Turning Boys Into Men: 4 Ways to Expand Your Son's "Boy Power"

We as a culture have held fast to the idea that we need to protect the boundaries between male and female. This is wrong, and even dangerous. Instead, we need to be reframing the discussion, and asking: What makes a boy a boy?
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More than just about anything, Fiona's boys hated having their nails trimmed. They were rough-and-tumble types, with a penchant for superheroes and playing with sticks. So Fiona came up with a diversionary tactic: nail polish. "At one point, both boys had toenails in every color I own--purple, gold, fire engine red, green," she recalls. "It started out as a bribe, but it turned into a big treat... our little in-joke."

A few years later, now in kindergarten, TJ, her older son, came home and told Fiona that the other boys in his class thought his painted fingernails were "weird." Fiona told TJ that he could do whatever he liked, but that painting his nails was his own choice. Though TJ's interests varied widely--he loved glittery objects, and carried around a tiny, sparkly dragon he bought from a street vendor in Chinatown--he was never a boy people would describe as "feminine." He was a kid who wanted to tape sharpened sticks to his fingers so he'd have claws like the X-Men's Wolverine. He was also a kid who wanted his nails painted green and purple from time to time.

Most days, TJ decided to limit the painting to his toenails only. That way, he told his mom, he could still enjoy the ritual but "the other boys won't know." One day, though, TJ came home and asked Fiona to paint his fingernails blue. He took some teasing for it at school, but this time around, he didn't care. Later that week, they were shopping at the local market when the checkout guy remarked, "nice nails." The guy had a black leather jacket, black nail polish and, recalls Fiona, "oozed cool." TJ was visibly proud of himself for being so hip. "It really made his day," she says. "He walked taller, spoke in a deeper voice, and acted cool for the rest of the afternoon." All on his own, TJ had figured out something about identity, belonging, and what it means to be a man--and it had nothing to do with conforming on the playground.

For years, psychologists hypothesized that raising strong, confident boys had more to do with nurture than with nature, and that it was essential for parents--fathers, mainly--to instill in them a masculinity and sense of self. This masculinity was narrowly defined to exclude any interests or traits that could be considered girlish--things like sparkly dragons or painted nails. The underlying fear: Too much female, or mom, influence could sway a son's sexual orientation. The opposite has hardly been discussed--that too much male, or dad, influence will "make" a daughter gay. In fact, little girls who display what are thought of as typically male traits--such as playing sports, excelling in math and science, and wearing tomboyish clothing--are celebrated, and close relationships with their fathers are rarely questioned. It's one reason that schools hold father-daughter dances but tend to hold mother-son events that are sport-related, if they hold any at all.

But scientists now know that boys are hardwired from birth to be boys--not to mention that homosexuality in men has biological roots. We also know that boyishness can show up in a variety of ways. Still, we as a culture have held fast to the idea that we need to protect the boundaries between male and female. This is wrong, and even dangerous. Instead, we need to be reframing the discussion, and asking: What makes a boy a boy? Are these boys--those whose influences or interests are predominately female--being less masculine, or more liberated? Are they being feminized, or humanized? To liberate our sons from outdated, judgment-based notions of what it means to be masculine, we should be striving to help them appreciate their own boyishness in all its forms. Here's how.

1. Relax. It's important to remember that with or without a male influence, boys will be boys. Though Mac's mother, Susan, had a ban on toy guns, Mac and his brother would regularly chew their morning toast into the shape of pistols and pretend to shoot one another. Boys will create what they need to express themselves. If they want gun-shaped toast on the menu, they'll put it on the menu.

Which means you can value your son's manliness while at the same time encouraging a sense of adventure. Boy-associated qualities will often come out in what and how they choose to play, despite Mom's best efforts. In my work with single and two-mother families, I found that their sons exhibited a boyishness that seemed to be inborn. "I knew it was definitely nature over nurture ... [when] my son's first words at 11 months were 'big truck,'" one single mother laughingly told me.

2. Respect his individuality. There are many styles of boy. By not insisting that your son conform to--or even consider--social standards, like playing with "gender-correct" toys, you'll help him develop into a more open-minded, fearless, and sensitive person. When 12-year-old Ethan had to select 7th grade electives, he chose cooking and sewing. "I'm sure in some circles that wouldn't be a very popular choice for a seventh grader to make," says his mom, Ursula. "But I didn't say 'You're what?' I said, 'That sounds great. What are you learning to cook?'"

That's because Ursula knew being masculine does not exclude an interest in female activities, nor did it say anything about Ethan other than that he was interested in learning some new skills. The boys I've met through my research cook, clean, garden, and primp. 7-year-old Sean had an affinity for baking cookies. And yet, "Nobody's gotta tell me I'm a boy," he told me. "I know it inside. Always did, ever since I was little."

3. Foster diverse interests and help him deal constructively with criticism. Many parents want their kids to be just like them: If they like piano, they want their kids to be pianists, only better--and the same with sports, choice of career, and lifestyle. But encouraging your son to participate in a wide variety of activities will enlarge his scope of interests, enrich his life, and help him appreciate freedom of choice. If he faces criticism, teach him how to respond. Children who are taught to deal with discrimination learn to think independently and stand up for what they believe in.

Maria enrolled her son, Zane, in ballet when he was four, wanting to expose him to a range of cultural experiences, though not because she was a dancer herself. Though he loved dancing, as he grew older, teasing ensued. Finally, at age 8, Zane quit, only to find that he missed ballet. "You can handle this teasing thing," Maria told him. "Tell your friends to shut up and get over it." Deciding that he wasn't going to let his friends influence his decisions, Zane made his friends apologize. Then he returned to ballet class.

4. Refuse to fall prey to gender-based expectations.
Gender typing is believed to impede emotional development and account for anti social behavior in boys. In my work with families and parenting, I have observed that boys who are not trapped in gender roles grow up to be more independent, more open-minded, and more sexually tolerant than their peers. Their exposure to a greater repertoire of potential identities gave them a sense of parental acceptance that laid the groundwork for a natural assertiveness. These boys also more easily treated females with respect and openness.

Gene, a successful and highly educated 34-year-old, was raised by his mother and her partner, a woman. As a result, he says, he's far less willing to jump to conclusions, and slower to make judgments, "Having been exposed to all that, it's a lot more difficult to faze me," he says. "And it almost seems impossible to draw conclusions about what it means to be a 'man' because there are so many different ways of living."