Since my sons were born, I’ve tried to speak openly about gender. I’ve taught both of them, now ages 5 and 9, how to spot the ways the world holds girls and women back. I’ve also taught them about gender norms in toys and clothes, and why it is OK for both boys and girls to break them.
I thought I was being proactive in my approach until recently – when I realized there was a large, hiding-in-plain-sight, missing piece in everything we discussed. We never once spoke directly about masculinity or dug into what it means to be a boy or a man.
A big reason for this failure was inadequate vocabulary. Parents and caregivers to girls can rely on the word “feminism” should they want to frame girlhood as both positive and dynamic. Calling one’s daughter a “feminist” allows for change and progress without limiting girls or criticizing femininity.
With boys, there was no such term until recently. The closest runner-up was the phrase “toxic masculinity,” which refers to the parts of the male identity that are bad for men, boys and everyone else. These behaviors include things such as suppressing emotions or resorting to violence for self-expression.
The problem is my boys and their friends are lovely, sweet and not at all toxic. Why would I start a conversation with my boys about “boyness” on such a critical note? Doing so might result in silencing or shaming my sons for behaviors or traits they don’t have.
What I needed was vocabulary that includes all the ways being a boy can be positive and dynamic while also helping them think critically about masculinity. I needed criticism wrapped in hope – hope in their capacity to grow and thrive, and hope that they can be part of a conversation that leads to a better, more nuanced understanding of gender that benefits everyone.
Thankfully, gender experts and activists are now formulating a new way to speak to boys about being a boy.
Boys, in their estimation, can feel good about being a boy, learn to be critical of some traditional masculinities, and see themselves as part of a better tomorrow for all genders and gender identities.
For more than three decades, former professional football player Don McPherson – who is now a writer, activist, educator – has promoted gender equality through lectures and workshops for boys and young adults.
A few years ago, he began to realize something was missing from the way he spoke to boys. There was a lot of conversation about what the world needed from boys, he explained, but little of what they wanted for boys. The first attitude, the “from” attitude, focuses on what boys are doing wrong and how they are impeding gender equality. Learning about consent and respecting women needs to be said. But if it is all that is said, boys can easily leave conversations about gender feeling shame and silence.
“When you have a whole generation of boys who have only heard the term ‘toxic masculinity,’ and what they take away is that their identity is toxic and there is nothing positive about masculinity, then that’s a problem,” said McPherson, author of “You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity.”
Boys can feel good about being a boy while learning to be critical of some traditional masculinities.
He wanted another term that could do some of the work of “toxic masculinity” but presented the gender conversation in a less shame-inducing way. Around 2019, he began using the phrase “aspirational masculinity” in his education and activism work, and it stuck.
Aspirational masculinity is a way to engage with men in “a positive and deliberate examination of male identity and the relationships and behaviors of and between men,” McPherson says on his website. “It is focused on fostering a broader understanding of being male that includes empathy, vulnerability, and emotional honesty around critical issues impacting relationships, sexual behavior, and personal growth.”
Such framing, he hopes, can help men create a movement similar to the women’s movement. He wants men to feel empowered to participate in a new, more gender equal world and become active critics of the way our culture holds back both boys and girls.
“We need to stop only asking boys and men to make space for others and instead ask men to make new spaces for themselves that aren’t confined to the narrow definitions of masculinity,” he said.
Make boys part of the fight
One way to help reframe the conversation around masculinity is to help boys see themselves as part of the fight, rather than those fought against, said Kate Mangino, author of the upcoming “Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home,” which includes insights into boys.
“Tell your boys they are not bad simply because they are male. Tell them they can be a part of the movement towards gender equality, and it isn’t just something for girls to talk about it,” she said.
Most kids like to see themselves as on the right side of history, as changemakers. By fine-tuning the conversation in this direction, boys can see their rejection of “toxic” masculinity in a more positive light.
Demonstrations of empathy or vulnerability might be a radical, brave act rather than a cause of embarrassment. Being an ally to girls and others who are mistreated because of their gender identities might be seen as a sign of strength rather than a confession of bad behavior.
“If you come at anyone with a list of everything they do wrong, they are going to get defensive and angry,” Mangino said. If you come at them with a list of the ways they can change themselves and the world for the better, on the other hand, they might open up. True gender equality won’t take place until everyone is part of the conversation, she said.
Teaching boys that it's OK to ask for help is important, says activist and ex-athlete Don McPherson.
When having these conversations, Mangino wants parents to be sensitive to the ways in which other identities, including race, gender identity, sexuality and religion, may play a part in any particular boy’s sensitivities around masculinity.
“For a long time, the gold standard of masculinity in our culture was White, Christian and straight, and anyone who wasn’t all of these things was automatically far behind,” she said. “We need to intentionally recognize that and say that it doesn’t matter your skin color, hair color, country of origin, heritage, sexuality or religion; it shouldn’t take away from you feeling comfortable in your masculinity.”
Bringing aspirational masculinity into the home
Parents looking to bring aspirational masculinity into their homes can start by talking to their boys directly about masculinity from a young age. Many young girls today know about the history of feminism and how expectations for women have changed throughout history. Boys can be told the same history, Mangino said. Explain to them how some people think boys shouldn’t be this or that way, and how those expectations have changed over time.
Another important step, simple but mighty, is to teach boys from a young age that it is OK to ask for help, McPherson said.
“I truly believe this, and I am saying this to you as someone who doesn’t know how to do this,” he said. “Not asking for help is what keeps boys confined in the narrowness of masculinity and leads us to suicide, violence, abusive relationships and abusive relationships with ourselves.”
Fathers can be role models to their sons by showing them how to talk about their feelings.
Asking for help creates space in which boys can see their needs and vulnerabilities as something that can and should be discussed. Doing so will help them move beyond the narrow definition of masculinity and be their full, complex selves, whatever that may be.
Also, learning how to talk about one’s feelings will make it easier to dig into conversations about gender and gender equality in the future. One of the most effective ways to teach this is for dads to model this behavior at home and be supportive of their partners.
Ultimately, Mangino said we should treat boys the way we want them to treat the world.
“We can’t just tell boys what they can’t do. We also have to tell boys what they can do, what our gender equality ideals are and make space for how we are all going to fail all the time at living up to them,” she said.
“We need them to know that we want to include them in the conversation about gender because they are half the world. And because we love them.”
Elissa Strauss covers the culture and politics of parenthood. Her book on the radical power of parenting and caregiving will be published in 2023.