“Boys will be boys” is a dangerous concept that I see effects many of my male clients, from boyhood through manhood. Masculinity is a social construct, and boys can be raised, by caretakers, communities, and society at large, to do better. Below are some of the ways convictions regarding predisposed masculinity creates harm.
1. Conditioning out of empathy/Pro-violence.
Boys are traditionally raised on violence and the thrill that it evokes. While we think we’ve come far through warning labels on video games, please just browse the toy aisle of your local Walmart and pay attention to popular toys associated with inflicting physical harm (from Nerf Guns to Battleship). War, as depicted in television shows, movies, and through toy soldiers, is seen as not only exciting, but honorable. Boys are taught that defending their country, through violence, is glorious. As young people who do not yet have an understanding of international affairs and the politics behind active warfare, boys just comprehend that soldiers cannot have empathy for their opponent.
2. Winners versus losers.
Another issue with the idea of winning, is that it propels competition. While the idea of competition in and of itself is fundamentally not an issue, boys are socialized to believe that if they are not a winner, they are a loser. A warrior/hero concept often extends beyond the sports game, and becomes tied with one’s identity. Also, it’s not a sustainable type of self esteem, but achievement based esteem, as no individual can always win. Healthy self esteem only exists when people are able to hold a pride in their strengths, as well as compassion for their own and one another’s flaws. True self esteem cannot be earned.
Winners versus losers also discourages community. I can’t tell you how many men I work with who cannot list a handful of friends. Belonging is not as important as dominating, and, paradoxically, to belong means to dominate. Women are viewed as naturally more social creatures (think Chatty Cathies, clicky Mean Girls, etc), but these trends are conditioned. Boys crave connection, but struggle to foster it away from a competitive setting, like a sports field.
3. Risk taking behavior.
Men die earlier primarily due to lack of care for themselves, not because of genetics. We all know at least one man who waits until they are in excruciating pain to go to the doctor. Traditional male heroes, including Superman and the Terminator, are impermeable. Other risk taking behavior, like substance use, gambling, high crisis jobs, are often overlooked due to lack of vulnerable dialogue. Addictive tendencies like workaholism are not only overlooked, but praised by our society. Sadly, male suicide is 3.88x more common in men than women, as recently as 2020.
4. Continued stigma around mental health services.
Depression is overlooked in men themselves, and is further unrecognized by the men who surround them. “Suck it up,” “quit being a baby,” “get a grip, dude” are alarmingly common statements said to some of my depressed clients from their friends. To add to the confusion, men seem to suffer more readily from alexithymia, the difficulty of identifying and expressing emotions. As a result of alexithymia, men often do not have the language to talk about their feelings, especially ones often stigmatized. Lacking a language of feelings further perseverates the empathy struggle mentioned above. While biological vulnerability is a factor when it comes to depression and other mental health disorders, difficulty communicating about symptoms often prevents early intervention in boys.
Readers Note: Someone told me today they hate generalizations and the tendency to broadly categorize individuals. I couldn’t agree more, and acknowledge that this blog leans on some old school, limited, and non-inclusive norms. However, this is a risk I’m willing to take in order to reemphasize the dangers of traditional masculinity in boys in the most concise way and encourage change. Please excuse my limitations as a nonprofessional author and read broadly and with grace.