November 14th, 2017
It is International Men’s day on November 19th. It seems an appropriate time for us parents to think about the type of men we want to raise our sons to be. Obviously not all men come in one model. Differences between individuals are usually greater than differences between gender and in the 21st century thinking may have moved on from a purely binary model of gender anyway. But whatever your son’s sexual orientation or place on the gender spectrum you probably have a picture in your mind, however unarticulated, about what a good man is. And there may be some differences when you think of your daughters as adults. Maybe.
Modern parents seek to avoid gender stereotypes, and quite rightly. We don’t want to restrict possibilities for our sons or daughters. But what are those stereotypical ‘male’ characteristics? My two sons are now adults and I’m glad they are ‘strong’, a quality often associated with masculinity. Women, of course, can be strong too but traditionally that strength was displayed differently.
Psychologists and linguists have noted that adults encourage this quality of strength or assertiveness in boys without even being aware of it by the way we talk to and play with boys and by how we direct their behaviour. There was a famous study called ‘Baby X’ which tested adults on how we treat babies based on what we think the sex is. The researcher Phyllis Katz said "We said this is Johnny. Just play with Johnny any way that you'd like. Or this is Jane. Just play with Jane anyway that you'd like." It was always the same baby. But when adults thought they were holding Jane, they held her gently, gave her dolls. When they thought the baby was Johnny, they played more vigorously and offered him a football. So while boys may be biologically more inclined to independently seek active solutions to problems (rather than ones based on communication and relationship) socialisation also plays a big part. We tend to use words with boys that are more associated with robust physicality; we tell them they are big and strong, whereas we have told girls they are pretty, quiet and good.
Assertiveness shows up in boys’ styles of communication too. Research (with one experiment involving taste tests of lemonade flavoured with salt instead of sugar and another based on receiving disappointing gifts) shows that boys will generally be direct to the point of rudeness whereas girls will be less honest to protect the other’s feelings. Researchers maintain this is because assertive language is more tolerated in boys than girls. When my older boy was little I worried about his strength and his physicality. It came out in aggression; he didn’t have words to express his strong feelings and he used his whole body to express himself, sometimes to the detriment of others or to his environment. But we learnt to use emotion coaching with him and now he has very good emotional intelligence. He can recognise, respect and process his own emotions; he can express his own feelings, and he understands those of others too. He is very good at recognising perspectives other than his own. He has learnt empathy. A very useful quality that he displays in abundance with his busy baby daughter and his exhausted wife!
An alternative model of masculine strength has been that men need to be stoical and hard and independent. Seeking help was weak. Batman did things alone. We laugh at the stereotype of men not asking for directions but it is not so funny when men don’t seek help with physical or mental health problems. One of the reasons given for much higher rate of suicide in men is their inability to express so-called weakness.
My younger son wasn’t so physical as a little boy but as he’s matured his strength has shown up in quiet determination. He has persevered to overcome the challenges thrown up by dyslexia and developed coping strategies around learning. He now has not one, but two, highly academic degrees and is applying that doggedness to seeking work in an industry which is challenging to break into. His resilience allows him to pick himself up after knock backs (or more often, no replies at all) to job applications and to tell himself that it hasn’t worked this time but next time it will. This involves a growth mindset which involves a belief in one’s own capacity to make changes. This is the antidote to pessimism and depression.
I’m not writing in this way to show off about my sons, proud as I am of them. Because I have now overseen their growth from boys into men I have a perspective that we don’t have when we’re in the middle of the hurly-burly of family life. When I was picking up after them, and feeding them, and driving them to activities, and feeding them, and tending to scraped knees, and feeding them, and trying to teach them not to thump each other and encouraging them to do homework, I didn’t always have this long view. Often I was just coping.
But when we’re parenting proactively we “start with the end in mind” as Steven Covey says.[i] If the kind of man you want to raise is one who shows his strength in gentle ways then you will need to ask the following 4 questions:
[i] 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families