Lessons on bringing up sons who are open, kind, and destined to defy macho-men stereotypes.

Gender Roles Boy And Mom Read Book
Credit: Cheyenne Ellis

Lupe Aguilera is encouraging her 3-year-old son Nico’s love of dolls, play kitchens, and all things pink. By allowing him to pursue a variety of interests, the Mexican-American mother hopes to counteract the machismo attitude long ingrained in Latin culture that dictates men should be rugged beings immune to showing emotion.

“‘Boys don’t cry,’ was a common phrase in my house growing up. My brother was told to be tough when he got upset. And because he was more sensitive, he was teased a lot by my uncles and cousins,” Aguilera says. Her husband also comes from a traditional Mexican family, and he shares a similar experience. That’s why the two are making sure their San Francisco home is free of gender stereotypes, so Nico will see it as a place where tears are a good thing and no interest is off-limits.

“Nature goes only so far,” says Jennifer Coloma, Ph.D., a Peruvian psychologist at the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, California. “Boys and girls might have certain differences in how they express emotion, but what they learn at home during their developmental years has a larger impact. Even babies pick up on behavior and discriminate between what a woman does and what a man does to make sense of the world. By showing them different ways of doing things, and paying attention to what makes them more confident, we can empower them throughout their lives.” And isn’t that the ultimate goal? It won’t be easy to break old-school stereotypes, but there are ways to try as we help our boys thrive.

1. Talk it out.

When things don’t go your son’s way at the playground, does he get angry or shut down? According to a 2015 report by Promundo, a nonprofit promoting gender justice in Washington, D.C., men who were raised to hide their feelings report higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse. But giving your kid the tools to identify his emotions can help, Dr. Coloma says. “In pre-K, they’re working on happy, sad, and hopefully learning that there’s a range of emotions. But knowing the range within each emotion can resonate internally much more. Even a young child can understand that ‘frustrated’ is not the same as ‘mad,’” Dr. Coloma says. The trick is to pay attention to those moments when your kid is feeling a certain way and label it in a way that he understands. “Sometimes I’ll use a ruler and ask, ‘Are you really angry or are you down here? If you’re up here, how do we get you down?’”

Once a boy gets older, pressure to avoid showing weakness can impede academic success. “I had a professor in grad school who said, ‘A boy would rather look tough than stupid,’ and that stuck with me,” recalls Eva Rivera, a Mexican-American social worker who works with preschoolers in Los Angeles. “When boys get to junior high, none of them will say anything if they can’t understand the concepts.” By high school, Latino boys have the highest dropout rate of any ethnicity, and their suspension rate is nearly double that of Latinas, according to new research from the Institute of Education Sciences.

Getting kids to open up requires support from both teachers and parents. “We need to check in with children about how they’re feeling when they come to the classroom and when they get home,” Rivera says. Help them develop that trust. “They’ll want to know, ‘Are you going to be okay if I show this emotion, or will you make fun of me?’ As a parent, you won’t get it right every time, but on those occasions you don’t, you have to recover from that. You can say: ‘I made a mistake. I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings; how can we make it better?’” The message they’ll receive is that you’re not afraid to be vulnerable. “It is often seen as weakness when in reality it takes strength to feel a certain way and express it,” says Dr. Coloma. “Most of the kids I work with are Latino, and a lot of times, they’ll see how their dad reacts to something negative, and their behavior can be off-putting and distancing.” So ask yourself, “Are my partner and I behaving how we want them to behave?” Teaching them to redefine what strength means through your own actions is key.

2. Help him socialize.

Once a kid lets his guard down, he can forge friendships with other children. “Boys who aren’t able to reveal their true self to their peers end up feeling alone and depressed,” says Natasha J. Cabrera, Ph.D., professor of human development at the University of Maryland, in College Park, who focuses on Latino children’s social development. If he can’t tell someone that he’s sad, the other person can’t help him. “As a result, they have difficulty creating relationships with friends, and then partners, and later as husbands.”

