Boys Don't Cry
Why we need to raise sons who aren't afraid to feel.
The New Fatherhood is a newsletter from Kevin Maguire exploring the changing nature of being a father today. With tools, tips and hacks to help you become a better dad, and a community of forward-thinking parents who are looking to do the same. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 1,100 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.
This week's newsletter wasn't an easy one to write. It might not be an easy one to read. But last week wasn't an easy week, especially for the women in your life. On March 3rd Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was walking back from her friend's house in London. She never made it home. Her body was found a week later, and a policeman has been charged with her murder and kidnap.
This is a truly horrific story. But sadly, one that’s all too familiar.
Before I get on to the pressing issue of what needs to be done, I wanted to share a short story. Growing up as a kid in Manchester, you learn very quickly to always be aware of your surroundings: who is near you, how many of them are there, what might happen. And for good reason. When I was 12 years old I was walking with a friend, in broad daylight, to Old Trafford. Two older boys stopped us. One of them pointed a knife in my side and told us to empty our pockets. We handed over everything we had, and they quickly scarpered with, I dunno, maybe £30? Money I was going to buy a Champions League ticket with. I was scared. But honestly? I didn't fear for my life. I knew they just wanted the money, and if I gave it to them, I'd be OK.
If I was a woman, things might have played out very differently. I know I'm not alone this week in being shocked by just how much fear women live with, every single day. This thread was staggering: 5,000 women, sharing what they've come to accept as normal behaviour from random men. As one of them said, to the unbelievably unhelpful male voice that piped up, "We know it's not all men. We just don't know which ones it is."
But—and maybe I'm being optimistic again—something about this time gives me hope. Post #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, things could be changing. This new world we find ourselves in—a world which is way too similar to the way things have always been, but just different enough to help us escape despair—might be bending towards towards something better.
Last Tuesday, a local man asked a question:
This tweet kicked off a conversation that quickly snowballed. Over 1,300 women replied—women who were sick of being told for years that what they wore, how they behaved, or how they travelled home was to blame for them being raped, attacked or murdered. Women who were finally relieved to hear a male voice saying “what can we do to help you?”
I put some of the most powerful replies in the discussion thread last weekend, and others chimed in with their thoughts. It's worth a read, if you haven't already. (Go on, take a read, I'll wait.)
Kiko and Will made a point that was at the front of my mind as I posed it, and a question for us here. We know there’s work we need be doing among our peers. But we also need to recognise the work to be done in raising our sons:
"When my wife and I found out we were having a boy, we knew right away it was our duty to make sure to raise him with to aspire to ... I don't know if there is an actual term for this ... "new masculinity", I guess? None of that expired macho "boys don't cry" shit. We will teach him that being tough and cool means being honest, treating others with respect, and sticking up for people. That it's OK to have feelings and express them. It is 100% up to us as parents to promote a more caring mindset." Will
We're starting to see the early indications of a sea change. Teaching our daughters to be safe? It's not good enough anymore. It’s imperative that we raise our sons to become better men, and to encourage the other fathers to do the same.
Once more, with feeling
[TW: statistics around male suicide.]
In recent years, there's been a lot of dicsussion around toxic masculinity. Back in 2019, at the height of the #metoo movement, Gilette released an advert imploring us to think about masculinity in a new way.
Why does this matter? Because the way we've been raising boys isn't working anymore. It's making men more violent, less happy, and more likely to take drastic steps like harming others, or harming themselves.
We all know the stats around male suicide. Men are 4x more likely to die by suicide that women. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Male suicide rates hit a 20 year high in the UK in 2019. Middle aged white men accounted for 70% of suicides in the United States in 2017.
As early as 1998, papers were looking into why women were less likely to commit suicide than men, citing an empathy deficit as the problem:
“Current and past explanations are built on androcentric assumptions that women are deficient in some way. The reverse may be true where suicide is concerned. Men value independence and decisiveness, and they regard acknowledging a need for help as weakness and avoid it. Women value interdependence, and they consult friends and readily accept help. Women consider decisions in a relationship context, taking many things into consideration, and they feel freer to change their minds.”
Helping your sons become comfortable with their emotions and vulnerabilities will make a huge difference in their lives. It'll make them happier, and more satisfied adults. It'll make them more respectful—not just to women, but to anyone else that doesn't look like them. And it'll make them less likely to make terrible, destructive decisions when they're older.
OK, I'm in. What can I do?
Here's where it gets a little tricky. There’s no single, silver bullet. But there's a lot of good indications pointing us in the right way.
Being a kid is hard. Some people (you'll see in the Tweets soon) will confidently say that your life never gets any worse. As a boy turning into a young man, you're overloaded with testosterone, unsure of who you’re becoming, and constantly looking for direction and approval from your peers. We need to make sure that when our sons get to this stage they’re already familiar with discussing their feelings, and are less likely to get railroaded into normalising behaviour that will define their future relationships.
So here's five things we, as fathers, can start doing today.
