By Annan Boodram – The Caribbean Voice
Boys learn at a very young age about expected behaviors based on their gender and the concept of ‘man up’. We tell boys, “boys don’t cry”. We condition them from a very young age that to express emotion is to be weak. They are often called out for behaviour that doesn’t match society’s definition of manhood.
It might take the form of name-calling (“sissy” or “weak”), being told “don’t be gay” or “you fight like a girl,” or you’re a ‘soft man’ (in the Caribbean) and/or there is aggression against them such as hitting, bullying, or even sexual assault. Asking for help, demonstrating compassionate and caring behaviour toward themselves and others or being expressive are undermined by social attitudes that put little value on empathy and encourages the concept of the alpha male.
Masculinity ideology refers to the traditional and socially constructed definitions of the cultural norms and expectations regarding appropriate male behavior. For decades, the dominant cultural image of masculinity has included heterosexuality, physical strength, athleticism, control over situations, family caretaking as the head of the household, financial success, and/or not crying or showing emotion (Wilson et al., 2010). However, masculinity can and occasionally does descend into toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits, which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.
In a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys will invariably feel like they are failing at “being a man.” For these particular men and boys, toxic masculinity has created a vacuum in their lives that can be filled through violence: abuse of women and children in their care, affiliation with extremists groups, gun violence and evolution of the overall bad guy image.
The effects of the ‘man up’ ideology
According to a 2017 study, men with typically masculine traits are likely to have decreased mental health and are less likely than women to reach out for help. It’s impossible to “man up” and cope with depression or anxiety disorders which are their biological nature.
Most boys learn to keep their feelings private and to suppress and override them. With the exception of anger, boys often lose touch with how they feel. By the time a boy reaches adulthood, being emotionally present will likely be a challenge. A host of negative outcomes are associated with boys’ suppressing their feelings, from academic underperformance to health-risk behaviors such as substance use, fighting, and recklessness. Also when there is no outlet for all this pent up emotion, it has to be unleashed somewhere. Poor behavior is usually the result, be it in school or amongst older men who “act out” against the rules of society.
As well if someone experiences a non-stop onslaught of popular comment that invalidates his feelings, he often turns to one of two options: either he falls into self-medication and unhealthy coping strategies or absolutely detaches himself from his feelings and could end up in pathological and criminal behavior.
What should be done?
Understanding the threat posed by the social pressures boys face, is the first step to helping them deal with the ‘man up’ ideology so that when the pressures to conform are overwhelming, parents can ask the son if he would like help handling the situation. They can brainstorm with him ideas for what can be done – the concept of talking with instead of talking to – while eschewing the parental view that ‘this is how it was when I was growing up’ and/or ‘I/we know what’s best for you’.
As the son grows older, he may feel ashamed for needing help from his parents; at these times, parents’ recounting stories from their battles with gender norms can ease his feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Being a good ally to a boy means welcoming and validating his struggles, no matter what, while also holding high expectations for his ability to figure out his own life.
Finding a common interest or identity, offering help that is carefully fitted to the boy’s actual need, and being patient and accessible are other helpful relational strategies. Because the cultural script for boys is not to rely on their parents, it is important that parents make themselves available to their sons and maintain keen interest in their lives, in a manner that engenders trust and builds the sons’ self-confidence.
Boys will share their feelings only where they are protected from shaming and judgments. When barriers and threats are removed, boys do not hold back: they long to tell their stories. It is in the relationship with an unconditionally loving parent that boys discover how to do the hard work of staying connected even when their feelings want to push everyone away.
When a parent can muster attention, all that is required is to simply direct attention to the son’s way—if he is playing a game or watching a show, sit by him and be interested in what he is doing without altering the flow of the game. During car rides, find a question to ask that expresses a genuine, open curiosity about some part of his life he enjoys: “What song is that you’re listening to?” “What happened in that show you watched?” “How did the team you follow do in their last game?” The point is not to require the boy to explain something or even help you to understand; it is for the son to experience his parent’s attention as pleasant. Once the trustworthiness and benefit of being listened to are established, boys stay more emotionally open and connected. They are less likely to lose contact with their hearts.
Above all, a parent should never respond to the son’s sharing his feelings by giving advice. Being told how to think is a poor substitute for becoming better at thinking for himself, and it often feels disrespectful. Most boys, particularly as they get older, insist on the freedom to make up their minds and are willing to sacrifice talking altogether to avoid being second-guessed or lectured.
Boys’ groups tend to separate themselves from adults, actively test the limits and power of adult rules, exert pressure on their members not to snitch, exclude and mistreat girls, and encourage members to turn to digital devices and substances to deal with suppressed feelings. Parents will need to set limits in collaboration with their sons to guide them away from the values of the peer culture. Unless parents properly manage the times when the son acts out, he will have a harder time learning to restrain himself.
When parents set a limit, it is a way to communicate that they see their son as a capable and moral person, able to rise above whatever hurts or stresses he feels in order to behave more appropriately. Without real conscious awareness, boys expect parents to stand firm against their aggressive or testing behaviors. But they expect their parents to do so in ways that do not compromise or weaken their connection or their sense of being accepted, difficulties and all. To strike the right balance, parents’ exercise of authority must be strategic rather than reactive. Limits should always derive from a thoughtful consideration of the situation and willingness to listen to whatever upset may be causing unreasonable behavior.
To foster independence, parents must accompany their son through challenges without automatically taking over whenever he falters or makes a mistake. Rather, like a good coach, parents lend confidence and serve as safe receptacles for feelings of frustration or defeat as they arise. How ably parents manage both to stay connected to their sons and to be honest with them about important values and family needs may be the ultimate test of their ability to support their sons’ independence.
While compromise and negotiation are always necessary in any relationship, apparent conflicts often evaporate when respect, listening, and the release of tense feelings are encouraged. There’s likely always to be a solution in every conflict once painful feelings are cleared away.
What grounds boys most, is their connections to those who know and love them. None of us can make his or her sons invulnerable but we should never discount the power of our connections to strengthen them and keep them safe, especially from toxic masculinity.
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