In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued. – Aung San Suu Kyi
We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters. – Gloria Steinem
Former religious systems placed men above women. Daughters and sons must follow the same form of study and acquire a uniform education. One course of education promotes unity… – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 27.
In my preparation and research for this series of articles, I ran across some extremely divergent opinions. Let’s put it this way: I’ve rarely seen so much anger, public disagreement and controversy about any single subject. Well, maybe the Middle East—but raising boys seems like a close second.
Apparently, people really get worked up when they talk about their children’s gender roles—especially male gender roles. To many, nothing seems more sacrosanct, more important, more fundamental to their sense of identity. The discussion itself even offends some people, as if they have an enormous investment in keeping their own masculine or feminine role intact and unchallenged.
Opinions range from one extreme to another. Some believe that we should never abandon traditional gender roles—that boys and girls should stay that way, and that we must maintain the huge gulf which existed between a boy’s identity and a girl’s identity in Grandpa’s and Grandma’s time. Those on the other end of the spectrum believe that all gender identity is a socially-constructed lie, a complete, damaging falsehood; and that we should never impose any sort of gender role on any child, no matter what our culture demands.
Just to illustrate the battle here, I’ll list the titles of two of the diametrically-opposed books I found while doing my research:
Raising Boys that Radical Feminists Will Hate
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
Yikes. What’s a parent of a boy to do?
Much of the parenting advice today focuses on one of two assumptions—1. Boys will be boys; or 2. The traditional masculine gender roles hurt everyone—boys and girls.
In Raising Cain, psychologists Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon point out why they fall squarely in camp #2, and call for the creation of a new standard of emotional literacy for young boys—without “turning them into girls:”
…if boys express emotions such as fear, anxiety, or sadness, they are commonly seen as feminine. The effect on males of having to conform to wearing a tough-guy mask creates suffering on both a personal and societal level and is particularly devastating for the sensitive boy, who has to try harder than the average boy to repress his emotions. (For more on this important subject, watch the PBS documentary Raising Sons)
This idea of emotional literacy for boys hit pretty close to home for me, personally. I had a stern, violent ex-Marine for a father, and as his oldest son I was taught never to express my inner emotions. “Don’t be a sissy!” was my dad’s worst insult, and I heard it, at high volume, whenever my feelings leaked out. I rarely saw my own father express any emotion other than anger. Growing up from boyhood to manhood, I struggled with how to even understand my own inner landscape.
Of course, the polarized stereotypes of masculinity and femininity in many cultures primarily have to do with the emotions. When we view women as weak and men as strong; women as the helped and men as the helpers; women as emotional and men as stoic; we put everyone of either sex in a pre-determined, very hard-to-escape emotional cage. That takes away our genuineness, our authenticity, our reality, what the Baha’i teachings refer to as our “freedom of soul:”
There is a great difference between an authentic man and an imitator of one. The former is David himself, the latter is merely the tone of his voice. Knowledge and wisdom, purity and faithfulness and freedom of soul have not been and are not judged by outward appearances and dress. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, pp. 181-182.
Raising our sons to become authentic men—and authentic human beings–requires not only allowing them to acquire outward knowledge but to seek self-knowledge; and self-knowledge includes the mind, the heart and the soul. Expressing and understanding your own feelings and emotions, one of the prime requisites for self-knowledge, doesn’t only belong to females—men have the right to their feelings, too:
In all these realms of nature the sexes have equal rights; but when we come to the world of humanity we see a difference. This difference is caused by education. In God’s creation neither is superior to the other, there is no distinction, no difference. Why do men make a difference? – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 2, p. 4.
Luckily, many societies around the world have begun to recognize this equality, and have started to condone and even encourage boys and men to feel their own emotions rather than repressing them. That’s the first step toward allowing boys to escape the confines of a rigid, constraining masculinity, and to determine their own roles rather than being forced to accept one that society requires them to adopt.