Many children learn that gender is simple. There are boys and girls; boys behave one way, girls another. Modern researchers have explored girls’ experiences with limiting stereotypes. At the core of those limits are beliefs that women are innately caring, nurturing and fragile. When it comes to understanding how rigid boundaries of masculinity can hurt boys, however, our culture is off to a slower start. So it’s important to examine how we talk about what it means to be a man. For example, do emotions really have a gender?
You’ve heard the directives. “Man up.” “Boys don’t cry.” “Be brave.” “Be a man.”
It all starts with what some experts call “the man box.” Inside this box are a narrow set of qualities that many boys and young men are told are necessary to be an ideal man: toughness, physical strength, power, courage and financial success. The lesson? “Real men” don’t express emotions or show empathy. Studies show that many parents across the globe are more likely to talk about feelings and discuss emotional topics with daughters than sons, even as infants. Gillette’s recent headline-making TV ad calls out a lot of these assumptions, and slams them down one by one.
The “man box” has real consequences. Researchers connect this impossibly narrow perception of manhood to clinical depression in men. They cite men’s difficulty in expressing emotions other than anger for fear of being seen as girly or feminine. But feelings shouldn’t be denied or suppressed because society erroneously equates them (and women) with weakness. The truth is, emotions don’t have a gender and every emotion is valid.
No boys left behind.
Parents, guardians and trusted adults can contribute to the health and wellbeing of boys and men by thinking of emotions as an internal compass and sharing that attitude with the young people in their lives. To experience, feel and then evaluate those feelings is our internal guidance system for self-awareness, decision-making and personal growth.
In short, we must allow all children to express their full range of feelings, regardless of gender. It’s part of their freedom as little humans. Together, we can smash this box of masculinity myths!
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