Please Don't Tell My Son to Man Up!
"Man up!" and "Grow some balls!" are phrases frequently dished out to young boys these days. A new documentary attempts to address the effects of the masculinity crisis in America.
Seven years ago, when I discovered my first child would be a girl, I felt in some way that I was extra equipped to raise her because, after all, I’m a girl. My past experiences specifically related to being female at least provided me a rough road map to the gender issues she might face—things like body image pressure, friend drama, female sexuality, etc. I’m well aware of what my girls are up against, and I rely on that attentiveness to navigate me through parenting them—ultimately, nurturing them to be confident and happy individuals.
So last year, when I found out my last baby would be a boy, I admit I first felt unprepared—maybe even inadequate. I don’t know anything about boys. I don’t speak that language. The response to our gender reveal was promising though. “A boy?” friends remarked, “Boys are so easy! No drama, less worries.” Boys, after all, aren’t targeted as much with the demands to be thin or beautiful, thus resulting in less social pressure.
But is that really true? Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the director of Miss Representation, seeks to investigate what she calls the “boy crisis” in America in The Mask You Live In, a documentary currently under production. In it, Newsom explores the ways we as a society are failing our boys with demands to repress their emotions and prove their masculinity. Connecting personal stories and professional advice with alarming statistics such as “boys are 30% more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school” and “boys under 17 drink more heavily than any other population group,” The Mask You Live In will attempt to spark national conversation around the topic of masculinity pressures.
The film preview certainly captured my attention not only as the new mother to a seven-month-old boy, but as one who has been somewhat desensitized to harmful gender stereotypes—phrases like “Man up!”, “Cry like a girl”, or “Grow some balls.” This “be a man” expectation is continually portrayed in the media, in sports, at school and even at home if we’re not careful. As one professional in the film expresses, “(boys) really buy into a culture that doesn’t value what we’ve feminized”—things like caring, close relationships and empathy. In fact, because of the pressure to be tough, young men are feeling humiliated for these feelings or, as one of the film’s psychiatrists points out, feel that they would be shamed if they didn’t prove that they were manly—the most desperate of these attempts seen with homicide or suicide. Hiding or overcompensating for any characteristic that our boys have been pressured into thinking is feminine has become the norm. One young woman in the film explains that guys at her school, in fear of being teased or bullied, even pretend that they’re not smart.
Intrigued and inspired to help change these statistics, I’m anxious to see this film when it’s finished and committed to joining the discussion. Still new to the game of baby boys, I’m thinking a lot right now about our home environment and how important it is that my son is not pressured to suppress his emotions or conceal his desire to be nurtured.
I want my children—each of them—to equally feel the freedom to express themselves, communicate and seek close relationships. Just as I will initiate important conversations with my daughters to help them overcome girl pressures to look or act a certain way, I will also encourage important communication with my son, reiterating the fact that what truly defines a strong man is the ownership of each and every emotion that makes him human including sensitivity, expressiveness and compassion.
So yes, maybe I don’t know much about boys. But I do know that the most important thing any family can give their child is the gift of acceptance: Be who you are, express who you are and we will love you.
That’s a pretty good start to raising a good man.
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