To establish those bonds, he has to learn empathy, that ability to step into someone else’s shoes. Start by teaching him how to read body language, Dr. Coloma suggests. “If you see a kid at the park with his head hanging low, ask your son, ‘What do you think he’s feeling? He’s slumped over and his head is down. What are reasons we get sad? Do you remember a time that you were sad? What made you feel better?’” Go further by encouraging your kid to play with a child who looks lonely. “Supporting other people is plenty of motivation,” Dr. Coloma says.

Kids can also learn compassion via a furry friend. In fact, research shows that kids who have pets have a higher emotional intelligence. “They have to be gentle and learn how to pet it,” Dr. Coloma says. And kids have to be attuned to nonverbal cues to meet an animal’s needs. While Aguilera didn’t get Nico a puppy, she did buy him a baby doll when he was 18 months. “Not long after, he started rocking his baby to sleep,” she says. “I do think it’s helped him understand how to be caring. He is still very cariñoso.”

3. Let him be.

Aside from diversifying his toy box, you should be open to your kid’s many interests, even if some of those are typically considered girl pursuits. “If a boy is trying on high heels, it’s because he’s seen his mom doing that, and he wants to know what it feels like,” Rivera says. Dr. Coloma suggests having fun with it instead of dictating whom he is supposed to be. And if you think that letting him wear your tacones can lead to something else, relax. “Having varied interests is not going to determine the sexual orientation of a child,” Dr. Coloma says. “If you shut something down, it promotes fear. He’s getting those messages everywhere; he doesn’t need to be shamed at home for something that is natural and healthy to explore.”

Moms of older kids who have been raised free of gender stereotypes can attest to how encouraging boys’ experimentation can help build well-rounded personalities. “My household when I was growing up was 110 percent machismo, and I swore I would never raise my kids that way,” says Cuban–Puerto Rican mom Elisa Batista, of Berkeley, California, whose 13-year-old son, Ari, plays competitive soccer and enjoys sci-fi shows—and is also classically trained in piano and likes to crochet. “In his last report card, his teacher said, ‘He helps his classmates with their difficulties, using his positive attitude,’” Batista says. “He is a generous friend and very thoughtful about the world.”

4. Look around you.

Just because you (and hopefully your partner) can see past the “blue is for boys, pink is for girls” mentality, don’t be surprised if older relatives aren’t so open-minded. “Our families make an effort, but I can see how it challenges their way of thinking,” Aguilera says. “We’re potty-training Nico, and when my mom asked him what kind of underwear he wanted, he requested flowers. My mom hesitated and eventually said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want,’ but I know she won’t get them and will say she couldn’t find them.” If this sounds familiar, have a talk about generational change with your family, Dr. Coloma suggests. “Ask the older relative to recall a time when she had a difference of opinion with her parents because of a set, traditional mentality that was outdated, and inquire about how it was handled.”

Before lecturing your parents, who might be harder to change, take a look at what you and your partner are doing: Are you guilty of gender bias too? It happened to Donna Duarte Ladd, of New York City. “When I was a kid, my mom was always in the kitchen and the last one to sit at the table. And even though I promised I’d be different, the same happens to me,” Duarte Ladd says. If you want your kid to be free of strict gender roles, you have to show flexibility within your own relationship, Dr. Coloma says. Maybe some nights, Dad makes dinner. “If it’s too hard to change, then acknowledge why and explain it to the kids. ‘I’m doing this because your dad has been working all day and I agreed that I would cook.’ Instead of the rigidity of ‘this is what you’re supposed to do,’ make it clear that it was a choice.”

Beyond that, you can point out stereotypes whenever they crop up in the media. It’s another way of correcting assumptions about what is okay for boys versus girls. For Batista, this is an ongoing conversation. “Recently we were talking about the way Princess Tiana was portrayed in the Princess and the Frog—we loved that she owned her own restaurant and that her prince worked for her!” says Batista, who makes sure her son knows that machismo is a thing of the past—at least in her household. “We present it in a funny way, like something that’s very quaint and old-fashioned, something from our parents’ time.” Of course, she is fully aware that her son will eventually go off into the world and realize that this attitude is still pervasive even outside our culture, but for now, she’s doing her best to open his eyes to the possibilities.