10 Ways to Free Your Son From Gender Stereotypes
When my son was about 10 years old, we were watching a film about a teen superhero. We loved the superhero’s approachable style and serious martial art moves. But the film quickly devolved as our beloved character was counseled by the grown-ups on how to “get the girl,” by shedding his sensitive nature and boyhood charm, for aloofness, arrogance, flaunting material possessions, etc. The film was rift with more stereotypes where the smart young woman he had a crush on was rendered helpless so that he could save her and the superhero’s boss was regularly objectified.
As we were watching the movie, I said to my son, “You know how you get the girl….treat her like a human being. And never stop being yourself.”
Our culture begins stereotyping boys and girls from the moment they are in utero, much of it based on outdated cultural and sexist norms. But the reality is gender is most often on a continuum. As we empower our girls, our boys also deserve the freedom to embrace all parts of themselves; here are some ideas to get started:
- Expose him to as many non-traditional men and women as you can. Although we are making strides, our culture continues to be dominated by traditional male and female role models. Introduce your son to equal numbers of male and female success stories based on his interests - both in real life and through media. Makers is one helpful place to start. That includes successful men who have a more balanced range of traits. These are harder to find! Check out these famous men who are also proudly feminists.
- Provide a safe place to express vulnerability and a range of emotions. From a young age, are encouraged to suppress a wide range of emotions. Mirror and support your son’s emotions and let him know it’s okay to feel sad, scared, joyful or silly. As your son gets older, remind him that being honest about how you are feeling is courageous. Check out Justin Baldoni’s thought provoking talk on why he is done trying to be man enough.
- Raise a media critic. This is relevant for empowering girls and just as important in boy’s development. Never underestimate the influence of negative media messages on your son. Reducing what your son is exposed to definitely helps. Since you can’t completely avoid the damaging messages especially as he gets older, teach him how to be a critical observer, questioning the motives of an advertiser or television show. Make him aware their goal is to sell a product.
- Be aware of your language and ditch the labels. Boys will be boys. Man up. What are you a girl? All these common phrases send very strong messages to boys, questioning his masculinity for just being open or expressing feelings. (Not to mention directly implying that being like a girl is NOT a good thing.)
- Switch up traditional roles and responsibilities in your family. As the mother of two teens, I can tell you young people see hypocrisy from a mile away. Modeling the behavior you’d like to see is by far your best superpower. Switch up household chores if there’s an imbalance or if tasks are separated purely along traditional gender roles. Consider who is doing the volunteering in your family; if this is driven by who is at home or has more flexibility, then make that clear.
- Encourage your son to try all types of activities. Expose your son to guys that are skilled in literature/writing, drama, art, cooking, dance, etc. in real life and those recognized for their talent in the public sphere.
- Ditto for diverse friendships. For as long as you can, connect your son with a diversity of friendships including girls! When we hang around with others, we stop seeing them as the other. Academic projects, co-ed after school activities, and family events are all great ways to foster friendships with girls.
- Raise a Gutsy Bystander. Character traits like courage, kindness, resilience and honesty are what growing into an honorable person are all about. Teach your son how to stand up for others. Give him the literal words to say, if, for example, he hears someone trash-talking a girl in the locker room. Something as simple as, “hey that’s not cool,” works.
- Start the conversation with other families. Recently, a local community joined together to delay their kids smartphone use until eighth grade. If you have a pre-teen or teen who uses a smartphone, you know how difficult that would have been to do solo. The same is true here. Join with other parents to make freeing our sons easier!
- Love all of who he is. Giving your son permission to express his emotions, love art or practice cooking doesn’t mean you are suppressing other traits like roughhousing or laughing at potty jokes!
Mostly, focus on the positive and remind your son how proud you are of the person he is becoming!
That’s a long list and there are many more. Pick one from the list that most resonates or choose your on! Consistent attention - even for 5 minutes a few times a week - will have a positive impact!
Paula Grieco is a former start-up tech executive turned social entrepreneur, writer, and business/goal coach. She is the founder and owner of The Brave Coreand has released two guidebooks on goal setting, Take 5 for Your Dreams for teens andReclaim Your Dreams Workbook for busy women. Her work has been featured in: The Boston Globe, Online Christian Science Monitor, Tinybuddha, The Good Men Project, SheHeros, and She Can’t What. It matters deeply to her that every person has an opportunity to live their best life with a particular commitment to gender equity through career and economic empowerment for women and girls of all backgrounds. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two teenagers, and dog, Henry. For more about Paula's coaching, visit paulagrieco.com or she'd love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.