5 Ways To Raise Emotionally Intelligent Boys In The Era Of Toxic Masculinity

"Toxic masculinity overtly (but more often implicitly) asserts the superiority of men by proclaiming the inferiority of women and girls."

What does "boys will be boys" truly mean? When most people use this phrase, it's to reference boys' "natural" affinity for anger and violence. But in today's more enlightened age, toxic masculinity has come under the microscope, as people recognize that these preconceived notions of what it means to be a "man" ultimately hinder development, and such messaging is damaging for men and women alike. 

"While society is chipping away at giving girls broader access to life's possibilities, it isn't presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world," author Sarah Rich writes for The Atlantic. "To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood. At the earliest ages, it's about external signifiers like favorite colors, TV shows, and clothes. But later, the paring knife cuts away intimate friendships, emotional range, and open communication."

But, as Rich notes, there are so few positive variations on what a "real man" can look like, that when the youngest generations show signs of reshaping masculinity, we describe them as "non-conforming" and assume that they're in a phase, that they need guidance, or that they don't want to be boys.

"There's a word for what's happening here: misogyny," Rich explains. "When school officials and parents send a message to children that "boyish" girls are badass but "girlish" boys are embarrassing, they are telling kids that society values and rewards masculinity, but not femininity. They are not just keeping individual boys from free self-expression, but they are keeping women down, too." 

Yet, while Rich asserts that it's a societal loss that many men grow up believing that showing aggression and stifling emotion are the ways to signal manhood, modern parents have the capacity to alter these perceptions by raising young boys who are emotionally intelligent and mentally strong. Here are five ways parents and other influential adults can counter toxic masculinity to raise boys who aren't afraid to be themselves.

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1. Allow boys to define their own gender identity by exposing them to "girly" things without stigma.

Above all else, we must destroy the assumption that "girly" products and pastimes are unacceptable for boys by erasing gender lines at an early age. We've become so divided with regard to what belongs to which gender, that we've neglected to allow both boys and girls to develop their own gender identity. Instead, they must fit within the predetermined parameters or risk being ostracized by their peers. However, by tearing down these walls, we can actively empower children to decide who they are for themselves.

"Rejection of all things feminine isn't born into boys. We teach them to reject traits traditionally associated with femininity, like gentleness, empathy and sensitivity," Harper's Bazaar's Political Editor at Large Jennifer Wright writes. "And we teach them to do so early. We teach it every time we tell them to toughen up when they're hurt. We teach it when we tell them that big boys don't cry. We teach it when we tell them that girl stuff is never for them. We seemingly teach it to them through kicking their asses until they're ashamed of ever having liked something 'girly.'"

2. Encourage boys to embrace their emotions and express their feelings freely and frequently.

We often tell boys to "man up" and "be a man" by encouraging them to conceal their emotions. But, by forcing them to swallow their feelings, we hinder their emotional intelligence and growth, as they're never afforded the opportunity to deal with these emotions in a healthy fashion. We discount their feelings because it's not "manly," often leading them to resort to violence throughout their adolescence.

"Boys who are allowed to feel their feelings learn to regulate their own emotions as well as practice interacting with other people's emotions, and with proper support, learn healthy engagement in all arenas of life: from family to career to spirituality," Cindy Brandt writes for Patheos. "No, they will not grow up to be weak and fragile. Men with large egos are in far greater danger of fragility. Men who exhibit vulnerability are resilient — they earn rather than demand respect. They become leaders who compel genuine change in the world, who inspire both men AND women around them to reach their potential. The truest sign of strength lies in a man who gives power away."

3. Discuss the media's portrayal of masculinity to debunk myths that might negatively influence perceptions.

No matter how hard we try to lead by example for the boys in our lives, the media and entertainment industry continue to perpetuate the concept of toxic masculinity. Male aggression and hostility are rampant and, while it's something that these industries must also grapple with in the wake of the #MeToo Movement, such abundant examples offer adults the opportunity to discuss the myths of masculinity with young boys in an effort to nip misogyny in the bud.

"Misogyny is rampant even in cartoons. Instead of banning all entertainment and insulating our children from the real world, we can have open discussions on how the ideas portrayed aren't reflective of reality," former family therapist Crystal Jackson writes for The Good Men Project. "Of course, we'll need to make this age appropriate for our children. But we can also expose them to books and media that show them that children of both genders are equally capable of a wide range of emotions, interests, and abilities.

4. Prevent boys from associating femininity with inferiority to reduce sexism and homophobia.

"In our binary structure, femaleness is a downgrade," Jamie Kenney writes for Romper. "Toxic masculinity overtly (but more often implicitly) asserts the superiority of men by proclaiming the inferiority of women and girls ... And to really drive this idea home, let's point out the idea that the vast array of male-directed insults harken to femininity or being female: b*tch, p*ssy, sissy, or just girl. Even pejoratives like bastard or son of a bitch are, really, besmirching the "honor" of a woman rather than the man in question directly, right? Being a man is, once again, starkly juxtaposed to being female."

We must raise boys who see women and girls as their equals. Feminine insults imply that females are inferior and that those who embrace this side of their identity — namely those of the LGBTQ community — are also inferior when compared to the traditional male. But, by encouraging them to respect everyone from an early age, we can teach them that using femininity in a derogatory sense demeans and degrades more than just the person on the receiving end of the insult.

5. Teach boys about consent early and often to prevent toxic power dynamics down the road.

As Annie Reneau writes for Scary Mommy, consent discussions don't have to be about sex. In fact, teaching children about consent should start early — no later than preschool, she suggests — and we should do so both by talking about respect and boundaries and by showing them what consent looks like through our own actions. In many cases, boys refuse to relent because no one ever explicitly taught them to honor other people's wishes. Teaching consent early and often, however, will repeatedly reinforce the idea that, to proceed, one must have blatant permission from the other party involved.

"We've used tickling rules as a way to practice consent and boundaries without even telling our kids that's what we were doing: 1) Never tickle someone unless you first ask them if they're OK with it and they say yes, and 2) as soon as the person says 'stop' or 'no,' or if they push your hands away, stop immediately," she explains. "No means no. Stop means stop. Pay attention to body language. All are extremely important lessons to reinforce over and over again at every age and stage."

Cover image via  Siberia Video and Photo / Shutterstock

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