13 Things Boys Learn By Age 5 That Perpetuate Toxic Masculinity

Ad failed to load

Eighteenth century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains." In other words, society corrupts us all. Of course, Rousseau also had horrifying ideas about women's inferiority, but let's talk about the corrosive nature of society some more. The dude had a point there. Take for example, the things boys learn by age 5 that perpetuate toxic masculinity. Because, honestly, it's scary and stunning to think of how quickly they pick up on so much of this nonsense... and how frequently we ourselves might even perpetuate it without realizing.

Before my son was even born, I had plans for him. This little boy was going to be raised to believe in the inarguable equality of men and women. He would know that there's no such thing as "boy things" and "girl things." He would feel free to wear a tutu and dance ballet any time he wanted. My husband and I were very mindful of how we discussed gender with and around him. We were diligent about presenting him with toys and media that were not only gender neutral but masculine and feminine, too. We would be critical of any potential bias we thought we might have in order to avoid them as much as possible. But it turns out that parents aren't a child's only influence in life. I know, I was stunned as well. Apparently they have friends and teachers and community acquaintances and TV personalities they listen to and some of them blow.

And it's not that my son has a membership in the He-Man Women Haters club or anything: he's an awesome kid. But in the past couple years, I've seen him internalize some of the misogyny and toxic masculinity — a narrow and aggressive definition of what it is to be a man that hurts everyone — that run rampant in our society. He went from only wearing pink sneakers to refusing to drink from a pink cup. From watching My Little Pony to vehemently denying he ever enjoyed it. He has declared distinct differences between what boys wear and what girls wear.

Ad failed to load

Some of this, on the surface, may not seem like a big deal. But I firmly believe all of these things, big and small, feed each other. We hear the term "intersectionality" a lot in terms of feminism, but what we don't always remember is that our systems of oppression are intersectional as well.

Ad failed to load

Gender Is Binary


It's pretty basic, but until I see this idea all-the-way dead out in society I'm going to keep highlighting the fact that it's a problem.

The idea that there are only two genders, each with unique and very specific modes of behavior, dress, speech, sexual and romantic expression, is as absurd as it is damaging. Because at the same time, under this model, we assert that gender identity is (arguably) the most important identity we have. So much so that it's entirely biologically and evolutionarily dictated and corresponds exclusively with our genitalia.

The problem with that (other than the fact that it's all bullsh*t) is that our ideas of gender are not historically or culturally fixed and, even within a fixed time and place, there are lots of people who do not (and do not wish to) conform to every single line of the gender script they've been given. But now that they've been told their one prescribed gender is who they are and who they are supposed to be, they are put at odds with themselves.

This binary is put on our children often before they're even born.

There Are Girl Things & Boy Things & Girl Things Are Bad


Thanks to the gender binary, "men" and "women" are divided along such strict lines: hobbies, activities, clothing, even colors and subjects in school are split into masculine and feminine. While little girls are often directed away from "male" interests (cars, pants, the color blue... I mean guys, are you hearing how ridiculous this is yet?) it's usually not with the panic that boys are forced away from "girl" interests.

If a girl wants to wear a "boy t-shirt" out of the house, for example, that is less likely to be seen as a point of concern than if a boy wanted to wear a skirt to school. If a girl wants to do karate, it's usually more accepted than a boy doing ballet.


Being Mistaken For A Girl Is Embarrassing


In our binary structure, femaleness is a downgrade. Toxic masculinity overtly (but more often implicitly) asserts the superiority of men by proclaiming the inferiority of women and girls. Girls (and to a lesser extent women) emulating male behavior is understandable in a way that boys (and to a greater extent men) emulating female behavior is unbelievable. Moreover, the latter is a challenge to the idea of male supremacy, and I don't know if you know this about those in power: they usually don't like to give it up. So anything that challenges the concept of who should have power us usually swiftly and decidedly quashed.

A boy, early on, is taught to feel shame if he is associated with femininity.

Ad failed to load

If You Want To Insult Someone, Feminize Them


And to really drive this idea home, let's point out the idea that the vast array of male-directed insults harken to femininity or being female: b*tch, p*ssy, sissy, or just girl. Even pejoratives like bastard or son of a bitch are, really, besmirching the "honor" of a woman rather than the man in question directly, right? Being a man is, once again, starkly juxtaposed to being female.



Gender identity and sexuality are tightly bound up in our culture and being a "man" means being a straight man. (In turn, toxic masculinity dictates that gay men be feminized, whether or not they are femme.) I heard the word "gay" used as an insult long before I ever knew what it actually meant. So the first time I heard it used properly I already had several years of negative connotations connected to it.

