Avoiding Harmful Effects of Masculinity on our boys

Traditional masculinity is harming our boys and society, countless studies have found. Here’s how to shift the tide, starting in our own homes.

traditional masculinity

Compared to women, men are floundering psychologically. That’s the unfortunate takeaway from a recent guidelines issued by the American Psychological Association (APA). They note that men experience disproportionately high rates of behavior issues, academic challenges, and imprisonment compared to women, and that males’ rates of completed suicides and violent deaths are at least three to four times higher than females’ rates.

The blame, they say, rests on negative aspects of traditional masculinity, including a focus on “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” These gender norms make men feel that they must be self-sufficient, brush off intimacy, and avoid all indications of vulnerability, leading to stunted relationships and a fear of seeking help when needed.

That said, some elements of traditional masculinity are well worth holding onto, psychologists note in the January 2019 Monitor on Psychology article about the guidelines. For instance, valuing masculine characteristics like courage, leadership and prosocial behavior benefits men and society. Given this, the APA wants men to receive the message “that they’re adaptable, emotional and capable of engaging fully outside of rigid norms,” writes Stephanie Pappas for the APA. In other words, traditional masculinity isn’t all bad, but adhering to damaging beliefs about optimal male behavior is, quite literally, killing our boys.

Here are a few ways we can help share that important message with our sons, throughout their lives:

Show Affection and Model Healthy Relationships

Boys in our culture simply aren’t encouraged to have deep relationships, the APA notes. Many components of traditional masculinity, including “emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness” undermine intimacy and emotional exchange.  Healthy relationships begin with the parent-child bond, says the APA, “where healthy relationships are defined and characterized by respect, emotional intimacy and sharing, and mutuality.“

Here are some steps to raising emotionally healthy males who have rich relationships:

  • Show our sons the same level of affection we show our daughters. Pile on the hugs, kisses, and hand holding for as long as our boys will allow,
  • Stop ourselves from thinking derogatory terms like “mama’s boy” when we see a boy snuggled up to a parent – regardless of his age. Our sons will only continue to accept our attempts at affection if society deems such displays “acceptable.”
  • Make an effort to elicit our sons’ explanations of their thoughts and feelings, even if they balk. Being consistently present and asking open-ended questions sets the stage for deep conversations – whenever our sons finally deem that the time is right.

Not only will these actions benefit our sons’ well-being, it may also benefit their eventual romantic and sexual partners. When males are raised with opportunities to be vulnerable, accept affection, and engage in reciprocal relationships early in life, they are more likely to also seek meaningful romantic relationships rather than “tough guy” sexual conquests.

Encourage Engagement with Male Role Models

Boys need time with men, the APA says, pointing to consistent findings that father involvement, in particular, is related to children’s positive cognitive, behavioral, financial and psychological outcomes. When dad isn’t available, interactions with positive male role models can be forged in other ways, whether that be with granddads, uncles, athletic coaches, Boy Scout leaders, and/or other community mentors.

These males can support healthy development of boys’ masculinity in three ways, the APA says:

  • Positive engagement: Actively and frequently engaging in varied activities with children promotes their development socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively.
  • Warmth and responsiveness: Demonstrating an awareness of the child’s needs, and having the willingness to meet those needs reliably and compassionately, teaches the child to be emotionally available and to trust in others.
  • Control: Monitoring children’s activities and choices, and being willing to intervene in poor choices calmly and rationally, demonstrates positive masculine traits.

Teach Alternatives to Aggression

Males commit 90% of violent crimes in America, the APA states, and their rates of physical aggression are higher than women throughout the lifespan. Traditional masculinity encourages aggression as a show of strength, especially violence that is directed toward women or minority groups.

While physical and verbal aggression is a natural part of early childhood, our response to those aggressive acts determines how kids respond to their feelings throughout their lives. If we stand back and think – or perhaps even say – “that’s just boys being boys” when our toddlers are being aggressive, we’re allowing the harmful elements of traditional masculinity to take root.

To head off these patterns, parents can redirect aggressive tendencies from an early age using three strategies the APA highlights in its report:

  • “Increase empathy for others”
    • After an aggressive act, ask the child what the offended person may be feeling and thinking, and why. Studies show that the more empathy we feel toward others, the less likely we are to aggress.
  • “Model control of aggressive behavior”
    • We all have surges of aggression, and without a doubt our kids can test our sense of control. While we won’t be perfect parents, showing our kids that we can take a deep breathe, walk away, and return with compassion when they’ve unnerved us demonstrates the skill set we want them to develop.
  • “Increase communication skills or problem-solving”
    • Males struggle more than females to reach out when they need help, many studies show. Instead of implying or expecting that our sons should be “tough enough” to work problems out on their own, we can elicit meaningful conversations about conflict and encourage them to talk through their problem-solving strategies, helping them to see any gaps in their approach as we chat.

Final Thoughts

Given how widespread the harms of traditional masculinity are, it’s clear that there’s a lot of difficult work to be done. With a check on our own assumptions, biases and fears about masculinity, we can teach our boys that true masculine virtues arise through embracing emotion, connecting with others, and asking for support when needed.