Roe Anderson, a lifelong Tennessee resident and mother of a 10-year-old son, sits at her dining room table and recalls the earlier years of her son’s childhood. She was excited to find out she was having a son, believing that boys were easier to raise than girls because they were tough enough to fend for themselves without a lot of support.
To foster that, she put her son in male-dominated sports. “It started maybe at the age of 4 or 5. I began to toss him in sports. I started throwing him into baseball, football, all of these sports and thinking, ‘Well, you’re a boy. Boys do this. Boys are tough. Boys are supposed to be aggressive and this is how you learn how to be aggressive.'”
But she soon found out that her son didn’t fit the picture she had in her mind about what boys were or what they need. He resisted the sports she thought he would thrive in. For a while she thought he just needed to “toughen up.” But before long she decided to try something new.
“That led to us exploring different options and led to him revealing to me that he was more of an artistic child. He was more of a nonaggressive child. He enjoyed art. He enjoys music. He enjoys swimming.”
She admits wondering, “Is he going to be tough enough to take on this world? Is he going to be equipped with the strength and knowledge and ability to stand as a man? Are people going to respect him as a man because he doesn’t do these things?”
Roe believes her initial understanding of what it means to be a man came from social conditioning she experienced growing up surrounded by more traditionally masculine men, and her situation is not unique. Many parents of boys and gender-nonconforming children are contending with these conceptions of masculinity and are trying to figure out how to balance allowing their kids to express themselves authentically, while trying to protect them from bullying they may experience from their peers.
Some parents find that even when they feel they are providing the proper support, it backfires.
Roberto and Tenysa Santiago are parents to three children, one of whom is a boy who expresses himself by occasionally wearing a dress or painting his nails. Roberto remembers a moment when his son wore a ponytail to school. “I said, ‘Hey bud, I want you to know I love your hair. I think it’s so cool. But kids at school might not understand and they might say something about it.’ And he got this look. He [was] just crestfallen, just done. He took it out and he wouldn’t wear it,” Roberto says. “For me it was one of those things as a parent where I’m like, ‘I’m cool with this,’ [but] the world is not going to be OK with this, so what do I do? And how do I protect him? … That crushed his spirit that day even though I thought I was trying to help him.”
Ted Bunch, co-founder and chief development officer of A Call to Men, an organization that aims to promote healthy and respectful manhood, says people are generally socialized to believe that men need to embody certain ideals in order to be accepted.
“We have coined a term called the Man Box. And that’s a short form for the collective socialization of men, that we’ve all been taught on some level,” Bunch explains. “Not asking for help, always feeling like we have to be in control, dominating and having power over others, not expressing any emotion except for anger. All of those things are rigid notions of manhood. Feeling like we have to be in control, that we have to control things, those are all things that are rigid, and that they don’t bend.”
According to the 2017 “Man Box Study” from Promundo, out of 1,328 men between the ages of 18 and 30 surveyed in the U.S., 72% said they have been told that “a real man behaves a certain way.” The survey also found 59% agree with the statement that “Guys should act strong even if they feel scared or nervous inside,” and 40% agree that “Men should figure out their personal problems on their own without asking others for help.”
More disturbingly, 23% of the respondents agreed that “Men should use violence to get respect, if necessary.” In recent years, young white men have perpetrated a frightening number of mass shootings across the country, often after being involved in domestic violence. Bunch believes it’s connected to their feeling isolated and powerless. “[Gun violence] gives them power, because they’re taught, and all men and young men are taught, that you’re supposed to have power, that’s part of what being a man is, dominance, power,” he says.
Dr. Michael Reichert, a psychologist and author of “How to Raise A Boy,” says the attitudes embodied in the Man Box are seriously harming boys and men. “Those guys in that Man Box are the most unhappy, the most anxious, the most vulnerable to both being bullies and being bullied, the most often perpetrators of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and most often prone to suicidal thinking,” he says. “It’s not a happy place to be.”
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention reported that in 2017, while women were 1.4 times more likely to attempt suicide, men died by suicide 3.54 times more often than women. Non-heterosexual men and transgender individuals are also more likely to attempt suicide than cisgender heterosexual men.
“The research is really clear that boys and girls at the outset of life… experience the same emotions just as vividly, just as profoundly,” says Reichert. “It’s not the experience of emotions that’s different between males and females, it’s the expression of emotion. Expression of emotion follows what we call ‘feeling rules.’ Those feeling rules are culture. We tell girls, ‘Don’t be angry. Be a lady.’ We tell boys, ‘Don’t be scared. Don’t be vulnerable. Don’t cry. Don’t be weak. Be strong. Be stoic. Keep it inside.’ That is so profoundly damaging of how we actually keep our minds present.”
Reichert believes that adults are responsible for changing the narrative and creating a healthier environment for boys to thrive.
“We are the ones that created boyhood, not our boys,” he says. “We’re the ones that are managing boyhood. Males as well as females. If we want to change the outcomes that boyhood produces, we can’t look to the boys. We actually have to look to us and the message that we give them.”