Masculinity stereotypes are not something you’re born with, it’s something you learn

Masculinity stereotypes are not something you’re born with, it’s something you learn

The APA (American Psychological Association) recently did something quite historic in my opinion.  After more than 40 years of research and 127 years in existence, they’re issuing a warning against “masculinity ideology” – the misguided stereotypes parents instill on young boys during development.

Entitled Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, it’s the first report of its kind designed to help practitioners guide their young male patients through “social forces that can harm their mental health”.

Why it’s so important

Jared Skillings, a psychologist and the APAs Chief of Professional Practice says, “Masculinity ideology was important to highlight because it represents a set of characteristics that are unhealthy for men — men who are sexist or violent or don’t take care of themselves.”

Before you dismiss your role in the masculinity ideology merry-go-round, consider the following:

  • Telling a young boy to “Man up,” “Stop acting like a girl,” “Boys don’t cry” or “Be a man” to name but a few.
  • Labeling certain careers, sports or hobbies as “only for girls”.
  • Forcing a young boy into a stereotypical activity rather than supporting and nurturing other more diversified interests that go against societal norms.

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re harming a boy’s development according to the comprehensive study by the APA.

Boys are not born with masculinity ideology

A fundamental truth that so many parents, especially masculine ideologic fathers, so often overlook is that masculinity ideology is not something you’re born with. It’s something you learn – from your parents.

It’s a parent’s job to guide their children to continually explore who they are and the opportunities this world affords them. It’s not a parent’s job to mold their children into likenesses of themselves with similar interests, behaviors and beliefs – which is how masculinity ideology perpetuates through the generations.

For as Margaret Mead once famously said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

I know what it’s like to grow up battling masculinity ideology in society but consider myself incredibly fortunate that the male role models I had at home (my father, my grandfather) refused to adopt or support them.

They provided me with a guiding freedom which enabled me to make choices, not force me to be what they wanted me to be.

They showed me that the measure of one’s “manliness” comes from being in touch with your emotions and your weaknesses, from being respectful and tolerant of differences, by offering kindness towards strangers and compassion to those whose circumstances differ from our own.

Show me such a man and I can assure you they will undoubtedly make a wonderful father, spouse, friend, son and member of society. That is what we should be teaching our little boys.

It’s not easy for boys growing up today

Author William Pollack, PH.D, writes in Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, “Boys are made to feel shame over and over, in the midst of growing up, through what I call society’s shame-hardening process,” he says.

“The idea is that a boy needs to be disciplined, toughened up, made to act like a ‘real man,’ be independent, keep the emotions in check. A boy is told that, ‘big boys don’t cry,’ that he shouldn’t be a ‘mama’s boy.’ If these things aren’t said directly, these messages dominate in subtle ways in how boys are treated – and therefore how boys come to think of themselves.”

I love this quote by actor and comedian Denis Leary: “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” 

The same is true of the masculinity ideology our country has adopted and supported for far too long – it’s not born, it’s taught.

Parents, your job is about more than just providing the basic necessities to your children, it’s also to make sure you’re being cautious of the messages you’re sending to impressionable young minds (both verbally and non-verbally).

Young boys deserve a chance to be who they are based on their own exploration and discoveries. Don’t allow your own outdated masculinity ideology to jeopardize their chances.