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Masculinity and the Boy-child: The Need for Positive Masculinity Ideals

positive masculinity

By: Solomon Idowu

“Ade, be a man! Why are you crying?”
“Abdul, chin up! Men don’t cry, so they say.”
“Obi, if your friend hits you, make sure you hit him back; you have to show him you’re a man! “Don’t take no for an answer.”

At one point or the other in our lives, we have heard people address boys like Ade, Abdul and Obi in ways similar to the examples above. We would most likely have encountered acts of unchecked aggression being dismissed with phrases like “boys will be boys,” or “leave him he’s a boy,” and these verbal pronouncements largely contribute to the negative ideals of masculinity.

What Is Masculinity?

Masculinity generally means displaying attitudes and behaviors that signify and validate maleness and involve being recognized in particular ways by other men and women.

Masculinity can be defined as roles, behaviors, and attributes appropriate for boys and men in a given society. Masculinity, in the modern world, is constructed and defined socially, and historically, rather than being biologically driven.

The Type of Masculinity Being Taught To Boys And Its Influence

Boys are taught that it is wrong to cry as a man, express emotion or show feelings. They are also taught that to be respected, they have to be violent and show machismo. Statements and narratives like these have gone on to reinforce negative ideals of masculinity and have robbed most boys of the chance — amongst other things — to express themselves appropriately.

These boys grow up with a flawed perspective of masculinity, which has far-reaching effects on themselves, those they relate to and society at large. A boy who has been taught that it is wrong for a man to express himself emotionally would grow up into an individual that would have difficulty conveying emotion to others. Such a person would practice the toxic habit of “simply bottling things up”, unable to share his pain and issues with other people properly. This will invariably go on to affect his social life and relationships as he grows.

Telling boys that aggression equals manliness will see such boys grow up to perpetrate violence against others to show dominance. They’ll become the men who’ll show disrespect for others and engage in gender violence. Boys who are taught that men are naturally superior to women go on to become individuals who exhibit misogyny and male chauvinism. They then influence other boys in their spheres with these same ideals and continue the negative cycle.

Effects of Societal Expectations of Masculinity on the Boy-child

Naturally, the boy-child learns to be masculine by observing and interacting with people in society. The Modern Society has altered the narrative people have towards masculinity.

The conformity of boy children to negative masculine beliefs has a great impact on their health. The modern masculine belief has prevented men from seeking professional help and care when experiencing emotional or personal crises.

This results in a propensity for poor mental health, substance use, and suicidal tendencies. There is evidence according to psychologists indicating that obsessive self-reliance as a vital masculinity norm is associated with suicidal thoughts.

Negative masculinity beliefs endorse gender bias and influence personal preferences. For example, men who strictly follow masculinity norms directly prefer male doctors for seeking care as they believe that male doctors are more competent than female doctors. Such preferences may give rise to differential doctor-patient communication, affecting men’s health negatively.

Boy children who endorse negative masculinity beliefs often feel more embarrassed and weird in reporting chronic symptoms (diarrhea, gas, depressive symptoms) to male doctors, even though they prefer male doctors over female doctors. To them, explaining how they feel exactly is uncomfortable and they would rather choose to suffer in Silence.

A high percentage of the premature death rate among boys is partly associated with their unhealthy/risky behaviors, including illegal drug consumption, reckless driving, high-risk sports or relaxation activities, and uncontrolled and risky sexual activities. All these behaviors are directly or indirectly related to the society-imposed masculine norms. That is, the right way to be a man.          

Focusing on Positive Masculinity Ideals In Male Children Upbringing

A man teaching his son about positive masculinity

However, masculinity in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as the possibility of negative effects of harmful masculinity occurs only when negative masculine ideals are imbibed. Boys need to be shown the vision and ideals of positive masculinity that would help shape them into better individuals. Masculinity does not have to go away, but we absolutely need to remove the negative elements. From there, we can start encouraging a stronger, healthier, and more positive sense of masculinity.

According to Garreth Michael Carlson in an article written on June 24 2020, “Positive masculinity is when men use their physical and emotional strength to champion healthy behaviors and communities. The focus of positive masculinity is to help generations of men learn healthy behaviors and then develop more robust communities. It’s about displaying vulnerability, emotional intelligence, and moral courage.”

Boys should therefore be taught positive masculinity with the following guidelines as put forward by Francis Taylor
– emotional expressiveness
– the willingness to make themselves vulnerable
– a sense of self-worth that extends beyond traditional roles
– compassion
– moral courage

These qualities are not to be restricted to masculinity alone, as they should be encouraged among the female folks too. However, there’s an emphasis on promoting these qualities among boys because they have always been minimally propagated among boys.

Masculinity doesn’t have to be taken away from boys. We have a responsibility to show boys what positive masculinity is and encourage them to imbibe it. And it is important to add that a boy exhibiting “feminine” traits doesn’t make him less of a boy. In the end, boys will be what they are — boys — but let’s ensure that they are individuals who imbibe the positive tenets of masculinity.

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