Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
It doesn’t take long for kids to differentiate boys from girls. Kids are only three by the time they learn which gender others identify them with. By that time, a boy already starts learning he is supposed to be strong and a girl starts learning that she is to like pink.
These gendered expectations at a young age also affect how boys and girls look at themselves as well as each other. A survey performed in America in 2017 revealed that kids under the age of 12 were asked what they want to become when they grow up, many girls chose doctors and veterinarians, while most boys chose police officers, firefighters or scientists. This means even at a young age, kids realise the roles they are expected to take up because of their gender – caregivers for girls and protectors, fighters or builders for boys.
However, such pre-determined ways of upbringing kids can limit their personality and develop behaviour patterns that can turn toxic over time. The toxic masculine behaviour glorifying violence, hypersexuality and aggression isn’t something that men are born with but is taught and systemically developed in them when they are young.
Both boys and girls are brought up within almost equally confining stereotypes until they enter young adulthood. Especially in urban circles these days, with the increasing awareness of patriarchy and the feminist movement, many women support circles in cities have come up that talk about womanhood and help women express their identity. However, as American author Michael Ian Black puts it to describe a similar trend that happened in the States years ago, boys “have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to ‘be a man‘ — we no longer even know what that means.”
This begs the question: what is stopping men from mobilising themselves to challenge and deconstruct masculinity?
The very behaviour that men are trapped within since childhood – of being strong, not being emotional or crying etc. – stops men from having support groups to simply talk. This cycle can only be stopped during childhood by changing the way we bring up boys. Here are a few ways in which we can put an end to the perpetuation of toxic masculine behaviour at a young age.
Toys and toy commercials are known to perpetuate gender role models. Playing with cars and building blocks encourage boys to pursue strength and power. Meanwhile, girls are given kitchen sets and Barbie dolls to play with to foster an interest in caregiving and self-grooming.
Thus, an important way in which parents can intervene is by letting kids choose their own toys instead of bringing them toys they ought to be playing with. They should also be encouraged to play with kids of the other sex and their toys to provide a variety of experiences.
From storybooks to TV commercials and dinner table conversations, kids observe and imbibe from the language around them. For instance, reports based in Europe show that fathers tend to use a more analytical tone and words such as “proud” and “win” with their sons than with their daughters. Parents also caution their daughters more than their sons when they are endeavouring an activity.
Similarly, many picture books for children have male figures modelled on physical strength or charisma. Thus, the language used while communicating leaves a greater impact on what kids grow up to become. If parents use emotional language to interact with boys and teach them a whole range of emotions that human beings go through, they will be able to share their feelings more. it is okay to feel angry, scared or helpless. Validating boys’ feelings by telling them that it is okay to feel angry, scared or helpless will enhance their social and emotional development.
Along with teaching emotional language to boys, parents must also talk about the meaning of abuse and violence. Many studies explore how men and women have different perception of what violent behaviour means, and this is what often leads to abusive situations.
For instance, boys are more likely to normalise bullying and violent banter among friends than girls. This is because they are not taught to express vulnerability and reach out for help. They grow up thinking that disrespectful talk and violent exchange are not to be taken too seriously. This is why boys often call out women for making a big deal out of abusive situations, which boys think are normal. An informed intervention in childhood of teaching what violence and bullying entail can reduce violence at a later stage.
Increased behaviour of passing insults, catcalling, non-consensual touching and even sexual harassment can be avoided if boys are given comprehensive sex education. Although it should be the school’s responsibility to teach these lessons in a classroom, that train has already left the station.
Before kids learn about sex from their peers or worse, pornography, it is important that parents intervene to teach consent, the use of pronouns, the difference between gender, sex, sexuality and gender identity, and sexual health to their kids. Parents must also let kids express themselves freely instead of pigeonholing their choice of clothes, behaviour or gender-based pronouns.
Since their childhood, girls are pushed into caregiving and domestic chores while boys are allowed to be carefree and irresponsible. Later, this shapes into women being expected to take care of men after they come back from a hard day’s labour. These regressive gender norms must be broken when they are young.
Parents must equally involve boys and girls in taking care of themselves by learning how to cook, clean and groom themselves. Boys should not be led to believe that a woman will come and take care of them. A man’s responsibility is not just to earn for his family. A balance must be maintained wherein they also give time to taking care of family and friends. This can be inculcated by encouraging boys to sending dinner for their sick friends, visiting relatives etc. This will also allow them to develop emotional intelligence and normalising caregiving in their lives.
Finally, boys must be allowed to just be themselves, wear what appeals to them, take up hobbies they find intriguing, and buy toys they are attracted to. We must include building a positive model of masculinity by allowing boys to be comfortable and secure in their own shoes. Only then can we put an end to toxic masculinity, and the psychological and emotional issues it causes men as well as the women around them.