Why telling your son to ‘man up’ can bring him down
Boys being boys — that’s been a thing for a long time. It’s how conventional wisdom explains why your sons do the things they do.
“Boys are capable of wanting to blow things up, set things on fire, make loud noises, jump off of things, and even make fart jokes – and all fart jokes are funny,” says Rosalind Wiseman, whose books Queen Bees And Wannabes and Masterminds And Wingmen are bestselling examinations of how traditional gender expectations can negatively impact kids. “That same boy is capable of deep love, deep feelings, deep confusion and desperately needing meaning in his life.”
Wiseman has taken note of a societal shift regarding boyhood. And much like Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age movie of the same name, there’s a growing acknowledgment of the deep, complex emotional lives boys lead and parents’ desire to engage on that level with their sons. It’s what previous generations would have called “coddling”, probably while hammering molten steel and chugging cask-strength whisky.
Being empathetic and laughing at farts are not mutually exclusive. Your son can hold both thoughts in his head at the same time. Here’s how you can help him.
Your childhood might not be the best model for your son
Maybe your parents (or your spouse’s parents) were the “boys don’t cry” type, telling you/your husband to rub some dirt on it and man up. And maybe you/he didn’t like how that felt. Rest assured that you are not alone, and you don’t have to repeat history.
“It is not uncommon for me to get very heartfelt, painful emails and correspondence from men who were in the military, bankers, truckers — very traditional male fields — who have said to me, ‘I want it to be different for my son than it was for me’,” says Wiseman. “They want to have a closer, better relationship with their son than they had with their father or mother.”
Avoid the parenting maxims
“Do the right thing,” “Don’t disrespect others,” “Don’t be a dobber,” — any of that sound familiar? More often than not, boys are told how to behave in tidy aphorisms that would fit on a bicep tattoo. But Wiseman says words are not enough. Parents have to lead by example and through thoughtful — and often extremely uncomfortable — conversations.
“What I think is frustrating is that really well-intentioned men were not taught beyond sound bites,” Wiseman says. “In my experience, that does not compute to boys. You have to go beyond that and ask, ‘What does it really look like for you?’”
“I want it to be different for my son than it was for me”Rosalind Wiseman, Bestselling Author
Don’t blame the internet
Nobody asked to be born into a swirling, shifting culture of video games, mobile devices, social media, movies, TV shows, academic pressure, and emerging sexual expression, but that’s where your son is at in 2016, and it’s all very loud.
“It can feel overwhelming at times,” Wiseman said. “I don’t think we need to know every single thing about every single platform. I think we miss opportunities that are right in front of our face all the time. There are plenty of opportunities as a parent that are going to be springboards for conversations.” Basically, don’t assume that, just because your boy’s staring so intently into his phone, Snapchat is answering the questions that keep him up at night — just ask him what’s up. It’s way easier than figuring out Snapchat.
Recognise the teachable moments
At a recent Saturday football game, Wiseman and her two teenage sons came across your standard drunk footy fan, who was having trouble walking in a straight line and being generally belligerent.
Wiseman turned this into a lesson on how even bros can be brotherly, and don’t always have to one-up the other guy. “His two friends were supporting him and actually were quite loving,” she says. “They very confidently, assertively moved him away from everyone else and were taking care of him.”
“I said, ‘Look at that guy. That guy drinking can be a problem for himself and others. But look at his friends. Look at how these men are supporting one of their mates.’ It’s about becoming attuned to those moments, and taking advantage of them when you can,” she says.
The big lesson here: men, even men doing manly things, can and should show compassion for one another in public without fear. Telling you son to ‘man up’ won’t turn him into a good man; what he does when there’s a ‘man down’ – now that will be the measure of his (and your) success.
Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World
Booktopia has Masterminds & Wingmen available online from Australia’s leading online bookstore available here.
Carter Gaddis is a writer, father and co-founder of Dads4Change. This article is about Parenting
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