“Be a man,” “suck it up,” and “don’t cry” are only a few phrases handpicked from a plentiful basket of ego-damaging constructions built into today's society. Reinforcing rhetoric that feminizes emotional expression and masculinizes violence has the power to stunt empathy, drive dominance, and connect respect with fear. Boys are born loving creatures, but at a very young age they are taught the traits, diminutive language, and mindset that aligns them with society’s concept of what it means to be a man.

The United States has designed an unrealistic definition of American masculinity. Every single day, there is a boy who feels inferior because he is unable to fit the standard. For some that manage to, it is only an exhaustive façade covering the truth of his likes, dislikes, emotions, priorities, and passions — he is constantly putting on a show for the rest of society. In the case of young boys, this happens in school, the ultimate microcosm of our country. School is a time in a child’s life when he postures himself by finding a group of friends, a favorite class subject, sports, hobbies, and musical preferences. Ultimately, it's a time to discover who he is in the world.

Feminism only speaks of one lopsided perspective in the gender inequality story. There is a common misconception that men are a gender exempt from burdening expectations, stereotypes, and societal pressures; free from glass ceilings and slut shaming. But in truth, boys may be faced with a force entirely different, more complicated, and more painful — being told to fit into a hyper masculine and misogynistic mold. They must mask their emotions. If boys have a natural love for art, theatre, or singing they are immediately categorized, boxed up, and put on a shelf where children are called “gay” and “fag.”

“There were perceptions about males in theatre and up until about 10th grade — I was a pretty quiet kid,” 26-year-old Thomas Policastro of Long Island, N.Y. told Medical Daily. “I was hit with a couple of mocking jabs along the lines of ‘real men don't do drama’ in grades 7 and 8.”

Policastro reflects back to middle school and high school theatre, when kids brought their stereotyping jabs along with their book bags to school. But he attributes his happy childhood to being surrounded by an accepting support system of family and friends who disregarded the ridicule. It’s difficult to tease someone who doesn’t care for the negative and embraces the positive. 

The Battle for Boy Belongingness

No one can fault a child for walking school halls burdened by the natural desire to fit in, feel accepted, and be well-liked. Both the failure and success of trying to fit the mold of this male illusion can be linked to bullying, high male suicide rates, and even sexism. Cultivating a sense of belongingness among boys is the psychological fertilizer that grows gangs, cliques, and tightly knit friendships all the way into adulthood. It’s the reason why the school cafeteria is the center for socialization, where who you sit with reflects the group you fit into.

Barbara Williams, who holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and mothers three boys aged 18, 15, and 12, recalls a memorable lunchroom experience with her youngest son: “In the beginning of the school year, Ethan was pushed off the school lunch bench by a boy from his basketball team and told he wasn't cool enough to sit there anymore. He didn’t tell me for over a month. Then the boy shoved him very hard on the basketball court. Ethan told the coach and then it all came pouring out. What hurt him the most was that his friends didn’t say anything or stand up to the bully.”

Previous research looking into patterns of social bullying — also called relational aggression — among both boys and girls found that boys engaged in mean verbal behavior in attempts to exclude the target from the social group. It also found they were more physically aggressive than girls, which is no surprise. Harming others through damaging or manipulating relationships is often more derimental to a boy's self-esteem, whether it's done verbally, or by physically shoving the child out of the group. 

Oftentimes, bullying stems from a home environment in which emotional expression is suppressed. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It turns out that the boy who shoved Ethan is the youngest of nine, and comes from a long line of bullies. After his parents divorced, he was raised by a father with a history of getting kicked out of sporting events. Williams recognizes that “anger and anxiety don’t just pop out of the blue." They come "from somewhere, whether it’s problems at home or school.”

This isn’t a story about bullying, however; bullying is only a mask boys wear. It represents a long-held lineage of teaching aggressive and powerful patterns born out of the emotional silence, according to the widely read parenting book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Society needs to transform into one that provides role models who show boys emotion doesn't equate to weakness, and exerting dominance leads to fear rather than respect. 

A Gender of Silence

They are the aggressors, the ones who slam fists against lockers and have fights on the school bus. We’re raising large groups of the human population to lock themselves within their anger, and it isn’t long before they become prisoners to it. We can break these barriers down easily; a dad who cries during a sad movie or recognizes the beauty of a flower teaches his son that it's okay to be sensitive, Williams said. She also points out, of course, that not everyone has a father. Those circumstances are when uncles, grandfathers, coaches, and teachers need to step in and recognize their responsibility to show that child a healthy model of masculinity.

“The problem we see with boys — they don’t have an emotional literacy,” Williams said. “They say ‘I’m angry’ or nothing at all. They don’t have the tools to express exactly what they’re feeling, and we created that problem as a collective society. Parents and schools need to take part in promoting self-expression.”

That verbal expression, of course, should start with the parents. One study found mothers may be the best initiators of this emotional literacy, since they tend to use more emotional words with their children than fathers. However, they're also more likely to use those words in conversations with their daughters and not their sons. Changing this, so that mothers can talk to their sons in the same way, could teach boys how to express themselves without fear. 

Teaching boys empathy and emotional awareness will help them navigate through social traumas as children and teenagers, which will equip them for the pressures they’re bound to face in adulthood. Williams said her school district has already made great strides in encouraging both boys and girls to confront their emotions through the anti-bully, anti-drug, and anti-drinking and driving video lessons they’re exposed to as early as sixth grade.

Without an outlet or opportunity to foster healthy emotional expression, any child, boy or girl, can be left with dead ends and a deafening sense of loneliness. Every day, at least three boys commit suicide in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Males dominate suicide statistics and it is no coincidence they are the gender more likely to suppress emotions. They resort to violence or extreme behaviors, desperate to express themselves, yet unable to fit the stereotype of what it means to be “a real man.” The frustration can quickly build, fester, and ultimately manifest into shame and humiliation.

On the other side of the coin, girls are also hurting. Boys may have more successful suicide attempts, but girls resort to less lethal avenues, with pills and self-mutilation. We constantly search for ways to improve misconceptions on gender, but feminism has monopolized the podium. Women publicize their unhappiness with gender inequalities because they have been given the tools to weave together beautiful, expressive words. But who will stand up and speak for our boys? It's time we did something about it.