My 14-year-old son is over six feet tall and lifts weights almost daily. He is a big kid, he knows it, he likes that about himself and he’s proud.
I’m proud of him too. He’s disciplined and his focus on getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating the right foods is one we share and I enjoy having that bond with him. He’s still growing and maturing every day. He’s trying to figure things out, and I’m trying to teach him just because he’s a big strong boy, that doesn’t mean he needs to act tough to prove anything.
I can tell he associates being “tough” with being masculine and manly but really, they are two different things. These past few years as his biceps have grown thick and his shoulders have gotten wider, they’ve come with an attitude that isn’t all his fault although I’m holding him pretty responsible for it because it needs to change.
I know he is constantly blasted by ads, movies, and television shows that portray what being masculine means; big cars, lots of money, drinking beer, checking out women, and having a tough exterior. And he really wants to be seen as a very masculine boy, just like so many of his peers.
And while I can’t fault him for his feelings, I am trying with all I have in me to get him to see that walking around masking your feelings all the time and trying to be tough to appear more manly, is not the answer to a happy life or being a good person.
I encourage him when he acts vulnerable or tries to express his feelings. I tell him how damaging it is to stuff feelings so deep and try to hide behind them—no one wins when you do that.
I’ve watched him and his friends try and figure out who the “toughest” one is, and I’m constantly telling them they need to drop it, relax, and just be themselves—I imagine it must be exhausting, and our boys and young men deserve more.
Being the biggest guy who works out the most isn’t as important as he thinks it is, and when you feel you need to start hiding behind your emotions constantly for fear of not being seen as a “real man” before you know it, you are angry all the time, and who wants to live like that? I don’t want that for my son, neither does anyone else.
But let’s face it, anger is more accepted by a lot of young boys and men than crying or talking about their feelings is. If they are angry and tough, in their eyes, they are better than those who get emotional and show vulnerability.
Redefining what it means to “be a man” takes work as a parent. I think about when he was born and how he used to love to play with dolls and Barbies. When I bought barrettes for his sister, he wanted to wear them, too. When they handed out bead necklaces at a parade, he wore put them all around his neck proudly. When I painted my toenails, he always asked to have his done as well. And his father and I always encouraged him to be whoever he wanted to be.
Then he changed, just as so many boys because they feel they aren’t supposed to enjoy certain things anymore– it’s more important to be the alpha male. This isn’t a new thing, it’s be carved in our boys’ brains since the beginning of time.
We are aware it’s a problem, but the messages about what it means to be masculine are so confusing and they aren’t stopping. It’s up to us as parents to set the record straight.
I want my boys, our boys, to know that being tough does not validate who you are. It’s not how you get love, attention, and approval. It does not make you better than anyone nor will not make you happy.
Because what we all need and want is to raise kids who are kind, compassionate, and who don’t feel the need to mask their emotions behind some tough guy image in order to be accepted.
It’s clear the toughness our boys portray is more of a reaction than who they really are deep down. We need make them feel safe enough to express their true self, and that feeling starts at home.