Raising Boys: Parenting Beyond Male Stereotypes
What role will cultural stereotypes play in parenting your son? Take a look, then decide how they'll affect how you raise him.
Role of Culture
There are a multitude of other factors, including culture, that contribute to a boy’s understanding of his place in the world. A child’s role as perceived by his family may be quite different than the role expected of him by American society. At an early age, for example, his family may expect him to contribute to family finances or to “protect” his younger siblings. Taking on this responsible role at such a young age can be potentially stressful and frightening, especially when he does not have a safe place to express his worries or resentments. Contradictory messages between caregivers in his culture and other caregivers in his community (school, sports, church) about expressing his feelings may be confusing and push the boy into isolation or alliance with other boys from similar backgrounds. His safety net may be found within a gang or close set of friends who are also experiencing similar confusion.
“The challenge really exists for families from all backgrounds. Cultural traditions and family values may be in agreement or conflict with the dominant culture’s idea of ‘masculinity’”, says Shirley Yee, an expert on issues related to diversity from the Todos Institute in Oakland, CA. “Boys of all backgrounds are given strong messages in our society about what it means to be a man – some that are wonderful about being responsible and confident. But being taught to always ‘take it like a man’, don’t show you are hurt or sad, don’t cry, be tough … to be so independent makes it hard for boys and men to ask for help. To be in such control can be a set-up for problems later, such as violence. Parents must ask themselves, ‘How do we talk to our sons about what it means to be a man’ no matter what culture you are from.” From her own experience as a mother and an Asian-American, Shirley offers an important insight, “These challenges are not resolved overnight, but being aware of how we as parents have expectations, assumptions, and our own training about how boys ‘should’ be, is an important first step in examining the messages we give our sons about what it means to be a man – in whatever community or culture [we raise] our boys.”
There are certainly no simple answers. “When my son was born, I wished for a second that he’d been a girl, because it’s a little bit easier to be a Black woman than a Black man in this country,” says Terry Sparks, a mom in Oakland, CA. “One of our earliest, and I think most important, decisions was not to send him to public school. One reason was his high energy level. We didn’t want him pigeon-holed as “bad” because he had trouble sitting still, something frequently done to boys of all races. We also wanted him to know that our history is more than slavery and Martin Luther King, so we sent him to a small, private, afrocentric school.” At this school Terry’s son learned about the great kings and queens of Africa as well as the many contributions both Black men and women have made to America. Because of family finances, Terry’s son left this school after the 1st grade but the “knowledge that he came from a great people, and could therefore do anything he wanted was fully ingrained”.
Aggression is seen all the time in the preschool classroom, at the park, in the home. Its roots can be as simple as hunger, fatigue, boredom, or even mimicking the latest move seen on the small screen. Certainly, aggression that is violent with real intent to hurt someone or that is integrated as a child’s typical behavior warrants intervention.
Anti-social behavior is not the only red flag. “The concern is both over-internalization and over-externalization,” says Dr. Hilliard, “The latter is often identified faster and more easily as aggression toward others. But a real concern is when stress is directed internally.” So a boy who suddenly turns inward – becomes quiet at home, misses classes, loses interest in talking about school, who lacks peers, has sleep problems or appetite changes – may be struggling internally and sending out a mute S.O.S.. Depending on the situation, the family may want to take the next step and consult with outside guidance (a mental health professional, teacher or clergy member).
While the boy who turns inward may unfortunately be overlooked, the outspoken and/or physical child gets the attention. Psychologists Philip Rodkin, Thomas Farmer, Ruth Pearl and Richard Van Acker conducted a study of 452 fourth to six grade boys that found that boys displaying “antisocial behaviors,” such as “tending to argue, be disruptive, get into trouble and starting fights,” were viewed as popular by their peers, teachers and themselves. “If they aren’t aggressing against one another, peer groups, aggressive children or non-aggressive children, form (among other reasons) to provide social support,” says Dr. Rodkin, a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One of the concerns raised from this study is that these boys may resist changing their behavior as they develop into teens and adults if their “antisocial behaviors” are associated with status, like popularity.
Most boys play “cops and robbers” and still develop into mature, likable, balanced adults. Spending quality time with your son, actively listening to him, accepting his feelings (even the negative ones), encouraging him to talk about his experiences and thoughts, and really being there with him makes all the difference. “I think it’s very important to support my son when he shows an interest in wearing necklaces and bracelets, wanting to care for a baby doll, dance like a princess, draw a picture, choosing a hot pink fanny pack just the same as I would when he wants to wrestle, play catch, or dig with his backhoe,” says Claire Stephens about her three year old son, who can “name that truck” in less than one second. Australian-born Julie Duffield adds, “I am doing what most mums I meet are trying to do – raise SNAGS (a term used in Australia for sausages), which stands for Sensitive New Age Guys who feel comfortable and powerful about their differences.”
Give William His Doll
In the classic children’s book, William’s Doll, a boy wants a doll of his own to comfort. His dad gives him a fabulous train set, a basketball and other “male” toys, and it is not until his wise grandma arrives that he receives his doll. Hearing William’s dad’s protest, the grandma simply says, “He needs it to hug and to cradle … so that when he’s a father like you, he’ll know how to take care of his baby…” Parents have come a long way since this story was written. But their understanding of being a male does start very young, as they cry for their mothers, hit their first baseballs, play with siblings and even go on their first dates. Throughout their development, they are building and shaping their own understanding of the roles of men and women. Creating an environment free of gender stereotypes, where boys can feel free to laugh and cry, is yet another tough chapter in the book of parenting for us to ace; but with love, compassion, patience, and a good sense of humor, our sons are off to a bright start.
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