When my son was in kindergarten, people kept telling me what a typical boy he was. He was sporty and rambunctious, impulsive and curious, charming and enormously affectionate—but he also had a quick temper and was prone to getting into fights. I was constantly being reminded by his teachers, my dad and a bystander that witnessed an epic tantrum in a grocery store that he fit a particular stereotype.
Some said it admiringly, like my dad, a macho, retired electrician who revelled in his grandson’s high spirits and rule breaking—a sign he wouldn’t grow up to be a “candy-*ss.” Others, like his teachers, said it with exasperation: “When will he settle down and stop being disruptive?” Whatever their personal stance, though, everyone agreed that there was a pattern to this complicated and sometimes contradictory set of behaviours. That pattern was “boy.”
Everything from his love of hockey and his skill at deciphering Lego instructions to his delayed start in talking and reading was chalked up to his sex. “Boys are just so different from girls,” I was told more times than I could count. Even earlier, when my son was a toddler, small talk at the local family drop-in or playground would often turn to a comparison of where our children sat on the scale of developmental markers. “Oh, she’s talking already? That’s early, isn’t it? But then girls do talk sooner than boys.” Or “He hasn’t toilet-trained yet? Well, they say boys take longer.” Parenting is full of anxious comparisons and simple generalizations that are meant to soothe us, particularly around sex and development. Boys and girls do seem to progress differently in a few areas. But rare is the child of either sex who doesn’t diverge from the norms in some way.
At the moment, when there is so much anxiety over boys, acknowledging their individuality alongside the social experience of masculinity has become a difficult act. I’ve spent the past three years researching and writing a book about boys and masculinity, in part trying to understand how I could figure out what it meant for my kid to grow up as male in this particular cultural moment. When I started, I felt alone in my quest. Now, in the age of #MeToo and mass killings, backlash and resentment and a growing awareness of the troubling messages embedded in masculinity, suddenly everyone is talking about boys and we’re radically rethinking how they are taught to be men.
With sexual harassment in schools, misogynist trolling online and increasing numbers of disaffected and enraged young men, there’s a lot to be worried about. Michael Kimmel, an American author and sociologist who studies masculinity, has observed a connection between radical, violent ideology and a desire to feel like a real man. He explains that young men who become involved in extremist groups are the ones “who feel small, who resent being made to feel small and who are looking to get big by destroying others.”
We witnessed this a year ago in Quebec City, when a young man who was furious at immigrants shot and murdered six people who were leaving evening prayers at their mosque. And just last week in Toronto, another man in his 20s drove a van onto a busy sidewalk, killing 10 people and injuring many others. Facebook has confirmed that, prior to his rampage, he posted a message on his page expressing his rage toward women and his allegiance to another young man who went on a killing spree in California in 2014 as an act of “retribution” against women who rejected him.
No wonder many parents are frantically searching for new models for raising boys. How can we prevent them from absorbing these notions that equate strength and power with cruelty and destruction? But we’ve swung so quickly from permissive (boys will be boys) to panic (what’s wrong with our boys?) that it’s hard to know what the solution should be.
In a recent series in New York magazine entitled “How to Raise a Boy,” a mother named Rachael Combe told the story of her decision to throw out all of her 11-year-old son’s toy weapons. One night, after her son, Theodore, ambushed his younger sister as a prank and accidentally hurt her, Combe rounded up his Nerf guns, lightsabers and a wooden sword he’d made with his grandfather and tossed them in a dumpster. Combe explains that she didn’t want Theodore to grow up to be a violent man—the sort of man she had spent her life fearing. She wanted to encourage her son to be forward-thinking and progressive, but she was up against a culture that had other ideas for him.
