Starting on Day 1, children are inundated with gender stereotypes—pink bows and babydolls for girls, trucks and toy guns for boys. These things may seem innocent enough, but after years of constant reinforcement by media, family, the language we use, and society in general, these stereotypes can start to manifest in children in harmful ways.
As they grow up surrounded by these expectations around their gender, children will gradually come to understand that there are certain clothes, toys, activities, and behaviors that are only for girls, or only for boys. These rigid stereotypes will eventually become part of their worldview which can lead to internalized feelings of inadequacy or resentment—or even cause them to treat others in hurtful ways when they don’t fit into their expected gender roles.
How does toxic masculinity fit into this?
The set of stereotyped expectations around men and boys is often referred to as “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity puts pressure on boys to be tough and emotionless. These societal ideas of what it means to “be a man” are extremely harmful, not only to boys, but to families and society in general.
Toxic masculinity is one of the root causes of many forms of sexism, violence, and untreated mental health issues in men and boys. Boys are discouraged from seeking help or showing any sensitivity for fear that they might be perceived as weak. Instead of looking for someone to talk to when they’re feeling upset, boys exposed to toxic masculinity may lash out in anger or violence instead.
Putting a stop to toxic masculinity starts at home.
These five steps are a good starting point for families who want to challenge gender roles in their own households. Take note of which of these things you’re already doing as a family, and which ones you could start incorporating into your lives.
- Gain a solid understanding. One of the biggest reasons for the persistence of toxic masculinity is the lack of awareness many folks have about it. The fact is, there is no biological reason for boys to prefer certain toys or types of clothing. They learn these stereotypes from adults, so it’s really important to be cognizant of the messages we’re sending them when they want to do something that doesn’t fit into stereotypical gender roles.
- Self-reflect. Ideas about gender roles don’t occur naturally—they are passed down from generation to generation. When you notice yourself feeling resistance to something your child is interested in, stop and reflect on where that feeling might be coming from. Is it arising because you think it doesn’t match with your expectations? If so, it may be coming from a place of toxic masculinity.
Remember, these stereotypes can be reinforced by anyone, not just people who identify as men—for example, one study showed mothers have a stronger bias against boys crying than dads do. So, next time your son asks if he can paint his nails or play with a doll, be mindful of your reaction and make sure to be supportive so as not to convey negative feelings about these behaviors. Stop and reflect by asking yourself:
- What’s the emotion behind my discomfort? (Might be shame, embarrassment, fear, etc.)
- Where does that feeling come from?
- Why do I have this idea about what gender roles “should” be?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen if I let my child do this thing?
- What positive outcomes could there be if I support my child instead of discouraging this thing?
- Talk about feelings. One of the most harmful aspects of toxic masculinity is the way it discourages men and boys from expressing their emotions. Rather than learning healthy coping mechanisms, boys are often taught to hide their more sensitive feelings like sadness or anxiety, causing those feelings to manifest in uncontrolled ways like angry outbursts or depression. Boys should be encouraged to embrace and express their feelings in a constructive way. Normalizing self-expression is one of the most important ways parents can avoid fostering overly macho or toxically masculine behaviors in their boys.
- Teach them about consent. Macho behavior is often linked with dominance, or being an “alpha male”. These attitudes can create a sense of entitlement to other people’s possessions, bodies, time, and attention. Learning to accept rejection and respect other people’s wishes are key to keeping toxically macho attitudes at bay.
- Provide strong-but-soft role models. Masculinity does not have to be toxic. Think of masculine role models who use their strength for good, and who are connected to their feelings and those of others. These could be people who identify as males in your real life, but there are lots of celebrity role models too. Terry Crews, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Chris Evans are all super-tough guys, but also practice emotional honesty and strong communication.
As we learn more as a society about the trouble with gender roles, we can start to unlearn the deeply ingrained notions we have about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Gender is a spectrum, and not everyone falls exactly into one category or another, so it’s really important to let each child be exactly who they are and support them unconditionally.
The more we can show children that strength does not have to go hand in hand with machismo and dominance, the more comfortable kids will be in their own skin, and the more respectful they’ll be of others.