Gender Norms Around Boys Are Ingrained In Us When We're Young, But There Are Ways To Unlearn Them

A series of crimes attributed to misogyny, including the recent van attack in Toronto in which 10 people died, has raised concerns about toxic masculinity and the ways in which our societal norms around what it means to be a man can become dangerous.

And if you have a young boy in your life, you know those norms are there to contend with from birth. Clothing marketed to even the smallest baby boys is full of gendered stereotypes, such as images and words that call them heroes, hunks or tough guys.

And work by neuroscientist Lise Eliot has looked at the way we treat boy and girl babies differently even before they express their personalities, or even unconsciously change our own behaviour around children to fit established gender norms.

“I think the thing we forget when we talk about gender and masculinity is that these are concepts that adults and parents actively teach our kids,” Lanae St. John, a sexologist and a mother of two teen boys, told HuffPost Canada by email.

“At worst, kids socialize — a polite word for bully, cajole, taunt, tease, etc. — each other to conform to certain behaviours contained within ‘gender roles’ because of what adults and others taught them,” St. John said.

Limiting your child’s behaviour because they identify as a boy is just as damaging as doing the same to a girl, or to a child who identifies as someone else on the gender spectrum.

“By limiting socially acceptable emotions in males, we are stunting their emotional growth and limiting their ability to have a full and engaged life,” author Lisa Orban told HuffPost Canada by email.

“We are setting them up for failure in relationships by not allowing them to connect with other human beings except in superficial ways, denying males close and supportive friendships, and leaving them unable to express themselves with loved ones.”

How can adults work against norms that are deeply ingrained not just in our own minds, but in the society we all live in? There are ways to do it — and that work matters because it all has the end goal of helping young boys be more comfortable with who they really are, and who the people around them really are.

Look at yourself

One of the best things we can do as adults is to work on ourselves first, St. John said. What do you think about when the topic of gender comes up? What does it mean to you to “be a man”? What messages did we learn ourselves growing up?

Think about what your reactions are like, and work on those, she said. That will help you do the same with the boys in your life. There are resources out there to help you do that, including the books Boys: What It Means to Become a Man by Rachel Giese and Gender: Your Guide by Lee Airton.

Pay attention to words

A lot of the societal norms around gender, including masculinity, are reinforced in the way we talk — including how we talk about how we feel. Not giving our emotions gender assignments is a good place to start in broadening the scope of what masculinity looks like for boys, Orban said. Think of phrases like, “Man up” or “Don’t be a pussy” or “Big boys don’t cry.”

“We all know real men do cry, it’s healthy to cry, and repressing our emotions can have lifelong emotional, and even physical, tolls on our bodies,” she said. “Instead, we should be encouraging a healthy acknowledgment of feelings and ways to cope with them when they become overwhelming, the same way we do with girls.”

Let them ask questions

Make sure the boys in your life are able to ask you questions about masculinity and gender without ridicule or criticism, counsellor GinaMarie Guarino told HuffPost Canada by email.

“Children have many questions, and when they feel they cannot ask the questions, they reject the idea to challenge norms,” Guarino said. “Being able to talk about their thoughts and feelings are a great way to help a child unlearn the traditional definition of masculinity.”

Remember that a lot of this is new

“I guess I have lots of questions and not many answers because this is new terrain,” St. John said. Gender is one of the foundations upon which we build our sense of self, she said, and it can make people uncomfortable to see that shift.

Take the time to learn and be open to the fact that norms, advice, and best practices around this may change — just as your own child’s needs and beliefs about gender and masculinity also could.

Let people be who they are

“One of the best things you can do to break down the stigma and expectations that come with traditional masculinity is to teach unconditional tolerance,” Guarino said.

Teach children to celebrate differences instead of seeing them as a source of threat or confusion, she said, and it will be more natural for them to broaden their definition of masculinity — or femininity, or anything else.