When I found out I was pregnant with my elder son several years ago, I was first elated, then started to freak out ever so slightly.
“You’ll have your hands full,” friends and even strangers chuckled after I told them the baby’s sex. One family member (who was oddly assertive on the topic, given she doesn’t have sons) told me that boys don’t keep in touch with their parents in adulthood. I got bogged down in the stereotypes, suddenly questioning if my husband and I could raise a boy who was kind and affectionate, and who would stay connected with us as he grew into adulthood.
Obviously, sex has no bearing on a child’s ability to grow into a caring, loving adult — and yet our stereotypes are powerful. As experts with the American Psychological have stated: “American society socializes boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasizes toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance.” Certainly in our culture, examples of harmful masculinity abound. The presidential election was framed by many as a fight between two styles of what it means to be a man.
Of course, parents can’t always control those broader forces, but experts say there are simple steps we can take to raise boys who are loving, caring and emotionally intelligent. Here are a few of them.
Refuse to buy into the idea that boys are trouble.
Michael Thompson, psychologist and author of “Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life of Boys” said that one simple, powerful thing parents can do is to push back against negative expectations and assumptions.
He said there is a “generation of parents” who basically believe that “boys are trouble. They’re going to make trouble, get into trouble and be harder to deal with.”
For example, they notice that boys have, for decades, fallen behind girls in school and come to see that as inevitable, he said.
“They believe they won’t want to do homework. They’ll pal around with other boys and maybe do stupid things, and they are not going to be — in many people’s imagination — as close to their families,” Thompson explained.
So parents can help raise boys who are caring and affectionate by making a deliberate effort to check their own biases. (There are online tools you can use to test your own hidden biases, or you can spend some time just thinking about the assumptions you make about masculinity, men and boys.)
Simply understanding what your own biases are is a big first step in breaking them down.
Hang a picture of a man you admire.
One simple, actionable action is to hang a photo of a man you admire in your son’s room, whether it’s your father, spouse, an uncle, a teacher or maybe even a male public figure whom you really admire. It’s largely symbolic, but the symbol can be meaningful — particularly in those tough parenting moments when maybe you’re worried that your son is giving into harmful gender norms.
“So that if he’s only playing ‘shoot ‘em up’ video games or when his room is a mess ... you look at the picture of this man you love and admire, and think ‘Oh! My son can grow up to be like that!’” Thompson said.
“The expectations of adults have such a powerful impact on what children think they can be,” Thompson added.
“Hold your son. Listen to him when he cries. Offer him reassurance.”
Teach them that feelings are for feeling. Fully.
While limiting gender norms may be changing, there’s still plenty of evidence that society — and parents — expect girls to be more emotionally expressive and emotionally literate than boys. For example, one recent study found that moms in particular still have the stereotype that boys don’t cry.
“The culture of masculinity as it permeates boyhood is still something that is largely invisible, taken for granted, normalized,” Michael Reichert, a psychologist and executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote the book “How To Raise A Boy: The Power Of Connection To Build Good Men,” told HuffPost.
“And yet it’s tremendously damaging of a boy’s physical, emotional and psychological development,” he said.
Parents can really push back against this culture of masculinity by creating a safe space for their sons to a) really sit with their emotions and b) express them.
“Hold your son. Listen to him when he cries. Offer him reassurance,” Reichert said. “Instead of saying things like, ‘Buck up. You’re OK.’”
After all, children with healthy, secure attachments to their caregivers are in the best position to fight off the forces in the world that will put pressure on them to “sell themselves out” and “yield to peer group norms,” he added.
Similarly, from a very young age, work with your child on developing emotional intelligence—a big part of which is simply being able to name what you’re feeling. Simple tools like a mood meter or mood thermometer can help boys learn from a very young age to identify notice what’s going on internally and put words to it.
Make them practice taking care of others.
Whether it’s intentional or not, research shows that many parents still have higher expectations for girls helping out around the house than for boys. Boys spend about 15 fewer minutes a day helping out with household chores than girls. Boys with sisters are less likely to help with household chores when they’re adults — partly because they grew up accustomed to someone else (i.e., a sister) taking care of it for them.
Research also suggests that Americans believe society values women for being caring, but not necessarily men.
To push back against that, it’s important to ground them in their ability to care of other people and to actively — and consistently — contribute to their family unit.
“You’re training your son to recognize that somebody else needs care,” said Thompson said.
There are a lot of pretty organic ways to do this, whether it’s encouraging your son to help a sibling, help a grandparent, or maybe babysit or work as a camp counselor when they’re older. Walking and feeding a pet is good practice, as is simply tending to a plant. The key is to be deliberate and consistent about it, Thompson said, and to make sure your son knows you expect him to take care of others, not just himself.
“You can teach children to recognize their capacity for care,” Thompson explained.