Want to raise strong, confident boys? Stop telling boys to man up, the downsides of doing so, and what to do instead.
We value a certain kind of boy.
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.
Being ambitious, popular, funny, or assertive isn’t the problem, but hiding other aspects of being a boy in the name of “manning up” is.
The documentary The Mask You Live In addresses these issues and how often we tell boys to man up (even if not in those exact words).
We tell them to stop crying when they’re upset, discourage them from feeling afraid, and want them to pursue interests other boys typically enjoy. Sometimes we follow these gender stereotypes as early as kindergarten.
We think speaking to them this way will help them be strong, brave, and assertive and prevent them from being the target of bullies. We want to ensure that they’re accepted by their peers so that they don’t stick out so much.
These masculine traits aren’t bad—we do want boys to be strong, brave, and assertive. We don’t want bullies to target them, and we’d like them to have friends and feel like they belong. But these are traits they can learn without us implying that there’s a certain way to be a boy.
Telling boys to man up and defining masculinity this way can pose problems of its own. Take a look at these five compelling reasons to stop:
Table of Contents
1. Boys may not have genuine relationships
Boys want to fit in and will assume roles their social circles accept. But these masks prevent them from being vulnerable, a key element in relationships.
It’s in vulnerability that we can be ourselves, even if there’s a potential to get hurt. Think about the most important relationships in your life. None of them would be meaningful without the courage to be vulnerable.
You likely see boys who can only talk about superficial topics and keep “deeper” topics to themselves. They avoid talking about their mom dying of cancer or their passion for marine biology. They brush it off or hide it beneath safer topics.
As you can imagine, this kind of relationship feels lonely. For genuine relationships to emerge, boys need to feel safe enough to talk about many topics. Otherwise, they lack a true support system and real friendships.
Their relationship with their parents can also feel strained if they don’t feel accepted for who they are. They don’t feel like they belong to the kind of family that can talk openly with one another.
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2. Boys can feel disconnected from their emotions
Boys can feel emotions that don’t line up with masculine stereotypes. Maybe it’s that time they felt sad about losing a game or scared to ride a roller coaster. We want to ease their anxieties, as if manning up will draw the sadness and fear away.
So, they show emotions they think others want to see and expect of them—bravery, hardness, being funny, or acting nonchalantly. Meanwhile, they hide those they’re ashamed to feel, like fear, sadness, and vulnerability.
The problem? Any of us—boys included—feel worse when we bury emotions.
The young boy not allowed to feel all his emotions might erupt in frustration and despair. He might take it out on others, such as classmates, siblings, or his parents. He won’t develop empathy, a crucial skill he needs to relate to others.
3. Boys might turn to physical conflict resolution
Boys raised to “man up” glorify physical conflict resolution and aggression. Peers hail them as heroes for throwing a punch and their parents are secretly proud that they can physically defend themselves.
This isn’t just high school stuff, either. A friend told me how a few 5 year olds at her child’s school resorted to pushing and punching other kids when they didn’t get their way.
Telling boys to man up makes them react instead of pause. Let’s say someone accidentally steps on a boy’s foot. That boy won’t brush it aside as an accident or play it off as funny. Instead, he might puff his chest and initiate confrontation, all because he took it so personally.
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 other person the benefit of the doubt. They lack the social skills to resolve conflict in other ways and are unlikely to admit any fault they may have done.
4. Boys might objectify and demean girls
A boy raised to “man up” may not see girls as equals. Older boys see girls as objects to collect and discard, while younger boys avoid girls and anything that has to do with them. Both see anything girly as an insult (“You throw like a girl!”).
Parents play a role, too. We might say, “That’s for girls,” or “Stop talking like a girl.” We tell them, “Boys don’t cry” or to “play like boys do.” Or we panic when we see them reach for dolls and pink toys instead of trucks and sports items at the store.
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 can grow up too soon
The biggest reason not to tell our boys to man up? They’re not men. Insinuating that they should be men sends the wrong message.
Kids aren’t able to be kids—the stage in their lives when they’re supposed to be carefree. When they have the permission to cry over a lost toy or dream about being a violinist. When they can make mistakes without the stakes being too high.
Encouraging boys at a young age to hide behind a facade of toughness robs them of the childhood they need.
How to stop telling boys to man up
Raising boys to be men isn’t about “manning up” or following outdated stereotypes. 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 feels a wide range of emotions. Don’t tell him to stop crying or tease him to grow up. Comfort him when he feels scared instead of showing disappointment that he is. Don’t hold back his feelings or make judgments about them.
- Teach respectful conflict resolution. All kids will get in a tussle with someone else. Teach him how to manage his emotions and communicate with respect. A “tough boy act” shouldn’t be his reaction.
- Show examples of valuing women and girls. Model the kind of behavior you’d want him to emulate when he’s a grown man. You and your partner should be equal co-parents. Don’t allow him to trash talk girls, no matter how innocent his comments may seem.
- Let him be a child. Childhood is a small fraction of his life—allow him to live fully in this stage. Let him play and imagine without worrying if these behaviors are acceptable or not.
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When I was in elementary school, 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 acted too grown up to play and goof around.
Meanwhile, another group would use recess time to pretend they were airplanes. They’d stretch their arms wide and run around making 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 with 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, not men—at a time when they needed to.
p.s. Check out How to Be a Lion by Ed Vere, a wonderful children’s book about letting kids be themselves:
Get more tips:
- 4 Things You Shouldn’t Say about Other People’s Children
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
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