We Can Raise Boys To Become Good Men By Treating Them Like Girls
Emma Brown's book 'To Raise a Boy' looks at the cost of raising boys who learn that “girly” is an insult.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the “tomboy” was queen — or maybe king. Even a non-sporty girl like me was dressed in the unisex uniforms of white-piped track shorts, Keds, and t-shirts, just like my brother. The lesson I learned from my parents, peers, the media, and the passage of Title IX in 1972, was that I had legal right to everything culturally marked as “for boys.”
But the same access to girls’ worlds has still not been granted to boys. Despite the recent media focus on toxic masculinity, boys still feel insistent pressure to be violent, to shut down emotions, to watch porn, and to have sex even when they don’t want or aren’t ready to. They feel pressure to reject anything associated with what’s culturally marked as “feminine” — kindness, vulnerability, love, seeking help, let alone dolls and the color pink — and pressure to look down on girls and women. Boys learn that “girly” is an insult, and they must at all costs distance themselves from it.
Case in point: Tomboy, even if it’s out of fashion now, has historically been a positive term, but there is no corollary for a “feminine” boy; sissy has always been an insult. And even some woke, liberal parents fear the repercussions of sending their young sons to school in the pink sparkly backpacks, nail polish, or frilly dresses they may [secretly] like.
Within those walls, boys falter, largely because of the way we treat them differently than girls.
This imbalance and its psychological costs are meticulously detailed in Emma Brown’s deeply affecting book To Raise a Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood. Brown, the Washington Post reporter who broke the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault story, examines the way we raise boys and our own complicity as parents, educators, and coaches in creating a culture that cuts boys off from their full humanity and excuses the resulting physical and sexual violence, not only against girls but against other boys.
“The pressure boys feel to be appropriately ‘masculine’ obviously undermines the health and safety of girls,” Brown writes. “But what I’ve found eye-opening is that it can be equally destructive for boys.” Brown calls this set of masculine expectations and constrictions “the man box,” and advises us that “consciously or not, we all help build the walls.”
Within those walls, boys falter, largely because of the way we treat them differently than girls. As Brown writes, parents often unwittingly “respond to boys and girls in subtly different ways. Moms and dads are more likely to rate newborn boys — even those less than twenty-four hours old — as strong and hardy, and newborn girls as softer and littler, even when there are no measurable physical differences.” She notes that parents tend to help girl toddlers who ask for it, but rebuff boys who do, “perhaps teaching boys to eventually stop asking.” We long underestimated girls’ abilities, she admits, but perhaps we’ve overestimated boys’.
Parents aren’t the only ones who treat boys and girls differently, buying them different toys and clothes, or signing them up for different activities. Brown notes that 86% of doctors teach girls and women how to examine their breasts for indications of cancer, yet only 29% teach boys and men to examine their testicles.
Affectionate, intimate female friendship is acceptable, but when male friends today grow emotionally close, they often use the term “no homo” to assure their peers they aren’t gay, revealing not only how much homophobia powers gender norms, but how those norms are conflated with sexuality. Behind this pressure to be manly is a drum beat of fear that sensitive, kind, “feminine” boys are gay, and that encouraging other boys to be that way will make them gay, despite the lack of evidence.
Most shockingly among the differences in how we treat boys and girls, Brown writes that even if boys are assaulted — sodomized with broomsticks, or pinecones doused in IcyHot — it’s rarely seen as sexual assault or rape. That’s in part because it is violence committed by boys on other boys, and in part because it’s chalked up to biology, hidden beneath the protective umbrella of sports culture: Boys will be boys. (I was astounded to learn from her book that it was only in 2012 that the FBI began to recognize that men could be raped.) Brown makes the case that we have narrowed our definition of boyhood so severely that there’s just not enough breathing room in the man box.
Boys who conform to society’s gender norms and perform boyhood as they’re taught to may have privilege and power, but ironically they’re not at a psychological advantage. Reporting on a study that tracked boys from the 1990s through 2009, Brown writes, “Those who behaved in more stereotypically ‘masculine’ ways as teenagers were more likely to report depressive symptoms in adulthood, and to smoke, drink, and use drugs. Guys who believe they must be self-reliant, have sex with lots of women, and exercise power over women are more likely than their peers to struggle with mental health and less likely to seek psychological help.”
Those boys are also the most likely to commit acts of sexual violence against girls and other boys. How do we prevent that from happening?
Brown presents a host of solutions, from mixed-gender sex education, to restorative justice programs for victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, to sharing our own stories of sexual violence, and teaching boys (not to mention girls) to value what’s culturally marked as “feminine.” “Starting when our sons are babies, parenting can refrain from denigrating ‘feminine’ toys and pursuits,” she writes.
Raising boys and girls in similar ways, and to be similar, helps them have enough emotional wiggle room to be fully human.
A major way out of the man box, Brown understands, is to raise sons more like daughters, and daughters more like sons — not just to prevent sexual assault but to raise healthy humans. As Brown notes, “Boys who grow up believing there is only one right way to be a man are at greater risk for a whole host of poor outcomes.” Meanwhile, a study on gender gaps and educational outcomes in 2020 from the University of Cambridge found that “boys and young men who reject rigid conformity to traditional masculine norms tend to be more academically successful” and girls “who reject these restrictive feminine norms tend to show higher levels of motivation and performance.” Raising boys and girls in similar ways, and to be similar, helps them have enough emotional wiggle room to be fully human.
Girls may still have to navigate the gender pay gap and a tenuous grasp on reproductive rights. Around the world, they’re fighting for the right to go to school, to not be kidnapped. But they have access to much of boys’ worlds — pants, sports, STEM — and to a full human range of emotions. We need to offer the same leeway to boys. As Gloria Steinem has said, “I’m glad we've begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
“If we gave boys more help and attention and had more empathy for their struggles,” Brown told me, “we could do better for all of us.”
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of TOMBOY: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Salon, The Guardian, and many other publications, and is the author of two novels.