Escaping the 'Real Man' Trap: How to Raise Strong, Sensitive Boys
A 'real man' these days is not defined merely by physical strength, but also by intelligence, sensitivity, compassion and more...
“Boys don’t cry” and “be a man” – how often have we heard such platitudes?
It’s safe to say that statements about masculinity such as these are linked to the common perception that ‘real’ boys should always be tough, aggressive, and in control of their feelings.
And so we see this distorted version of manhood perpetuated on TV, the Internet, video games and sometimes by certain adults.
What this view of manhood often does is cause young boys to rage when their mums don’t buy them that toy they want. It makes little boys punch, kick and hit with a violence that is beyond their young age.
And in this way, unfortunately, it can teach little boys that violence towards others is okay and acceptable.
Of course, many boys who watch violent TV programmes and movies or play bloodthirsty video games don’t end up hurting those around them.
But as experts point out, some of the behaviours that are traditionally linked with “being a man” can hurt our boys at deeper, emotional and behavioural levels, with studies showing that boys can be more vulnerable than girls for getting depressed, dropping out of school and engaging in violent behaviour.
William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood thinks that much of the problem lies in what we teach our sons about being a man.
So how can we, as parents, help our boys escape the traditional “real man” trap and equip them with the social, psychological and emotional skills that will help them grow up as strong, sensitive young men?
1. Encourage non-violent games and safety
We may feel that little boys are wired to love playing with guns, wrestling and roughhousing in general. Experts agree that there may be a connection, that is, most likely, a combination of genetics and environment.
As parents, we can’t do much about our children’s genetics. But we can certainly control the environment, at least to some extent, that our boys grow up in.
So try not to give in to your little boy’s requests to own a toy gun. Such toys are not educational in any way and only promote violent games.
Control the TV programmes your boy watches and the video games he plays, restricting violence. Talk to him about the effects and impact of violence, both on oneself and on others.
And while psychologists say rough-housing for boys has its benefits, make sure an adult is always present if your children are playing rough. Also set safety boundaries — it’s so easy for a child playing rough to get carried away, hurting himself or others in the process.
2. Talk to your son about what “being a man” really means
Teach your sons that being a man is so much more than a show of physical strength.
It’s learning how to respect others, especially women. If you can bring up your young boy to have respect for women, you’ve contributed massively towards bringing violence against women to an end. Teach him to be tough against violence and hatred.
Being a man is learning to use intelligence rather than physical strength when in a tricky situation. It involves learning how to do traditional “womanly” household chores such as cooking and cleaning — which in turn teaches him self-reliance and independence.
It’s about being honest, responsible, reliable and attuned to other people’s feelings… and so much more.
3. Tell him it’s okay to show his emotions
“Big boys don’t cry” is something many parents tell their young boys when tears appear. But what’s wrong with a young boy crying to express fear and sadness? Tears are, after all, the body’s natural reaction to such emotions.
Bottling up emotions can be harmful to your child’s development, but unfortunately, through history and culture, boys and men have been expected to “stay strong” emotionally, repressing emotion instead of releasing and accepting it.
Research has found that “it is culture rather than nature that incapacitates boys’ social and emotional skills”, which can, in turn, have a negative impact on his development.
So, teach your boys that it’s okay to release their emotions, whether this is in the form of tears or speech.
Be a role model for healthy emotional self-expression. Share your feelings with your child, both positive and negative ones. Ask him about his day at school — what made him happy and what made him sad.
If you can help your boy learn how to accept his emotions and show him how to deal with them when they get out of hand, you’re helping to lay the foundation for an emotionally stable core. This, in turn, will enable him to grow up into a strong, sensitive young man.
Mums and dads — both of you are equally important to your son’s development.
Dads, in fact, can be their sons’ strongest role models and mentors, so be the man you want your son to be when he grows up — kind, respectful, passionate, responsible, sensitive, intelligent and strong. Show these traits in your interactions with others and you can be sure your son will follow you.
And mums, you have a bigger influence on your sons’ lives than you ever knew. Being a “mama’s boy” is not all that bad for boys and can help them grow up into emotionally secure young adults.
Boys who are close to their mums are also likely to have a more balanced understanding of what ‘masculinity’ is, without confining this term to traditionally associated values such as toughness, self-reliance and the lack of emotion.
It’s about time we re-defined what “be a man” really means, don’t you think?
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