How does a boy become a man?
"This struggle is particularly tough on boys who don't meet traditional notions of masculinity. In first grade, a boy may be told by other boys: we don't play with girls anymore. But if he still wants to play with girls, he may get teased for it. He may start to pay a price for not acting like the other boys. You can't push or pressure your child to be the man he isn't, or to excel in ways he can't. Love the kid you've got."
Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Co-Author, Raising Cain; Host, PBS documentary, RAISING CAIN
Figuring out the rules of masculinity and trying to live up to them is part of every boy's childhood. Most boys find the "tests of" masculinity scary and hard to pass. And some boys find this process especially painful because they feel they don't have the right skills and interests to be successful at being a boy.
"Parents are often baffled by why boys work so hard at being boys,"says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., host of the PBS RAISING CAIN documentary. "Sometimes they wish their boys could just be themselves' and not constantly measure themselves against the societal standard of masculinity. But boys do this, whether you like it or not (as girls do with femininity). Only in time do children develop a sufficiently independent identity so they can say with confidence and pride, 'That's not me. This is who I am.'"
Children come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities. They grow up to develop very different passions and talents. But according to Thompson, they all share one thing: "Every child has to come to grips with society's image of what is masculine and what is feminine. These expectations begin to influence them the moment a child is born, when parents pick up their baby girl and say, 'Isn't she sweet, isn't she beautiful?' They pick up their sons and they say, 'Isn't he handsome? He's going to be a big, strong boy.' These messages continue when boys and girls start to play separately at around age three, and both the boys' group and the girls' group begin to define what boys do and what girls do. And these gender expectations can be tough on boys who don't fit society's model."
So how can parents help their boys make it through? "It doesn't help boys to pretend that standards for masculinity don't exist," advises Thompson. Instead, Thompson and our other RAISING CAIN experts recommend you start by supporting and appreciating your boy's struggle, reassuring him that some stuff doesn't really matter, while acknowledging why it's important to him. It also helps to discuss, dissect, analyze and put in perspective what the search for masculinity is all about. "It doesn't help boys to pretend that standards for masculinity don't exist, because boys will look at you like you're crazy. They know the rules and you can't give your child a waiver even if you want to,"notes Thompson.
"Gender expectations are socially constructed, ruthlessly enforced and powerful," adds Joseph Tobin, Ph.D., author of Good Guys Don't Wear Hats and Professor of Education at Arizona State University. "We should talk with boys about the reality of gender expectations, and help them brainstorm about how to negotiate this problem. If a little boy is struggling to feel adequately masculine by acting tough, it's not helpful to criticize or mock his interests. The fact is that all men struggle with this issue and none of us has it figured out."