Want to raise strong, confident boys? Stop telling boys to man up. These 5 reasons explain the downsides of telling a boy to be a man and what to do instead.
We value a certain kind of boy in this society. The ambitious and popular boy all the girls have a crush on. The class clown who can make anyone laugh. And of course the boy who won’t back down from insults or harsh words.
There’s no problem with being ambitious, popular, funny or assertive. The problem is when we hide other aspects of being a boy in the name of “manning up.”
These are the issues addressed in a documentary called The Mask You Live In. I knew we lived in a society that isn’t always so easy for young boys. But when a friend sent me this video, I realized how pervasive the issue continues to be.
We usually say “man up” when we tell our boys to grow up, as early as kindergarten. We want them to stop crying, to be less afraid, to pursue interests other typical boys enjoy.
What are some of the common misconceptions about telling boys to “man up”? We think they…
- need to toughen up to be strong and brave
- won’t be the target of bullies
- will be more popular and have friends
- won’t act like wimps
These traits aren’t necessarily bad. We do want boys to be strong, brave and assertive. We don’t want bullies to target our kids. And we’d like them to have friends. But these are all traits boys can learn without us telling them to “man up.”
5 problems with telling boys to “man up”
So, what’s the problem with defining masculinity within such a narrow focus?
#1: Boys feel disconnected from their emotions
We tell boys to man up because they show emotions that don’t line up with the typical macho role.
Maybe it’s that time they felt sad about losing a game, or scared to ride a roller coaster. Sometimes we tell boys to man up as a way to dispel their anxieties, as if being a boy will make a go-getter out of them.
So boys end up showing emotions they think others want to see and expect of them. They hide and suppress other emotions they feel ashamed to feel.
They value bravery, hardness, being funny, or acting nonchalant. Meanwhile, they hide emotions like fear, sadness and vulnerability.
The problem? Any of us—boys included—feel worse when we bury emotions.
The boy who isn’t allowed all his emotions will explode in frustration and despair. He might take it out on others, such as classmates, siblings or even his parents. He won’t develop empathy, a crucial skill he needs to relate to others.
#2: Boys don’t have genuine relationships
Boys show a facade they assume their social circles will accept. But because of these masks and fake roles they play, they’re unable to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is a key element in relationships.
It’s in vulnerability that we can be ourselves, even if there’s a potential we’ll get hurt. Think about your most important relationships in your own life. None of them would have much depth without the vulnerability it needs.
You likely see boys who can only talk about superficial topics and keep “deeper” topics to themselves. Things like their grandma dying of cancer, or their passion for marine biology. They brush it off, or hide it beneath safe topics.
As you can imagine, this kind of relationship feels lonely. For genuine relationships to emerge, boys need to feel safe that they can talk about those topics and more.
Otherwise, they lack a true support system and real friendships. Their relationship with their parents feels strained if they don’t feel accepted for who they are. They don’t feel like they belong to the kind of family that talks to one another.
#3: Boys turn to physical conflict resolution
Boys raised to “man up” glorify physical conflict resolution. Their peers hail them as heroes for throwing a punch. Their parents breathe a sigh of relief knowing they’re on top of the social pyramid.
This isn’t just high school stuff, either. A friend told me how a few five-year-olds resorted to pushing and punching other kids when they didn’t get their way.
Manning up makes boys react instead of pause. Let’s say another boy accidentally steps on his foot. He won’t brush it aside as an accident or play it off as funny or clumsy. Instead, he’ll puff his chest and initiate confrontation. All because he took that simple act so personally.
And so, boys who man up are more likely to bully and pick on others. It’s here where they feel safest. They don’t know how to pause, or give the benefit of the doubt. They don’t know other ways to resolve conflict. And they’re unlikely to admit any part they may have played.
#4: Boys objectify and demean girls
A boy raised to “man up” doesn’t see girls as equals. Older boys see girls as object to collect and discard. Younger boys avoid girls and anything that has to do with girls. They see anything girly as an insult (“You throw like a girl”).
A parent may not tell a young boy to “man up.” But he might say, “That’s for girls,” or “Stop talking like a girl.” He might tell him that “boys don’t cry” or to “play like boys do.”
These all send the message to behave as far apart from a girl as possible. That to act anything close to a girl isn’t a good thing.
#5: Boys grow up too soon
Maybe the biggest reason not to tell our boys to man up? They’re not men. Insinuating that they should be like men sends a terrible message.
Kids aren’t able to be kids—the stage in our life when they’re supposed to be carefree. When they have the permission to cry over a lost toy or dream about being a fireman.
Encouraging young boys to hide behind a tough facade robs them of a childhood they need.
Stop telling boys to man up
Raising boys to be men isn’t about “manning up.” We can teach the skills we want to nurture such as strength and friendship in a healthier way. How?
- Accept all your child’s emotions. Everyone—male and female—feels a wide range of emotions. Don’t tell your child to stop crying or tease him to grow up already. Comfort him when he feels scared instead of feel disappointed that he is. Don’t hold him back from any feelings he may have.
- Teach respectful conflict resolution. All kids will get in a tussle with someone else. Teach your child how to manage his emotions and communicate with respect. A “tough boy act” shouldn’t be his first go-to move.
- Show examples of valuing women. Model the kind of behavior you’d want your son to emulate when he’s a grown man. You and your partner should be equal co-parents. And don’t allow him to trash talk girls, no matter how innocent his comments may seem.
- Allow him to be a child. Childhood is a small fraction of his life—allow him to live fully in this stage. This doesn’t mean babying or doing everything for them. It’s about allowing him to play and imagine without worrying if he’s being a wimp.
When I was in eighth grade, I noticed a difference between a few of the boys in my class. The boys in the “in” group tried to mimic popular culture. They listened to all the hip music and felt too grown up to be playing and goofing around.
Meanwhile, the other group would use recess time to pretend they were airplanes. They’d stretch their arms wide and run around and make airplane noises.
We all got along as a class and no one teased one group over another, thankfully. But those boys pretending to be airplanes developed real friendships among one another. They didn’t worry about looking silly or whether they were dressed in hip clothes.
They were able to be, act and play like who they were—boys—at a time when they should be.
Check out the trailer of the documentary (there’s some foul language, so maybe don’t watch with your child nearby):
Let’s keep the conversation going! Read these articles:
- 3 Lessons Every Mom Raising Boys Needs to Teach
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
- Why We Need to Stop Saying “That’s For Girls”
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
Tell me in the comments: What disadvantages do you see when we tell boys to “man up”? Have you noticed a difference in boys growing up, or even the men in your life now, between those who were able to play and those told to be men?
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