or the extremely inappropriate dream we’d had the other night.
Nothing was too taboo, too trivial.
I have my own little kid now. And soon he will be going off to kinder and making friends. I want so much for him to know the special joy that comes from having a friend who you can share anything with.
But my child is a boy. And it’s different for boys.
I know that, from the time he’s very small, he’ll encounter pressure to push his feelings down. He’ll absorb the message that proper boys don’t have sleepovers where they spend hours dissecting their deepest emotions with other boys.
He’ll learn that it’s not okay to cuddle and hold hand with his friends, even though he’ll see the girls doing just that.
We’re making progress as a society. My son will have a much wider spectrum of male identities modelled to him than my father did. But he’ll still hear that old catch-cry; boys will be boys; over and over again. What it really means is, boys should be boys.
Toxic masculinity. We’ve been hearing a lot about it lately. And it’s made some men feel very defensive. They take that word as an accusation; an attack on masculinity itself.
But toxic masculinity isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s not a characteristic that some ‘bad men’ have and other, better men, don’t. It’s a cultural standard that dictates what a ‘real man’ should be: tough, powerful, unfeeling. And all men labour under the weight of that expectation.
It’s toxic masculinity that forces boys to squish down their feelings and mask their vulnerability. Toxic masculinity is as harmful to men as it is to women.
When I was a little girl, it used to be cool to proclaim that you wanted to be a boy. I wasn’t able to express at the time why this prospect didn’t entice me, but it’s clear to me now. I’ve always appreciated having access to a full range of expression. Women tend to incorporate their girl-selves; their silliness and cuteness; into their adult identities.
Boys don’t have this same privilege. It’s why some cultures perform rites of passage for adolescent males: time to say goodbye to those ‘feminine’ traits that were tolerable in boyhood and harden up.
READ MORE: The Reason Boys Don't Read 'Girls'' Books
A male friend of mine said to me recently: “I think what a lot of women might not realise is that for most guys, the project of ‘being a real man’ isn’t enjoyable. It’s stressful and constant, and it’s oppressive.”
What I want for my little boy
I’m proud of my generation of parents, because we are trying our best to raise boys who won’t feel pressure to push down the soft parts of their personalities.
When my toddler son cries or laughs or burns with frustration, we talk about what he’s feeling. We name the emotion, and we remind him that it’s okay to feel that way. When he’s hurting, we don’t tell him to buck up and we don’t try to make it instantly better with treats or TV. We comfort and cuddle him and sit out the big feeling.
I’ve tried my best to make sure that Ollie isn’t one of the boys who are cuddled less than little girls. I’ll try my best to encourage whatever interests he gravitates toward. And I know that there are parents all over Australia trying their best with their boys, too.
Because we don’t want to hear our sons accuse other boys of ‘acting like a girl’.
I don’t want Ollie to end up like the men of older generations who would rather spit cruel names at other people than experience their own pain. Who channel every emotion into anger, because that’s the only emotion they feel comfortable expressing. Who never get the pleasure of mulling over their feelings with a friend, because they can’t bear to be vulnerable.
I don’t want Ollie to desperately choke back his tears.
I don’t want my little boy to end up one of the disproportionate number of men who turn to suicide.
A friend suggested the other day that our kids are an experiment-generation. We are on the frontiers of this new form of parenting, and we have no way yet of knowing whether it will pay off.
What I do know is that the other day, Ollie started to cry. I asked him what was upsetting him and he told me “I miss my best friend Louie!”
“Is that making you feel sad?” I asked.
“It’s making me feel lonely!” Ollie wept.
It’s tempting in these moments to rush to ‘fix’ Ollie’s pain, with a chocolate or a toy. But I just gave him a big cuddle and told him that we all feel lonely sometimes.
Ollie isn’t going to have a clear path.
He has been born into a confusing moment for men. The once rigid standards of masculinity which, for all their faults, at least provided clear rules for behaviour, are dissolving. New models of male identity are emerging, but it takes confidence and vulnerability to deviate from the norm.
Is it any wonder that some men are finding security in the absolutisms offered by the alt-right? It’s a place to be unaccountable and a place to be self-righteous. It’s a place to avoid the prospect of introspection.
I hope that Ollie won’t feel the need to grip onto one of these movements. I hope he’ll have the confidence to embrace a new, more inclusive form of masculinity. But I can’t make him.
All I can do is try to arm him with the tools he’ll need.
Emotional intelligence takes practice. I was lucky enough to have adoring, intense friendships where I could practice expressing my emotions, and supporting my friends in talking about theirs. I still get that practice every week when I talk to my women friends.
I hope that Ollie finds friends that he can have hours-long conversations with; that he can show physical affection with; that he can turn to when he needs someone to help him through his emotions.
He doesn’t deserve to miss out just because he’s a boy.