Let’s first agree that parenting is hard. Period. Whether you are raising boys or girls, a mom of one or many, a mom of babies or teens, it is all hard. 

I am a mom of two boys—a 16-year-old and an almost-teen—and I absolutely love it. I love raising sons and I wouldn’t change it for anything. (See also: please don’t ask me if I wish I had a daughter.) As much as I love it, I’ve gotta admit: I am constantly befuddled. There is so much about boys that I don’t understand—the noise, the constant roughhousing, the impulsivity, the inability to put their socks in the laundry, so many things. 

Related: The mother-son bond is tender and unbreakable

Added to the confusion is the pressure to “get it right,” because, lord knows, I do not want to raise a privileged and entitled man-child. So how do I—an imperfect mom who is committed to raising boys who are respectful, compassionate and empathetic—do that? How do I set realistic expectations for their behavior as boys while also setting appropriate standards for acceptable behavior? How do I see them for who they are while also guiding them to be the kind and empathetic men I want them to be? How do I help them feel comfortable in their skin while also breaking down the tentacles of toxic masculinity that have a hold on every aspect of our lives?

Granted, we’ve come a long way since my oldest son was born and he was given onesies with the phrase “future heartbreaker” and “little prince,” and the phrase “man up” was far more ubiquitous than it is now, but there is still so much work to do. 

A few years ago, I watched the “The Mask You Live In“—a documentary wrote, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, which follows boys and young men as they struggle to live an authentic life while navigating America’s narrow definition of masculinity—and it changed the way I parent.  If you haven’t watched it, put it on your to-watch list stat.

The documentary interviews parents, young boys, teens, youth advocates, teachers, mentors, coaches, and men in the prison system to examine the damage caused by harmful social constructs of masculinity and the ways we raise boys. When I say “we,” I don’t just mean parents of boys, I mean all of us. Because we as a country, as a society, as communities are all raising boys.

Men make up 93% of the prison population, and according to the Sentencing Project, roughly half of U.S. prisoners are parents.

The ways we raise up boys and young men has a lasting impact not just on them, but our entire society. According to the Representation Project, which produced “The Mask You Live In,” research shows that compared to girls, boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives. None of these things happen in a vacuum, nor does the impact end with the individual. It impacts all of us.

Men make up 93% of the prison population, and according to the Sentencing Project, roughly half of U.S. prisoners are parents. This isn’t just devastating for the parent-child relationship, but for the entire family. What’s more, a child of an incarcerated parent is five times more likely to go to prison.

The impact doesn’t stop there either. According to Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics, “a father’s involvement with his children is linked to all kinds of beneficial outcomes, from higher academic achievement, improved social and emotional well-being, to lower incidences of delinquency, risk taking, and other problem behaviors.” In other words, boys need other men to show them how to be men. When we remove men from boys’ lives or when we set unhealthy standards of what it means to be a man, we create a cycle of damage—for the family, community, and our entire country.  

Raising boys: The nature vs. nurture debate

The nature vs. nurture debate is strong when it comes to raising boys. Do boys behave differently—more active, louder, more easily distracted—because they are innately different than girls or because we expect them to be different?

In her book “When Boys Become Boys,” Judy Y. Chu, Ed.D. challenges many of the traditional notions about boys. Chu posits that behaviors typically viewed as “natural” for boys “reflect an adaptation to cultures that require boys to be stoic, competitive, and aggressive.” We can’t change this trajectory of toxic masculinity without showing boys how to shed harmful cultural norms.

It isn’t enough to demand equality for girls in areas traditionally occupied primary by boys—things like STEM, business, politics—we have to also shift the way we raise boys. We need to prioritize showing boys how to express their emotions. We need to normalize boys taking on caregiving roles. We need to teach them that emotions and behaviors traditionally deemed to be “feminine”—crying, feeling sad and scared, sensitivity, compassion—are actually human emotions and behaviors. And we need to give them the grace to make mistakes without labeling them as “bad” or “a behavior problem.” 

Related: I’m not just raising little boys, I’m raising great men 

Before we label a boy as a “behavior problem” because he can’t sit still in class, perhaps educators can consider other adjustments. Dads of daughters, stop posting your sexist tropes about protecting your daughters from our sons. Whether you have boys or not, please be careful about how you talk about them, because our kids are listening. We should expect boys to behave with respect and kindness, and when they don’t, we should treat them with respect and kindness as we guide them on their path.

The way we raise boys—whether they are our sons, nephews, or the neighbor kid down the street—is everyone’s responsibility. After all, it impacts all of us for generations to come. 

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