As a mother of three boys (with a fourth coming soon) I spend a lot of time thinking about boys in society and society’s messages to boys. There are a lot of mixed messages out there. It’s caused me to spend some time thinking about what I want to make sure my boys — and all boys — are taught.
Before I jump in, here are a few clarifications.
First, I agree that these are lessons girls should learn as well. I point them out as lessons for boys because they counter the strong and misleading messages that are targeting boys specifically. Secondly, I do have concerns about what some call the feminization of boys, or what might be call the demonization of boys.
Boys and girls are not the same, science bears that out. Too often, the differences between boys and girls end up with boys being placed in a deficit model. They don’t play like girls, they don’t move like girls, they don’t talk like girls, ergo there is something wrong with boys. This isn’t what I’m writing about. I’m not calling for boys to be less like boys or for masculine traits to become synonymous with various types of disorders and labels. I do want my boys to be men. What I take issue with are the messages the media and much of society put out to inaccurately communicate to our boys what it means to be a man.
So here are the lessons I believe we need to teach our boys, before other voices teach them otherwise:
What it really means to be brave.
Being brave means taking risks. Unfortunately, too many voices today tell boys that the risks they need to take involve harmful, unnecessary risks. Substance abuse, vandalizing– how brave to be undeterred by consequence, right?
Our boys need to know great role models of bravery. People who were brave enough to take a risk for a noble cause. Each of my sons has a historical figure associated with his name. These are some of the brave men, the risk-takers, I want my boys to know and to emulate. People like Winston Churchill, Thurgood Marshall, and Abraham Lincoln who were brave enough to stand up for something, for someone, though it meant risking everything.
Our boys need to know that bravery often means standing up for and doing what’s right, even when you may have to stand alone.
What it really means to be strong.
One of my sons once asked what I could think of that was the most powerful. My answer: Love. He thought for a moment and rephrased his question. “Well, what’s the most powerful thing that can destroy things.” My answer: Hate. It was all on the fly, but we ended up having a great discussion (which happened to involve a lot of Harry Potter themes….)
I can appreciate physical strength and power as much as anyone else, but I want our boys to know that real strength is driven by love.
Too many messages tell our boys that love — or really any emotion — is weakness. We need to teach our boys that true power and strength is in sincere love.
What it really means to be a leader.
Whether it’s in sitcoms, playground banter, or political discourse, there is a pervasive message that you get ahead by putting others down. I want my boys to know that you don’t elevate yourself by pushing others beneath you. Rather, true leaders lift others up to where they are. Real leaders serve, inspire, and leave everything and everyone around them better.
You’ll be a man, my son.
Somewhere in my college years I stumbled upon the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. I loved it. But now that I’m a mother of boys I love it even more. It sums up all the lessons I would hope for our boys to learn, and does it more eloquently than I could hope to do on my own.
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
What lessons do you hope for all of our boys to learn?
I (and my children) are lucky that their father is an exceptionally nurturing man, as is his father and many of the men in their life. So, I want my son (and daughter) to know that a man can be nurturing and that being so does not threaten one’s masculinity and is not a sign of weakness. They don’t nurture in the same way as moms, but they care for both their body and mind. My 1 1/2 year old son already shows this tendency in his love of animals, particularly our cats.
i’m completely freaked out about the message my son will get about women from the media. Yes I can teach him at home to be respectful, model a healthy relationship but at the end of the day, the message out there is that he doesn’t have to look at a female past her looks/body parts… the media so de-humanizes females in some ways I think it will effect my son worse than my daughter. ugh. Oh and the whole porn thing. ugh ugh ugh. It’s not my son per say but crap is out there and one way or another he will be exposed, and i’m not even sure what message he will get at that point but it won’t be a very healthy one.
How exciting you are about to have your fourth boy! I have four boys too ~ ! I relate very much to this post and share a lot of the same sentiments. Thanks for sharing and writing about this topic.
Alex | Perfecting Dad says
As the father of four boys, I thank you for writing this. I often wonder about the reality of children achieving virtues like the ones you describe, which I think are absolutely not for boys but for everyone as you said in your preface. I do wish my boys to grow into strong leaders, be brave, and all that .. in fact I have a romantic vision of what my child might eventually gow into. But at the same time, I know that very few children in the world will become one of the great leaders. Very few children will end up with the discernment to make their own decisions or realize the greater consequences of their action or even have the feeling that they have anything but the slightest control over their own lives. But those can be “the others”, and I agree with you that every parent ought to teach their child these and other basic virtues from the beginning. Perhaps the greatest thing is that if parents decide to teach these skills then they will neccessarily learn themselves. Teaching children is a great opportunity for the teacher.
p.s. ~ goosebumps reading the poem! wow. just wow.
LOVED this post! I have 2 very active boys (as most boys are!), and I know I am blessed that they are the rough yet kind boys they are. We are trying hard to teach them these things you have pointed out, and I know they will be the kind of men my husband and I will be so proud of! Thanks for the beautiful poem, too!
Dina S. says
More than anything, I would ask that you, others, and myself all teach boys one important thing that many mothers fail to teach their sons. That strength is not in letting your anger control you, but in you controlling your anger. That it is neither strong nor manly to strike a woman, and that women are not property to be had, and they should afford any woman the same respect that they would like to dare their mother or sister treated with. Whenever I read articles about DV or assault, I’m always asking “Where are the mothers?” and although it seems harmless, I would also teach my son not to objectify women as the media pressures him to, because I think that is a precursor to more violent behavior toward women.
What a lovely post. I also got goosebumps while reading through it…especially the part about sincere love being the most powerful tool you can use. This really made me think about the man I wish my son to become. Thanks so much for sharing!
Thank you all for your kind responses!
I think the most important thing we can do as mothers is to visualise who we want our children to be when they are adults. I love this post and I believe my son will be the man who can stand for his convictions no matter how hard it is to swim upstream.
That is so beautiful. When I was in graduate school in the 80’s for early childhood education,(I was in this really progressive type of school) they were obsessed with girls getting to do boy things and boys doing girls things. There was this book “William Wants (or needs )a Doll” that was all the rage. It was also around that time that Time magazine came out with a cover story proving that Hey! guess what…boys and girls are NOT the same. It would have made lots more sense if they concentrated on the aspects you did. Kudo to you
As the mother of a boy who is just now beginning to be influenced by the ‘boys do/like/say/wear this’ kind of culture… this post is a breath of fresh air, and so important.