My son often broaches big issues with me whilst we are in commute. The confines of his car seat apparently allow different thoughts to drift in and settle, rather than rebound and scatter like they usually would.
This morning it was about boys and men.
“Mum, little boys and mummy’s cry, but men don’t.”
“Men cry too,” I responded quickly
“No they don’t, I haven’t seen them cry”
And he was right – he hadn’t.
This type of conversation was not unusual for us; my son by age 3, had already developed a very palpable concept of feminine and masculine qualities. He attributed certain colours, toys, books and clothes to ‘girls’ and others to ‘boys’ (this is a girl’s book, I don’t want to read this!) He recognised that there were ‘boy games and ‘girl’ games, and that girl games were “boring”.
On a domestic level, he observed that his dad did jobs like mowing the lawn and washing the car, and his mum did things like cooking and grocery shopping – ‘That’s mummy’s job’ or that’s what ‘dad’s do’. He knew that fun with dad meant ‘rough and tumble’, and fun with mum meant ‘role play’. And at the core of all of this he also understood, with a surprisingly degree of certainty, that men should be physical, strong, and brave and that women should not.
He knew all of this and he hadn’t even started school yet.
He had developed this wisdom in our average, but not particularly gender-typical household – with a mum who was brash, loud and assertive (albeit prone to moments of emotional wreckage); and a dad whom whilst physically strong, was also calm, reserved and perceptive. And although we shared chores and various child imposed responsibilities, such as nappy changes, bath times and bucket loads of affection; I guess we also had (unintentionally) drifted into our designated roles – mum = nurturer, caretaker, dad = protector, provider. But I didn’t expect that our son at such an early age would be trying to define his ‘role’.
I did not anticipate that outside influences – the cultural hum that sets the backing track of our day to day living – would have such an immediate and profound impact on what he believed, and how he thought he should be. I assumed by promoting girls as strong and capable (after all, I did buy him a Wonder Woman doll…) and rectifying some of his assertions about songs/clothes/TV shows (they’re not JUST for girls), he would learn things the ‘right way’.
But maybe I had spent too much time correcting him about ‘girls’, and not enough time correcting him about ‘boys’.
I didn’t want our son to grow up feeling he couldn’t be emotional and vulnerable; that he had to be strong, stoic and keep his thoughts, his fears, and his dreams – to himself.
I didn’t want him to think he had to grow up to be like one of his heroes – a man of steel.
As a teacher of teenagers, I have witnessed the changes that occur in many boys from the age of 12 to 18. The majority start out optimistic, talkative and open about the way they feel, but not so many seem to remain that way. A common perception among teachers and parents I have talked to, is that by around 14 boys often become withdrawn and self-conscious.
While girls too experience their fair share of changes, it’s the shift in boys that I find most troublesome. I have observed that as girls mature, they become more willing and capable of expressing the way they feel; whereas the transition from ‘boys’ to ‘men’ sees quite the opposite. As they get older many become more reluctant to open up and share how they think or feel. They tend to turn back into themselves and create an emotional armour, for fear that exhibiting any vulnerabilities, could make them appear weak, or as one teenager I know liked to phrase it, a ‘soft cock’.
So I have to question, as a society, are we spending too much time correcting our boys about ‘girls’, and not enough time correcting them about ‘men’?
The recent social focus on girls is right on point; we are making much needed strides in empowering them to be strong, brave and powerful. But are we doing enough for our boys? Don’t we also need to promote positive, diverse and well-rounded representations of masculinity? Are we doing enough to let our boys know that it’s okay to be open and emotionally vulnerable?
I don’t think we are.
When you take a look at the men our boys are being exposed to, it’s not hard to see where this ‘fear of exposure’, comes from.
On the news our boys see violent men.
In politics they see arrogant men.
In sport they see fit and strong men.
In movies they see womanising and stoic men.
It’s little wonder that my 3 year old has already contemplated what a boy needs to do, in order to become a ‘man’.
But I’d like to tell him, and every other talkative, giggly and sensitive boy out there, that becoming a man, is not about growing an armour of steel. It’s about being exactly who you are; tears and fears and all.
Because men DO cry, and that’s okay.
By Brooke Klaassen