“Boys will be boys” is one of those ubiquitous phrases we hear at parks or schools. On its surface, it appears to be a humorous reflection often used when a little boy misbehaves. When we look beneath the surface of this clichéd phrase, it is actually quite harmful and “perpetuates negative ideas about what we expect from our boys, particularly when it comes to aggression” (Colleen Clemons, 2017). Clemons believes this phrase contributes to “a toxic foundation to boys’ senses of self.”
Toxic masculinity really boils down to the idea that there is only one way to be a man and that there are rigid gender expectations of who they should be. Joshua Palmer, contracts manager for Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus, a local non-profit that works with victims of gender-based violence, says “these types of phrases cause a great deal of harm” and teach that “expression of emotion is an expression of weakness.” Palmer continues: “The ‘boys will be boys’ phrase gives a free pass to write off bad behavior” and “does not hold men accountable for their actions.”
Jameela Jamil, an actor and outspoken advocate for the body positivity movement, says, “We should never take for granted how poisonous society can be to the male psyche.” We need, she says, to send our sons “into this delusional world with an armor of empathy and self-assurance.” Ethan Dawson, a CSU Stanislaus educator with Haven, says this attitude “pushes men to repress and withhold their emotions,” thereby pursuing “an emotional distance that leaves many men lacking in emotional intelligence.” Ethan also says we need “to reassure boys and men that their emotions and tears are valid,” and we must work to “educate men how to express their emotions in healthy alternatives to violence.”
The bottom line here is that rigid, gender-based stereotypes can cause a lot of damage to a boy. We tell our boys that they should “man up” and that real men “don’t cry.” The Good Men Project put it this way: “The cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness” can cause boys to feel that their “status as a man can be taken away.” This wall of judgment will stunt a child’s emotional growth. There is more than one way to be a man. Joshua Palmer shared that we “need to challenge the notions that perpetuate gender stereotypes around violence” and advocate “for spaces where individuals, regardless of gender identity, can feel safe to talk about their experience” in a judgment-free zone.
The Good Men Project says, “We have taught you how to hurt, but not to express that hurt.” It’s long past time to step up to the plate and dispel these archaic and harmful gender-based expectations. We owe it to our boys so that they will become men who are comfortable with themselves and their emotions.
Kathleen Rowe-Glendon is a community activist and a former Modesto Bee visiting editor. She wrote this commentary for The Bee.