Don't fight it. Feel it. We need to do a better job of raising boys who are in touch with their emotions. To develop their emotional intelligence, and to value it highly: in themselves, and in others. To be comfortable being open and vulnerable with others, and to show up for their friends when they do so. To ask for help when they need it. Let's begin to normalise conversations around emotions at home and never seek to have your sons bottle up their feelings.
No more "boys will be boys". You've probably heard this phrase hundreds of times: normally as an excuse when a parent who won't discipline their son for pushing another kid in the park. This phrase is dangerous: it implies that boys are biologically wired to be more violent and aggressive, and that they should be excused from consequences for that behaviour. You can see how this can become a slippery slope, how an excuse like this easily morphs into one like "locker room talk". Let's stop turning a blind eye, giving boys a pass just because they happen to have a penis. And whilst we're at it, let's allow boys to be whoever they want to be: to stop ridiculing each other for learning to cook, for playing family with a baby doll, or for taking an interest in subjects like dance, crafting, or other activities that the previous generation might have told us was "for girls".
Actions speak louder than words. Children reflect back the behaviours that are directed towards them. So it’s not just about how we talk to our sons: it's how we act in front of them. How we treat our partners, parents, and other women in our life. If we treat our sons differently than our daughters, they'll absorb that as a way they should act. We need to practice what you preach—because the way he’s watching you behave at home is the model he’s creating of how to treat women for the rest of his life. These models are easy to form, and obscenely difficult to fix once they’re ossified into the core of the man he will become.
Be mindful of the media your sons consume. I touched on this last week, but please, for the love of all that is holy, DON'T LET YOUR KIDS WATCH YOUTUBE UNSUPERVISED. They're only a click away from heading down an alt-right rabbit hole, and the YouTube algorithm is a powerful on-ramp into a world of toxic masculinity, dramatically dressed-up as an invitation to "take the red pill".
Start having these discussions with other men in your life. I was talking to a father of a young boy at school a few years ago. My daughter told me that no matter what happened, this boy never cried. Even after he fell, and cut his mouth open—eyes as dry as the Sahara. I was talking to his dad about it, when he told me, point blank: "Yes, that's right. I've told him not to do that. He's a boy. Boys don't cry." It made me so sad. But, looking back at this now, I am ashamed to say I said nothing. I didn't say what I should've: crying isn't a sign of weakness, and that by forcing these archaic beliefs on our sons, we're damning them to a life of repressed emotions, difficult relationships, and eternal emotional labour for them, and the people they love.
These aren't the only answers. There isn’t a simple solve that will eradicate these problems overnight. But it's something we can all start doing right now. Because the boys watching us today will become the men of tomorrow.
3 things to read this week
The New York Times asked teenagers to share their thoughts on a life in lockdown. It’s filled with beautiful insight, art and emotion. "All we wanted was to have the best summer ever, and it was cancelled in March". (Pro-tip for those that don't know. You can use Safari's "Reader View" to bypass the NYT paywall, and another good hack is to just keep hanmering the "Esc" button on your keyboard as the page loads and it'll work 90% of the time.)
This Guardian have been doing a video series around Modern Masculinity. It's been brilliant, and this month's episode talks about the specific challenges around fatherhood and raising sons.
Those of your following The New Fatherhood on Instagram might have seen me share a few posts from the Poetry of Dhiman account, "Learning to be human, and discovering the self through self-compassion & self-love." I've found some of his words incredibly enlightening over the last few weeks.
The empathy edition.
The one thing you need to watch with the kids this week
This is a great, kid friendly video on how "empathy is feeling with people", from Brené Brown, the queen of vulnerability. If you'd like a follow up for older kids (and adults), watch her TEDx Talk.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
I've already touched upon some of the comments from last week's discussion on what men can do to help women feel safe, but, as always, you provided so much gold.
"We also need new (or old) ways for boys and men to process and move through challenging emotions like rage/shame/rejection in a healthy way - likely with other men - otherwise it will bubble under the surface and burn us down in those moments where our politeness isn’t in charge. And this is a HUGE work. Before we can get less messy we might need to acknowledge just how deep a mess we are in." Rich
"Women do everything they possibly can to avoid being victims, but we've grown up in a culture where being an ally to those women automatically makes you a 'pussy' or a 'kiss ass', and as such it's easier for us to not say anything...but that's only exacerbating the problem. Actively calling out inappropriate behaviour must become the new normal." Keith
"Like many teenage boys, we were trying to figure out "what girls want" and what the best approach was to getting a date. This kid maintained that bad-boy cruelty was more of an attraction. As a teen, he cultivated that negative and dark personae. I don't know if he every hurt anyone, but he did see this behavior as integral to becoming a man. He wanted conquests, not relationships. He clearly thought my efforts at kindness and connection were stupid and naive. I'm sure this is familiar territory for many of you, but it shouldn't be. And I don't want it to be that way in the future." Rico
I continue to be amazed at the quality of the conversation in this community. Thank you for your contributions.
Eeeesh what a week. Have had a load of great TikToks lined up, will hopefully get around to sharing them next time. Here's a good one to whet your appetite. Thanks to Nikhil, Matt and Chris for sharing this newsletter with their friends last week—the cheque is in the post!