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Teaching Boys About Masculinity: How Dads Without Role Models Do It

The concept of masculinity is changing, and dads have to carve their own path.

Welcome to Dad Village, Huffpost Canada’s series about all things fatherhood.

A quarter of new dads feel socially isolated, and supports for fathers tend to be lacking even though this generation is more involved in parenting than ever before. That’s why it’s so important to connect! We hope this series will get dads talking: to each other, to their partners, and online.

The concept of masculinity has never been more in flux.

Whereas this generations of dads might have been told to “toughen up” or that “boys don’t cry” as kids, we know now that gender stereotypes are harmful and can have life-long impacts (for all genders). Previous studies have even shown that boys need more emotional support than girls.

Experts have repeatedly warned us about the dangers of promoting this kind of toxic masculinity. In early 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) released recommendations specific to the issues of boys and men for the first time in its 127-year history. One of its most important messages was about how traditional masculinity, such as suppressing emotions, can hurt boys, and lead to more risk-taking and aggression.

Meanwhile, today’s dads are more involved in parenting than ever before, often taking on more of a nurturing or care-giving role than their own dads did. They’re truly carving their own path. But how do dads teach their kids and model modern masculinity if they didn’t have role models themselves?

That’s what we asked Toronto dad Casey Palmer. Palmer, 36, is married with two boys, ages six and three. He’s an IT professional by day, but by night he’s a content creator who writes and podcasts about parenting and identity on his website “Casey Palmer: Canadian Dad.”

Palmer thinks it's important his boys know they can be who they want to be instead of what society tells them to be.
Casey Palmer
Palmer thinks it's important his boys know they can be who they want to be instead of what society tells them to be.

Here’s what he had to say in his own words:

How do you approach the topic of masculinity with your boys?

“You know, I don’t really teach them as much what it takes to be good men as I do what it takes to be good people. Most life lessons are equally useful for everyone regardless of anatomy, and where society draws a line between us, I focus on educating them about it instead of enforcing it.

Topics around sex will focus more on respect than to simply ‘keep it in their pants.’ Responsibilities around the home will be up for equal grabs with the reminder that they need to be willing to do whatever’s needed of them to make their families work.”

Why is this important to you?

“The way the world sees masculinity’s slowly changing, but overall I think it’s more important that they be allowed to be who they want to be instead of becoming who society tells them to be.”

What values in terms of masculinity do you hope to instill in them?

“As boys, I’m hoping they’ll approach their masculinity the same way I’d like three-quarters of our country to address race — as an ally to those that don’t have the same voice and freedoms as them, unafraid to hold their peers to account when they act in ways that are less than productive.

Palmer shows his kids affection so they know it's OK to have emotions.
Casey Palmer
Palmer shows his kids affection so they know it's OK to have emotions.

It’s a transitional time for masculinity, where the traditional role of the man is continually challenged and we’re asked again and again to think outside of the box and strive for something greater than what people expect of us.

I hope they’ll be confident, kind, principled, and smart, but not because they’re good boys — I want to them to do it because it’s the right thing to do, period.”

How do you try to be a role model?

“I try living life in a way where my boys can see that anything is possible, and that you don’t have to let gender, race, or social expectations define who you’re going to be and what you’re going to do.

I carry my share in providing for my family financially with a good career, but also make time to follow my passions so I don’t resent anyone from my responsibilities as a parent. I show them affection to let them know it’s OK to have emotions, but constantly affirm fair rules and standards so they know what’s expected of them.

WATCH: How dads can take care of their own health. Story continues below.

The masculinity I model for them is a complicated dichotomy shifting back and forth, with both the modern spin on traditional values and these new but untested ones playing a role in it all.”

How has having kids changed your own views on masculinity?

“I often say that having kids has made me a better man, and one way they’ve done that is by re-programming what I thought it meant to be masculine and showing me that what they need is a lot different than what I thought I’d provide as their Dad.

I still need help sometimes, because I don’t always have the emotional depth to parent them as a modern man should. We’re all learning as we go in this new discipline — here’s hoping we all get it right.”

How is your approach different than what you grew up with?

“The things we needed to be successful as dads in generations past were a whole lot simpler than what it asks of us today.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, where machismo was rampant and sensitivity was a weakness, not a strength, my parents wanted me to toughen up to be ready for the world I’d be stepping into, worried it’d eat me alive if I didn’t.

And at the time, maybe that was the only way — to be the tougher guy so you don’t get trampled on. But there’s room for caring and compassion in our journeys — we just need to change our models of what we expect.”

Have you had any negative experiences with, for instance, older members of your family pushing stereotypes on your boys, or making discouraging comments?

Palmer thinks we're at a turning point with fatherhood.
Casey Palmer
Palmer thinks we're at a turning point with fatherhood.

“Though you’re almost guaranteed to get childrearing advice from the generations who came before us that doesn’t really hold up as well in 2019, as a parent, it’s ultimately up to you how many of those wayward words actually stick.

I was fortunate to have my role understood by my family very early into my parenting journey — when my first was a baby, I stood my ground and reminded them who his father was. But it hasn’t stopped the odd comment here and there over the years.

I always keep the same stance, though — no matter what happens out there in the world, Daddy still loves them for who they are, and nothing’s going to change that.”

If you could give other dads advice on embracing a modern approach to masculinity, what would you tell them?

“Parenting’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way. Celebrate the good things you’re doing as a dad already, but remember that none of us are perfect, and anyone who says they’re not making it up as they go is just lying to you.

But remember that we’re at a turning point with fatherhood, and you can either cling to the past or help dream up a future that judges us less on what we are outside, and more on the people we are within.

The world can be a better place, but we need to take intentional steps to get it there!”

What are your thoughts about how to raise boys with a modern view of masculinity? Let us know in the comments!

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