“Toxic masculinity lies in constant wait for my boy,” she writes. “Bad porn and frat parties and the sleepwalking of white, male privilege.” And, indeed, those threats and temptations exist, not only on the teenage horizon but also for younger boys. They exist in in the smirking entitlement of the obnoxious but wildly popular YouTube pranksters Jake and Logan Paul; in the still highly gendered division of toys, games and clothing that emphasize pink, hearts and unicorns for girls and tanks, sports and camo for boys; and in the taunting put-downs of “fag” and “that’s so gay.”
But then Theodore, who weighs in throughout his mom’s story in footnotes, isn’t oblivious to these threats either. He loves his sister and was filled with regret at having hurt her. He is mortified that his mom fears that he’ll grow up to be a micro-aggressive “low-level schmuck.” He is smarter and more sensitive than that: He thinks Malala Yousafzai is cool, he would have voted for Hillary Clinton if he had been old enough, and he doesn’t think kids should have access to real guns. He also seems to resent that he and his fellow boys have been turned into a problem to be fixed.
I feel for Combe. And I feel for Theodore, too. These times, these threats, these stakes for boys and for all us are overwhelming. Listening to my son’s delighted whoops when he racks up another kill in Fortnite is deeply weird and discomforting. There’s no solid evidence that links violent video games and toy guns to real-life violence. Yet, at the same time, these things don’t feel benign either.
So many boys are affected by guns, either as perpetrators or as victims. From Quebec City to Parkland, Florida, to Toronto, there are too many dead at the hands of angry young men. Male violence is painfully, awfully real, but at the same time, the alarm over it unjustly falls on certain groups of males more than others. Teachers are far more likely to punish boys of colour and boys with disabilities for misbehaviour, just as police are far more likely to stop and question them on the street. Some boys are the target of violence themselves because they are wrongly perceived to be a threat: A few weeks ago, a 14-year-old African American boy in Michigan named Brennan Walker was walking to school after missing his bus and knocked on a neighbour’s door for directions. He was shot at by the owner. “I’m kind of happy that, like, I didn’t become a statistic,” Brennan told the media later, saying his mother had told him that black boys were at risk of being shot by others.
We can’t accept a world in which boys routinely shoot or get shot and where disturbed and raging young men seek to build themselves up by harming others—from small acts of bullying to large-scale abuse or murder. Nor is it healthy or useful for boys—and for us—to assume that these toxic qualities are inevitable and to put too much of the burden for changing an entire culture’s misogyny and dysfunction on the shoulders of children.
In the case of my son, I often felt like the observation that he was “such a boy” obscured who he really was. His lateness in talking and reading was caused by a set of learning disabilities. His disruptiveness was, at times, the result of frustration caused by those learning disabilities. He needed support at school, as well as guidance in managing his emotions and navigating social situations. As he matured and learned a vocabulary for his feelings, his temper mellowed and the fighting ceased. He has grown into a sweet and thoughtful teenager—one who still loves gaming and hockey but who also wears pink and does yoga.
I don’t know how much of his younger behaviour was a “boy thing” and how much of it was simply him hashing his way through a particularly tough stage. Sure, there are aspects of his personality and capabilities that can be chalked up to something biological, but there’s plenty about him that can’t simply be reduced to his sex.
Reducing him to a stereotype would have only made it easier for him to do the same to others. Instead, we paid attention to our language and assumptions. We made sure that many of the books he read and movies he watched featured feisty girl protagonists, sensitive, artsy boys and positive images of friendships and families—not just the usual boy-targeted stuff of explosions and car chases (though we watched those with him, too). We gently challenged his assumptions about gender: Why did he think a particular sport, T-shirt or toy was for girls or for boys? We’ve tried hard to respect his feelings and listen to his opinions, and we’ve expected the same from him in return.
A youth worker once told me that he thought one of the best gifts he could give boys was to teach them critical thinking and teach them how to avoid buying into all the messages the world was giving them about masculinity and maleness. This terrible, awful, difficult moment has given us plenty of opportunities to talk candidly with boys and young men about power, inequality, resentment and anger and, more crucially, encourage them to be part of the movement for change.