Spoiler alert. What I am about to say is not groundbreaking. It should not come as a complete surprise if you are a man or a father of a son, although it might be. We break our sons, dear fathers.
There is no nicer way to say it.
We break our sons by creating artificial empathy gaps.
I came to this realization early in my fatherhood journey, when I started to be introspective and critical about the traditional attributes of masculinity. I am grateful it happened when my little boy was still a toddler and that no real damage has been done.
This epiphany has been so transformative for me that it leads me to share it with you today.
If you are a man, I would like to invite you to take a trip back to your childhood.
I am a not a shrink. You are safe.
Can you identify the moment when you have been told for the first time that it was not okay to cry as a little boy? Your dad probably told you that, or maybe it was your mom, your uncle, your grandpa or the gym teacher. In any case, this was the first of many steps that has been taken to break you; to shape you in a way that society deemed acceptable for a “real man”.
You did not make that decision for yourself of course, but from that point on, your peers, including your father, took actions to mold you in a way that made emotional expression feel un-natural to you.
This is when the collateral damage started.
When we tell our little boys not to cry because they have to be strong, we imply that:
- Emotional expression is a form of weakness.
- Only girls are allowed to cry.
If not crying means being strong, the ones that cry belongs to the weak category.
“Boys are taught to hide vulnerable emotions like sadness, fear, and pain, which imply weakness and are stereotypically associated with femininity.” Judy Chu, ‘When Boys become boys’
What are we saying about girls when we present boys as the strong ones? What harm do we cause to both boys and girls with such limiting beliefs?
First, as a consequence, we teach our sons at an early age that there’s a drastic difference between boys and girls. We teach them that girls are weak and that at no cost should we “act like them”. We break our sons by creating a first empathy gap between them and girls; a gap that only grows wider in their teenage years. We incite them to distance themselves from the experiences of girls.
Secondly, we break our sons by presenting emotional stoicism as the best way (the only way?) to perform masculinity. I am using the verb perform on purpose for his dual meaning.
- Performance in the sense of “acting”. When we are taught emotional suppression as the normal way of being, we are constrained to wear a mask to evolve in society. As a little boy, life becomes an on-going theatrical performance as all our feelings (except) anger are supposed to be kept inside.
- Performance in the sense of “competing”. When all boys are told most of their childhood that they have to be strong, they will carry this belief all their lives. They will then “perform masculinity” any chance they get, to prove that they belong the men group. The competition will appear in different aspects of their lives but it will have only one goal. Always the same. Proving that they are real men; proving that they are man enough.
This is the just the introduction of the “benefits” that comes with the men membership club and the lesson one is: boys don’t cry.
The empathy gap that we artificially create between boys and girls, we also create it inside our little boys. We build a distance between their authenticity and the “acceptable” expression of themselves.
As fathers, when we tell our sons not to cry we rob them of a part of their humanity. Most of the time we don’t even realize it.
We break our sons so they can perform.
When our fathers explained that crying was not for us, they did not do it to harm us. They did it because their fathers did. They did not question it. They genuinely believed that this was one of the best advices that they could give us to go out in the world.
Because in a world where, as men, we are constantly watching each other, our fathers wanted to build resilience inside us.
Our fathers experienced before us the self-policing that goes on amongst men:
- They knew what happened to the “wimp” that was unable to stand up for himself or to the “pussy” that chickened out when he was supposed to fight.
- They were aware of the heteronormative structure of society and of the oppression that came with being an openly gay man.
- They knew that the sensitive man would have a challenging experience as a teenager and as an adult.
- They knew that as men, conformity was safer than authenticity.
So what did they do? They broke us.
They broke us so that society would not have to.
They did not intend to break us, of course. They attempted to transmit a set of behaviors where they knew we would be “safe”.
This set of behavior is called the Man Box.
A man box “is a a rigid set of expectations, perceptions, and behaviors of what is “manly” behavior.” Keith Edwards describes it as Traditional Hegemonic Definition of Masculinity. He says: “This definition is ‘traditional’ in that it is rooted in long held cultural ways of defining what it means to be a man. It is ‘hegemonic’ in that it places men above people of other genders AND some men above other men.”
As beautifully explained by the organization a Call to Men, “in the man box, men are supposed to be:
- Powerful and dominating
- Fearless and in control
- Strong and emotionless
- Successful – in the boardroom, the bedroom and on the ball field
In the Man Box, women are objects, the property of men, and of less value than men. The teachings of the Man Box allow violence against women, girls and other marginalized groups to persist.”
Maybe our fathers did not teach us all of that literally. While they might have done so unconsciously, they did actively participate in our socialization. Other family male figures, peers and society completed the job.
In the end, we all break our sons, so that they can fit in a tiny one-size-fit-all box.
It is not easy to fit into that box. It is tiny, uncomfortable and painful.
We have to become contortionist to fit into that box. Unlike the regular contortionists, flexibility is not what makes us fit inside the box. Emotional suppression is.
The GIF below seems particularly fitting for the occasion.
The high price of emotional suppression.
By making them fit into the man box, we are not only breaking our sons, we also create future emotionally disconnected adult men. We set them up for an unfulfilled life of emotional isolation. This is the high price we all pay to perform masculinity and it has consequences on every single human being.
Masculinity expert, filmmaker and writer Mark Greene produced an insightful video “that highlights the damaging impact of the American culture of male emotional toughness, which bullies our young sons into hiding their emotional expression.”
In a groundbreaking article entitled Men’s Anger and the Brutal Contradictions of Masculinity, Greene gives men an unequivocal and necessary call to action:
“In order to break the man-box cycle of isolation and abuse, men must take everything we have been taught about gender and flip it on its head. Which means we are facing the very task we have been conditioned to avoid at all costs. We must activate the parts of ourselves we have been trained to suppress. We must call on every relational skill we were taught to deny, previously degraded and wrongly gendered as feminine, including empathy, play, compassion, collaboration, connection, and that greatest of human challenges, bridging across difference.”
Let us be brave enough to follow Mark’s leadership and let’s rewrite the script of masculinity; a script that values authenticity, empathy, compassion and human connection.
As fathers, we owe that to our sons, to the ones we love and to ourselves.