20 Things We're Not Telling Little Boys — But We Should

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No, he doesn't need to "man up."

I thought it would be easier to raise a boy. Back when I was pregnant at 21, barely a woman myself, I anguished over the thought of having a daughter.

I didn't think I was ready to take on all that comes with raising a girl in today's society — the body image struggles, princess culture, rape culture. No, no no.

A boy would be easier on my heart, I thought. Maybe he'd come home with a black eye, maybe he'd be rejected from a sport's team, but it had to be easier than raising a girl. I was a girl; I understood the obstacles.

My wish was granted. A boy! And boy was I way off base. Turns out, raising kids of either gender has its challenges.

It only took about a year to realize that boys have a different kind of pressure weighing on their psyches, a different kind of expectation to live up to.

By the time he was 4 years old, my little boy (who, as a toddler, loved princesses, fairy wands, and My Little Pony) heard grown-ass adults say things like, "Boys don't play with pink," and, "Stop acting like a little girl."

He heard audible sighs of relief when he started his superhero obsession ("Oh, he's a normal boy!"). He heard the phrase, "Man up!" more times than I ever wish a little boy would hear.

A girl who rolls with the boys and plays sports is celebrated for her strength — "Stop telling little girls they're pretty," we all scream loudly — but what about the boys who'd rather play quietly with dolls, who like the color pink, and who feel the need to cry every once in awhile?

We tell them to MAN UP. Toughen up. Stop being a sissy. Our boys hear these things, feel these things. I know my son did.

Where's the conversation on helping young boys be caring and sensitive without it being a statement of their sexual orientation? All children should be allowed to have emotions, not just the ones with a vagina.

Empathy, kindness, love — these aren't feminine qualities; they're HUMAN qualities, and important ones at that. Rather than teach our daughters to dodge sexual bullets and jump over societal roadblocks, why not teach our sons to help move those roadblocks out of the way?

To be respectful, kind, caring, sensitive, empathetic — these should be emphasized, not touted as signs of masculine weakness. Instead, we ridicule and emasculate our smallest boys; we make excuses for them. "Boys will be boys," we say, shrugging our shoulders.

Well then, maybe we need to redefine what it means to be a boy, a man. Maybe we should start saying these things instead:

1. There are many ideas of what it means to "be a man." But the true test of manliness is how you treat others, especially those smaller and weaker.

2. You aren't just a man; you're a human. And the most important qualities a human can possess are kindness, empathy, and a loving heart.

3. In many parts of the world, girls don't have the same rights as boys. This isn't fair, but it's important to recognize the inequity.

4. It might not be fair that men hold such power in the world, but it's our reality. And like Spiderman says, "With great power comes great responsibility."

5. It's OK to cry, to be sensitive, to feel. This is what makes you human.

6. I can handle your tears and vulnerability without cringing from the social pressures around me. Having a little boy can challenge our ideas of masculinity on a subconscious level, and we have to be honest about that — about our fears, our stereotypes — if anything is going to change.

7. There are no "right" ways for boys to act, or "right" ways for girls to act. These are social constructs, and social constructs are largely bullsh*t. Be you. Be good. Be respectful.

8. It's OK to feel the need to be physical; it's hardwired into your DNA. It's also OK to shy away from violence. Gender has a spectrum, just like everything else in life. Find healthy outlets for your physicality, rather than suppressing and demonizing it.

9. Masculinity isn't something you have to prove, not ever. Femininity isn't something to avoid or ridicule. Although there are obvious biological differences between boys and girls, we all deserve respect. You're capable of treating people, all people, with compassion and respect.

10. When someone says "no" or "stop," you listen, especially if it concerns someone else's body. You aren't entitled to put your hands on anyone, and you should expect the same in return. "No" isn't a bad word; it's an important word.

11. It's OK to feel angry. I can handle your anger. I can hear about your dark thoughts without judgment. I can see that your anger is coming from a deeper hurt, and that it might be easier to express it in the form of aggression. Find the sadness. Find your vulnerability. It's OK.

12. You aren't defined by your gender role or cultural expectation. It's easier for society to lump us into categories with neat and tidy distinctions. In reality, life doesn't have such clear boundaries.

13. You also aren't defined by your clothes, car, bank account, muscles, or girlfriend (or boyfriend). You're defined by your character.

14. If you fall in love with a boy, it's OK. I just want you to be happy and at ease with who you are.

15. The key to getting the date? Confidence and self-respect.

16. Speaking of self-respect ... If you have to convince someone to date you, then she isn't the right person for you. If she starts playing games, is at all unsure or wishy-washy, then walk away. The best kind of relationship is the kind where both people are equally excited about it. You deserve more than lukewarm uncertainty, no matter how pretty she is.

17. It's normal to masturbate; it's not dirty or sinful. But it's also a private act, so take it to the bedroom, and close the door behind you.

18. There's a strong social and emotional component to sex, and oftentimes girls feel it more strongly than boys. Be aware of it. They won't teach you that in sex ed, but it's true.

19. Your penis will be a big deal in your life; take good care of it. It'll want to be in the driver's seat from time to time, controlling what you say and do. Remember: YOU are in control of your actions.

20. Be vulnerable. Be open. It might feel scary to be vulnerable, especially as you get older. The cultural stigma can feel heavy, like a weight dragging you down. But as scary as it is, being open to hurt, failure, and uncertainty is the only way to be fully open to love, to take big risks, and to engage your humanity.



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