I realized that men are asked to be brave when women are not, when I was just six or seven years old. My brother and I were both playing in our backyard, and we both got hurt. I ran to my father, crying, and was quickly consoled and told everything would be OK. My brother (two years my junior) was told to "suck it up" and, at such a young age, I realized there are times parents tell their sons to be "brave," but not their daughters. I realized that I was able to be afraid or scared or in pain, but my little brother wasn't; all because he was a boy and I was a girl.
That seemingly small moment has forever altered how I perceive masculinity in our culture, especially what has now been referred to as "toxic masculinity." What our culture considers acceptable for men and women are why things like rape culture and the pay gap exist, and I'll be damned if I contribute to either when raising my son. Which is why I rarely, if ever, tell my son to "be brave." Usually, when that sentiment is uttered in a little boy's direction, it's really someone saying, "suck it up," and "don't act like a girl, act like a man." This sends two extremely dangerous messages; one, that women are inferior by default (a "fact of science" according to some men I've had the displeasure of talking with on the internet) and to act like a woman would be to act like a lesser human being. And two, that my son cannot and should not experience every aspect of his humanity, because it makes him appear "weak" and that's the worst thing he could be; an actual human being.
So, while I in no-way think that bravery is a bad thing or something to snide at, I do not expect my toddler son to act like anything other than a toddler. I want him to be a complete human being, who isn't afraid of the emotions that show vulnerability and empathy. That's why you'll never hear me tell my son to be brave in the following situations:
When They're Physically Hurt
We tell little boys that they need to "suck it up" and be brave when they're in physical pain, but we tell little girls that it's OK to cry. In fact, we almost expect little girls to cry, as our society has arbitrarily decided that crying is acceptable for women, but not men.
Now, I can tell when my son is "fake crying," essentially for attention (the oldest toddler trick in the book) and when he is really hurt. When he's hurt, I don't deny him very basic human emotions, like pain or fear or sadness. I want him to cry and express himself in whatever way he needs to in that moment (especially if it will teach him to react in a way that isn't angry and dangerous).
During Routine Vaccinations
My son is too young to understand why, sometimes, a nurse has to poke him with a needle and cause him a little bit of fleeing pain. Eventually, he will, and I hope he understands that while I was essentially making a decision about his own body for him, I was doing it to protect him.
Still, when he is scared, I don't tell him to be brave. Honestly, I think when we tell little boys to be "brave," what we really mean is, "don't feel afraid at all." Bravery isn't about not feeling terrified; it's about pushing past those feelings, regardless. Sometimes that is necessary, but sometimes it's actually pretty damn unhealthy. Needles are scary (I mean, there are grown-ass men who faint at the very sight of them) so I'm not going to ask my toddler son to push past his emotions in order to fulfill some social ideal of masculinity.
When They're Scared
Again, when we tell little boys to be "brave" when they're scared, we're really saying (usually), "you're not acting like a man if you're feeling afraid." There's nothing wrong with being afraid; it's a necessary human emotion that, in certain situations, actually keeps us alive and away from danger. Parents aren't quick to tell their daughters, usually, to be "brave," when they're scared; they simply comfort them and try to take that fear away. I think our sons deserve that same level of care, as their gender or perceived gender shouldn't keep them from experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion.
When They're Being Picked On
My son isn't old enough to deal with bullying in any capacity and, for that, I am so very grateful. I am not looking forward to the day my son inevitably comes home, saying that someone is picking on him (and I better not ever get a phone call saying my son is doing the bullying).
When that day arrives, I know what I won't do: I won't tell my son that he has to be brave or fight or stand up to his bully and put himself (and others) in physical harm's way. I know that boys are usually told and/or encouraged to solve their problems with physical violence, but my son will not learn that kind of behavior. Hitting and punching and pushing and anything else will not end bullying, and I won't expect my son to "be brave" and face his bully head on, just because he's a boy. Absolutely not.
When A Parent Leaves Town...
My partner and I attachment parent, so any significant amount of time one of us spends away from our kid is always hard, for all involved. I don't ask my son to "be brave" while I am at a speaking event or attending a work conference, as I think it is scary to be away from your parent (and scary for a parent to be away from their child).
...Because The Son Has To "Protect" Mom And/Or Is The "Man Of The House"
These specific sentiments — that my son is somehow the "man of the house" when his father is gone and has to "protect his mother," a full-grown woman — is why I don't tell my son to be "brave" when one of his parents are absent. It's not his job to "be brave" and protect anything. He is a toddler.
It's condescending to me, an adult who can not only take care of herself but can and does take care of her son, and it puts an unrealistic and unnecessary amount of pressure on my son, who really just wants to watch Toy Story 3 for the 187th time.
When They're Playing Or Trying Out For A Sport
I cannot stand the "suck it up" mentality surrounding sports, predominantly sports played by men. As a former-athlete myself, I can tell you that we were told the same, but it was considered acceptable when we failed to "suck it up" and cried over an injury or a loss, because we were women. Ugh.
If you watch any professional sport for even a few minutes, you'll quickly realize that men cry when they play sports all the time. I'm talking all the freakin' time. They cry at press conferences and during games and when they win and lose. They cry when they're frustrated and when they're super happy. So honestly, we can just be done with the whole "suck it up you're an athlete" thing, because competing in any capacity and especially at something so physically demanding is taxing.
When They Have Nightmares
My son has screamed in the middle of the night, essentially jolting awake and out of a deep sleep, because of a nightmare. I go to him and comfort him and not once do I tell him to get over it or "be brave." Dreams are scary; nightmares are the worst; a dark room and shadows and toys that look menacing in the dark is not a joke, and I don't expect my son to pretend that fear isn't a normal emotion that we all experience. If it means I lose sleep so that I can console him, so be it.
Basically, Any Time They Feel An Emotion That Isn't Anger Or Happiness
In the end, it really comes down to what our society has decided is acceptable for men to feel in order to be considered "men," and what isn't. It's about the negatively our culture has attached to perceived "feminine emotions" or "feminine actions," even though every single human being, regardless of gender, all feels these very real things. It's about toxic masculinity and telling our sons that in order to be "strong" and "powerful" (things every man is "supposed to be") they have to be brave and stifle certain parts of their humanity.
I am not about it, and I'll be damned if I don't let my son experience everything that is scary, lovely, frustrating, sad, and beautiful about being a fully-formed human being.