(I find it hard to believe that I'm alone in this, and I hope I was able to explain what it means to be gay before my kids were fed a string of homophobic misrepresentations.)

Showing Affection For Other Men Is The Same As Showing Sexual Attraction To Other Men


Because homophobia is so deeply ingrained in toxic masculinity, it's learned early on that even the appearance of homosexuality is to be avoided at all costs. Boys are encouraged not to hug and certainly not to kiss, and the older they get the more insistent those taboos become.

Of course this leads to a culture of male closeness being expressed as ironically as possible (guys constantly ripping on each other, for example) and living in fear of being seen as a feminized man rather than comfortable expressing positive emotions for people who are important to them.

Ad failed to load

Pretty Much Anything About "Courtship" Culture


So many of our old (awful) standbys as to how a man should treat a woman start when we talk about how boys should treat girls, and are rooted in the idea that men are superior to women. From the paternalistic platitudes that nevertheless serve to segregate men from women and women from being seen as individuals ("a man should always pay for dinner," "don't swear in front of a lady," "treat her like a princess,") to the more blatantly problematic ("if she says no it means she wants you to chase her," or "if she puts out on the first date she's a slut"), romance isn't about being kind, it's about establishing a hierarchy in which the man is superior.

"Courtship" practices have historically been a hotbed of toxic masculinity, because it's so concerned with how men are supposed to treat women (and vice versa) based on gender.  

Boys Should "Protect" Girls


Certainly we should all strive to raise children who will stand up for those they love and be generally mindful of defending those who may not be able to defend themselves (or who could at the very least use a vocal ally). But the idea that boys should protect girls simply because they're girls is condescending at best, perpetuating an idea of female weakness. At worst, it promotes the idea that boys and men have a kind of ownership over the women in their lives.

Men Should Be Physically Tough...


For some reason this is tremendously important within the realm of toxic masculinity. Guys should be physically impressive, not predominantly for the purpose of being sexually attractive (though all the better if you conform to a particular male beauty standard, says toxic masculinity) but so you can intimidate people.

And far be it from me to say we should live in a world without superheroes or action movies, but little boys can absolutely learn this sort of thing through the promotion of superheroes and action movies if they are not put in the proper context.

Ad failed to load

... & Not Shy Away From Settling Disputes Through Violence


How many young boys hear, "Don't start fights, but if someone starts something with you you don't just sit there and take it."

Now certainly there's a time and place for self-defense, but I find that when this attitude is employed "self-defense" is a concept liberally applied. Very often, it's not just used to mean "defend your body" but "defend your reputation as a man." Walking away from a fight, in instances like these, is an example of "sitting there and taking it."

Men Should Be Stoic...


Boys are encouraged, earlier and more emphatically than girls, to be more emotionally reserved. "Don't cry" is, in sentiment, synonymous with "man up." "Emotional" is another word for "hysterical" which is rooted in the Greek word for "uterus." Boys are to suppress their emotions, good and bad, except for one.

... Unless They're Angry


In a world of toxic masculinity, it's basically the only acceptable emotion they can have... and, honestly, there's so much bullshit that they're expected to perform and not perform at this point that it's understandable that they'd be really, really angry.

Ad failed to load

Men Should Be Completely Self-Sufficient


Whereas women are socialized to be dependent (on men and each other) for not just physical and financial support but emotional support as well, men and boys internalize a "man of the house" or "your own man." American culture also has a long history of promoting fierce independence and the myth of a self-made man as being the pinnacle of success and prestige.

This can lead to deep feelings of isolation, insecurity, and extreme reluctance to reach out for help, particularly mental health help. Couple all this with the fact that men have been left with one emotion — rage — in their arsenal and, well, there's a reason this brand of masculinity is so toxic.

Like so many toxic things, this sludge has spread far and wide. It's spent centuries oozing deep into the foundations of our society and will sometimes creep up in places we don't necessarily expect it. That's why it's so important to be aware of what it is and how it can infect our boys, and critical of our own potential complacency in its promotion. Because it starts early and its effects can last a lifetime.

Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:

Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Umm, Toys "R" Us Has A BOGO 50 Percent Off Deal So You Better Stock Up

After the holidays, you were probably hoping that your kid's massive toy collection would keep him entertained for a little while, at least. But that was wishful thinking, wasn't it? Because now that a couple of months have passed, all those must-hav…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

Turns Out, Kim Kardashian's Favorite Mom Products Look A Lot Like Your Own Faves

Being a mom is really hard work, especially for the first few months, and Kim Kardashian West is no different in that regard. Now the mother of three, Kardashian says that there are a few products she just can't live without when it comes to raising …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

These 9 Instant Pot Recipes Will Make Even The Pickiest Eater Happy At The Table

Like any parent, I've had my share of parenting hits and misses, but one of my favorite "wins" is my daughter's diverse palate. I don't even know if I can take credit for it, but I would like to think I had something to do with her love for lentils, …
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

Soda Might Hurt Your Fertility, Study Says, & Here's What You Can Do

Who doesn't love sugary drinks? I stopped drinking soda years ago, but I still love gulping down those fancy Starbucks coffee beverages. I don't have a big sweet tooth, but I am a sucker for sugar-sweetened beverages every now-and-then. Turns out, th…
By Annamarya Scaccia

10 Things No One Tells You About Having A Baby In Your 30s

If you're like me, you evaluate the pros and cons of any major life decision. When my husband and I were considering starting a family, I thought about my career, education, and financial stability. I wanted to know how a pregnancy and childbirth wou…
By Steph Montgomery

This Woman Thought She Had An Eyelash Stuck In Her Eye. Then It Moved.

I'm not a person who is easily icked out. As a kid, I collected bugs and thought I was going to be an entomologist and asked Santa Claus for ant farms and nets to catch bees. I'm still super curious about anything that flies and crawls, which might s…
By Karen Fratti

A Hot Mess Mom's Guide To Surviving Winter

As I sit here at my home office in Connecticut, it's cold. Damn cold. Winter is a rough season in New England and it's even worse when you're a parent and have to manage cooped up, restless children. It's even worse when you're a hot mess as it is, u…
By Jamie Kenney

5 Red Flags Your Toddler Isn't Eating Enough

Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, at least in my experience. You offer mashed potatoes, they want french fries. You give them crackers, they scream for chips. It's frustrating, to be sure, but it's usually their way of vying for independence. It…
By Candace Ganger

11 Ways Your Pregnancy Will Be Different If You Have A Boy Vs A Girl

If you've been pregnant before, you might start comparing your previous pregnancies to that of your current pregnancy. A lot of things can change from pregnancy to pregnancy, based on a whole host of different factors (including how well you remember…
By Lauren Schumacker

35 Moms Share The Most Disgusting Things Their Husbands Do

I'm a human being who revels in challenges. I like when people present me with one, especially if they don't think I can meet or succeed it, and I like taking a challenge on, especially if it's unexpected. So when I aimed to uncover the most disgusti…
By Jamie Kenney

How Having Kids In Your 20s Affects You Later In Life

For parents, like myself, who had kids in their 20s, there are a number of questions that come to mind. When you're deciding what your future will look like, you'll likely consider what this means for your health, career, and more down the line. Thin…
By Tessa Shull

8 Reasons I Let My Toddler Play Outside Unsupervised

I'm not a helicopter mom, but I'm not exactly a free-range parent either. I like to think of myself as safely ensconced somewhere in the middle. I insist on certain safety measures, like car seats and helmets. I prefer to keep my 2-year-old in my sig…
By Kimmie Fink

12 Moms Share How They Stay Healthy During Flu Season

Unfortunately, we're in the middle of the roughest flu seasons in recent memory. And we’re not totally out of the woods, either. People around the country are still getting the flu, and, sadly, some of them are having to be hospitalized due to flu-re…
By Priscilla Blossom

8 "Mistakes" I'm Glad I Made During My First Pregnancy

As an adult, I've learned you never really stop hating being told what to do. When I was pregnant I was getting instructions at every turn, from doctors, relatives, and complete strangers on the subway. I would nod and smile but then go about making …
By Liza Wyles

Study: Drinking Two Glasses Of Wine A Day Is Good For Your Mind — Here's Why

There’s more scientific proof that a daily drink or two isn't necessarily a bad thing and could have a place in an overall healthy lifestyle. A new study out of the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) in New York found that — in mice, at le…
By Tiffany Thomas

Research Says Eating Carbs Can Lead To A Healthy Pregnancy, So Bring On The Pasta

In the world of me, no food is better than bread. I know it's supposed to be pretty terrible for you, high in calories, low in protein, and full of that modern-day demon, gluten... but guys, it's really yummy. Especially warm out of the oven, when th…
By Jen McGuire

These Photos Of Prince George Then & Now Will Give You Serious Baby Fever

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their third child in Spring 2018. With all of the excitement surrounding the new baby, it's easy to forget all of the good times that have already passed. The couple's eldest is already well into the sc…
By Azure Hall

This Is, Hands Down, The *Grossest* Thing Babies Do Inside The Womb

Your baby's life in the womb may be safe and warm, but it's also kind of grody. Seriously, the whole process of growing into a human being includes more than a few icky moments along the way. But this is the grossest thing babies do inside the womb b…
By Lindsay E. Mack