Why You Should Stop Telling Your Son to 'Man Up'
Even with the best of intentions, when parents become preoccupied with teaching boys lessons about being men, it can reduce their sons to projects and overlook their unique personalities for the sake of fitting them—often forcefully—into traditional boxes.
Most boys learn to keep their feelings private and to suppress and override them. With the exception of anger, boys often lose touch with how they feel. By the time a boy reaches adulthood, being emotionally present will likely be a challenge. A host of negative outcomes are associated with boys’ suppressing their feelings, from academic underperformance to health-risk behaviors such as substance use, fighting, and recklessness.
What grounds boys most, however, is their connections to those who know and love them. None of us can make his or her sons invulnerable—but we should never discount the power of our connections to strengthen them and keep them safe.
Raising Sons 101
These are evidence-based strategies that can help parents of boys develop a meta-view of the job and answer some of their urgent questions. Raising Sons 101 is built around a set of developmental themes and offers information, relevant skills, and lists of dos and don’ts, organized in five lessons.
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Lesson 1: Advocate for Your Son
Advocating for boys involves, first, understanding the threat posed by the social pressures they face. For most boys, these pressures begin practically from the start, when an infant is shushed for crying and told to be a “big boy.” Later, if the boy plays with dolls or other toys coded as female, he is likely to be redirected or even shamed. Inviting girls to his parties or having them as friends often elicits the same kind of gender policing. Later still, on sports fields or school playgrounds, pressures mount for boys to conform to stereotyped expectations: to love competition, play through pain, seek dominance, and so forth.
At such times, there are many ways a parent can help: running interference, normalizing the boy’s struggles, making sure their relationship is a haven. For example, when the pressures to conform are overwhelming a boy, the parent can ask if he would like help handling the situation. They can brainstorm ideas for what can be done, partnering with him to think through the situation. As the son grows older, he may feel ashamed for needing help from his parents; at these times, recounting stories from one’s own battles with gender norms can ease his feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Sometimes parents become confused by competing priorities, such as between setting limits and warmly validating their son. I ask them to think first about the overall situation: What kind of pressure is the boy under, and how is it affecting him? Which does he need more: limits and lectures or welcome and respite?
As parents, we must make strategic judgments and keep in mind the larger goal: empowering our sons to stand up to pressures, seeking help whenever their personal resources need a boost. Being a good ally to a boy means welcoming and validating his struggles, no matter what, while also holding high expectations for his ability to figure out his own life.
Lesson 2: Offer Relationship for a Strong Sense of Self
Because the peer pressures of boyhood are so intense, it requires a strong sense of self to steer clear of negative norms. As parents, we need to remember that our connection with our sons is their primary fortification, preventing overcompromise.
How to cultivate a strong connection with our sons? One way is to learn the very particular skill of mirroring. Parents can practice this with a close partner, arranging to take turns sharing all that they admire and love about their sons. Be as specific as possible and tell stories about actual moments when your son revealed what a special person he is. Not only does such practice time prepare the parent for real-life opportunities with her son, but it also deepens her skill at validation and at offering genuinely positive regard unmitigated by worry or criticism. As a result, patterns of finding fault or getting hijacked by personal upset become more conscious and controllable.
Finding a common interest or identity, offering help that is carefully fitted to the boy’s actual need, and being patient and accessible are other helpful relational strategies. Because the cultural script for boys is not to rely on their parents, it is important that parents make themselves available to their sons and maintain keen interest in their lives.
Lesson 3: Encourage Emotional Expression
Emotional awareness and expressiveness develop in relationships. Boys can be expected to share their feelings only where they are protected from shaming and judgments. When barriers and threats are removed, boys do not hold back: they long to tell their stories. At first, their feelings can be raw and unpleasant, even angry, and may be directed at their parents. But it is in the relationship with an unconditionally loving parent that boys discover how to do the hard work of staying connected even when their feelings want to push everyone away.
The skill of listening to boys’ feelings is both straightforward and challenging. The stresses parents endure can make them inattentive, irritable, and emotionally reactive when their sons behave unreasonably. But when merely reacting to our sons, we lose opportunities to get behind their behavior to the upset that is driving it.
To develop skill at listening, parents must first learn to silence our inner monologues and to radiate attention, warmth, and interest. When a parent can muster attention, all that is required is to find the boy and simply direct attention his way—if he is playing a game or watching a show, to sit by him and be interested in what he is doing without altering the flow of the game. During car rides, find a question to ask that expresses a genuine, open curiosity about some part of his life he enjoys: “What song is that you’re listening to?” “What happened in that show you watched?” “How did the team you follow do in their last game?” The point is not to require the boy to explain something or even help you to understand; it is for the son to experience his parent’s attention as pleasant.
As parents exercise their listening muscles, the quality of their attention will deepen and be less vulnerable to distraction or deflection. And as boys find being listened to a positive experience, they lean in. With this connected state as a baseline, the real payoff comes when the boy seeks a sounding board or comforting ear. Once the trustworthiness and benefit of being listened to are established, boys stay more emotionally open and connected. They are less likely to lose contact with their hearts.
Above all, a parent should never respond to times when the son shares his feelings by giving advice. Being told how to think is a poor substitute for becoming better at thinking for himself, and it often feels disrespectful. Most boys, particularly as they get older, insist on the freedom to make up their own minds and are willing to sacrifice talking altogether to avoid being second-guessed or lectured.
Lesson 4: Exercise Authority
Boys’ groups tend to separate themselves from adults, actively test the limits and power of adult rules, exert pressure on their members not to snitch, exclude and mistreat girls, and encourage members to turn to digital devices and substances to deal with suppressed feelings. Parents of boys will need to set limits and guide them away from the values of the peer culture. Unless the parent properly manages the times when the son acts out, he will have a harder time learning to restrain himself.
When parents set a limit, it is a way to communicate that they see their son as a capable and moral person, able to rise above whatever hurts or stresses he feels in order to behave more appropriately. Without real conscious awareness, boys expect parents to stand firm against their aggressive or testing behaviors. But they expect their parents to do so in ways that do not compromise or weaken their connection or their sense of being accepted, difficulties and all. To strike the right balance, parents’ exercise of authority must be strategic rather than reactive. Limits should always derive from a thoughtful consideration of the situation and willingness to listen to whatever upset may be causing the unreasonable behavior. Reactions that derive from parents’ own upset tend to be inconsistent, unsustainable, and may inadvertently reinforce limit testing and forceful resistance.
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Lesson 5: Promote Autonomy
The ideal of independence as a Lone Ranger–type isolation continues to be a powerful cultural image. But in healthy development, independence is less the goal than autonomy achieved through initiative, judgment, and confidence. To foster this end, parents must accompany their son through challenges without automatically taking over whenever he falters or makes a mistake. Rather, like a good coach, parents lend confidence and serve as safe receptacles for feelings of frustration or defeat as they arise.
In a counterintuitive way, autonomy actually emerges naturally in relationships rather than from pulling away or withdrawing. How ably parents manage both to stay connected to their sons and to be honest with them about important values and family needs may be the ultimate test of their ability to support their sons’ independence.
While compromise and negotiation are always necessary in any relationship, apparent conflicts often evaporate when respect, listening, and the release of tense feelings are encouraged. There’s likely always to be a solution in every conflict once painful feelings are cleared away. To strike a healthy balance between maintaining connection and supporting their son’s desire to spread his wings, parents usually have to review how their own need for autonomy was handled in their families—and how these experiences bear on their relationship with their son.
Adapted from How to Raise a Boy by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2019, Michael Reichert, PhD.