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Raising boys to men – the kind who are respectful, empathetic, gentle and loving – requires parents to rise above outdated stereotypes.

With a global focus on making society more egalitarian and safe for women, parents of sons need to raise boys to men in the right way to ensure a new generation of enlightened males. For parents, this means rejecting old stereotypes.

breaking the boy code

William Pollack PhD is the author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood and a groundbreaking researcher and clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School. He has devoted his investigations into boyhood for over two decades and makes a strong case for breaking the “boy code” as a starting point.

Boys are told not to cry, that the things they’re interested in are for “sissies”, that real men play rugby and ballerinas play cricket and how often have you heard boys being told to “man up”?

In his book, Pollack explores the toxic conceptions of masculinity in boy culture. He explains  how he believes it leads to boys doing poorly in education and health and having a higher involvement in violent crimes and suicide than girls.

Boys are being made to feel ashamed of their vulnerability, Pollack contends, and “while we have rethought some of our ideas about girls, we are overdue for such a rethinking about our boys.”

communication is key

“My son is loving and kind, but I feel like I need to prepare him for the tough male culture of my culture and the world and that he will  become a part of,” says Tumi*.

Pollack’s bottom-line advice to Tumi and other moms who face the same dilemma is to “stay connected, no matter what”.

Communicating with your son has never been more important than right now – and that means listening as much as speaking.

Says Pollock: “Over the years, I and other professionals working with boys have become increasingly aware that even boys who seem okay on the surface are suffering silently inside – from confusion, a sense of isolation and despair. They feel detached from their own selves, and often feel alienated from parents, siblings and peers. Many boys feel a loneliness that may last throughout boyhood and continue into adult life.”

In general, boys’ self-esteem is more fragile, resulting in disciplinary problems and mood disorders.

embracing their choices

“When my best friend’s son was three years old, he loved to wear his sister’s tulle ballet tutu and her sparkly tiara and sing that Disney earworm “Let It Go” whenever he had the chance. My friend was so relaxed about it and even helped him put together his various outfits – it made me wonder why his behaviour made me so uncomfortable; why I was secretly thankful that it wasn’t my son playing ballerina dress up. Was I afraid that my son would be perceived as gay and why did that strike such fear?” muses Judi*, a mom of two tween boys.

Olga Silverstein articulates this thinking in her book The Courage to Raise Good Men. “According to society’s stereotypes, if males exhibit feminine behaviour, they can bring harm to themselves by becoming homosexual or weak, while at the same time, harming the parents for having failed at raising their male children.”

In her book, Silverstein cites an example of a mother who brought her son to a family therapist, claiming her son was lacking male influence in his life after her recent divorce and  now single motherhood. The mother’s concern was that her son needed a man in his life to teach him how to be a man.

While the therapist agreed that the young man needed male interaction as well as female interaction, the therapist did not suggest the mother bring a male into the boy’s life. Instead the therapist stressed that if you want to raise good males in society, they must embody the best qualities of both genders.

When raising boys to men, we should also combat male stereotypes of what males should be and support our sons in all their endeavours, interests and emotions.

Read our article on the mother-son relationship for more insight into raising boys to men.

how do parents raise boys to men?

Here is some advice on raising boys to men, the kind of man the women of the future need and want.

Model respectful behaviour at home.

Children learn gender relations at home, so, dads be aware of the way you speak and interact with the women in your house. Are you using a respectful tone and displaying a positive attitude? Is there sensitivity and an open exchange of ideas? Does dad make statements like “You must be hormonal” or “Women can’t make up their minds”?

Ask and listen

It’s not enough to enquire if your son is okay. Create opportunities for him to share and for you to listen – free of judgement. This is a chance to develop a platform for active listening to gain information, understand where he’s coming from, enjoy the insights into his personality and learn something new – yes, you can learn from your child too!

Let go of the “boy code”

If you’ve ever said “that’s for girls”, “boys don’t cry” or excuse your son’s bad behaviour with “boys will be boys”, you need to be aware that these seemingly innocuous statements reinforce old stereotypes of what it is to be a boy or a man.

The long-term effect of suppressing any emotion is more often than not destructive, and enabling your son’s lack of responsibility diminishes his character. Reading with your children presents a great opportunity to discuss the characters and the roles played by men and women in those stories.

Educate your sons on how to speak about and to women respectfully

It’s not enough to say, “don’t do that”. Parents must attempt to raise a boy who is willing to speak up against their peer groups’ degrading jokes and taunting. You can even give your boys phrases they can practise, so when they come naturally when they need to speak up. For example, “Hey, that’s not cool, that could have been my sister, dude” or “You don’t have to impress us with that macho stuff.”

*Names have been changed for privacy

Samantha Page