A cataclysmic shift in our culture has been brewing for decades. An unimaginable alteration in the fabric of society has finally occurred. We have been thrust into the midst of this change, and we are faced with a serious societal problem. Boys and men have been bombarded with an attitude that has turned masculinity toxic by allowing one set of stereotypical behaviors to define masculinity for all men. Men have learned that to be masculine they must be powerful and unrelenting. Manhood is claimed by taking ownership of things. Money, real estate, social status, and sexual conquest have become the valued commodities that represent power and strength. Power over another, or what sociologists for years have termed "dominance behavior," is seen as the core virtue of masculinity. A set of societal standards now dictates that men be strong, unemotional, aggressive, and dominant over women.
Masculinity in and of itself is not toxic. What made masculinity toxic is the narrowly defined parameters of what it means to be masculine. Most boys are being raised in a system that promotes aggression, power, and rage. They watch their father demand obedience, sit at the head of the table, and be in charge of the family. They hear his voice turn harsh and gruff when things are not done his way. They are instructed to use violence to solve conflict. They hear the man of the house use phrases like, "Don't start the fight, finish it," "Don't hit first, hit hardest," "Give him a bit of his own medicine," and "Prove you're a man." Boys are often discouraged by their fathers from showing emotion, unless that emotion is anger. They are encouraged to use anger and rage to take charge or to fight back. They witness their father never asking for directions, refusing to seek the advice of others, and being unwilling to go to therapy for help. The underlying message that sons are receiving about women is that men are strong and women are weak, men are superior and women are inferior, men lead and women follow. That message is what makes masculinity toxic.
Sadly, the lessons extend beyond the home. They are taught by sports figures, Hollywood elites, and elected officials who model dominance of women through unwanted sexual advances, sharing of nude selfies, sexual harassment in the workplace, physical assault in the bedroom and in hotel elevators, dismissing a discussion about grabbing a woman's private parts as "locker room talk," distinguishing "legitimate rape" from criminal rape, claiming that how a woman dresses is a determining factor in sexual harassment or rape cases, listening to popular college athletes who are charged with rape calling their victims "career-destroyers," and using the word "rape" in nonsexual contexts: "The wind totally raped my hair," or "My stomach has been raped by the spices in that sandwich."
Decade after decade, we have conditioned our boys to become men who lack empathy and compassion—men who have lost the nurturing side of their beingness. An attitude of dominance has worked its way into our jobs, our schools, our homes, and even our leisure-time activities. For the past thirty years I have worked as a psychotherapist in a private practice, and I have seen the destructive results of a partner who does not admit the effects of infidelity on his relationship; a coworker who blames others for his mistakes; a public official who lacks integrity; a teacher or principal who shames and ridicules students; a father who spanks his children; a college student who seeks a different sexual partner each weekend; a teenage boy who threatens to spread rumors about a girl if she doesn't send him a nude selfie; a husband who repeatedly yells at his depressed wife, "You're a lazy, f**king b**ch. Get off your ass and clean the house"; a father who spends three to four hours every night after work playing video games by himself to unwind from his day; a young adult man who dominates his partner with threats and physical violence; a middle-school boy who demands that his "girlfriend" not talk to any other boys; a high school coach who dismisses his football players' catcalling at the cheerleaders with "Boys will be boys." Toxic masculinity has destroyed marriages, diminished father-son connectedness, impaired father-daughter relationships, sabotaged men's parenting reputation, fractured men's sense of what it means to be a man, and continued the cycle of raising more boys to be toxic masculine men.
It is past time for this narrowly defined view of masculinity to come to an end. It is time to realize that the potential for men to be empathetic and compassionate lies not in bravado and swagger but in our diversity. It is time to celebrate and honor differences and embrace opposing points of view.
Of most importance, it is time to pass on to our children the value of accepting the differences of others and embracing diversity. In our own families we can teach our children how to work together, understand different points of view, and recognize the potential inherent in diversity. We can teach our boys to embrace an attitude of compassion, empathy, kindness, and respect for women. And we don't have to wait for congressional approval to do it. We can begin today without the acceptance or example of our elected leaders. We can succeed at raising our boys to be emotionally healthy masculine men by beginning at home.
Below is a quick glance at the content of each lesson.
Lesson 1: Model the Message
To be an effective teacher of the principles found in the lessons that follow it is crucial that you model the message. How you choose to live your life is the main vehicle in raising boys to become empathetic, compassionate men. This section encourages you to take a look at yourself first. It provides an Effective Role Model Questionnaire you can use to determine your role-modeling quotient. You can also challenge yourself to improve in nine topic areas.
Lesson 2: Teaching a Culture of Accountability
In this lesson you will learn how to teach your son to be accountable for his actions and choices with gentleness and love. By implementing consequences consistently, you allow your son to experience the related, respectful, reality-based consequences that flow naturally from his actions. You will learn how to help your son experience the direct relationship between cause and effect, enable him to view himself as responsible for what shows up in his life, create internal motivation to produce desired behaviors, and develop a healthy masculinity.
Lesson 3: Teaching Self-Responsible Language
A powerful theme runs through Lesson 3: There is a connection between the words you use, the beliefs you hold, and the actions you take. In this lesson you will explore the harmful effects of "makes me" language on the development of healthy masculinity. You will learn how to alter your own language patterns and teach boys how to use self-responsible language that takes ownership of their feelings and actions. You will discover ways to help your son develop a language that promotes integrity. Essentially, he will be learning a "foreign" language—the language of responsibility.
Lesson 4: Teaching Suspended Judgment
Lesson 4 will help you create an atmosphere in your home that reflects suspended judgment. You will learn how repetitious judgments categorize and limit what boys see, creating solid beliefs, prejudices, and toxic masculinity. Through the implementation of specific step-by-step strategies, you will expand your son's vision and broaden his perspective, circumvent labeling, and eliminate put-downs, teasing, and name-calling. This lesson will help you teach your son how to end the blame game, let go of the need to be right, and avoid gossip.
Lesson 5: Teaching Empathy and Compassion
Raised with the notion that empathy is the enemy of masculinity, boys learn that expressing sadness, fear, or hurt are seen as weak, soft, and feminine. An increased focus is then placed on the use of anger to express oneself. Lesson 5 introduces you to the empathy deficit that occurs from this narrowing view and shows you how to teach boys to recognize, name, and express their emotions effectively. You learn about tantrum mode and the brain, and how to effectively communicate anger with angry delivery statements. You are given specific directions on how to eradicate the empathy deficit in your home, manage anger, and effectively confront and reduce aggressive behavior. This lesson will guide you in teaching your son to become an assertive and respectful, confident and compassionate, masculine and emotional man.
Lesson 6: Teaching Cooperation, Not Competition
Lesson 6 is your guide to strengthening family unity and helping your son learn the value of cooperation. It presents dozens of specific guidelines for neutralizing the toxicity of competition and developing a sense of oneness and connectedness in your family. In this lesson you will discover a definition of success that will help your son understand what success is and what it is not. You will also learn why you should not run your house like a democracy, how to teach your son that people and feelings are more important than things, the use of rituals and preserving family history, and the importance of making a "Be" choice.
Lesson 7: Teaching Beyond Tolerance
The components that take tolerance to a higher level are the focus of Lesson 7. You will learn how to teach boys to move beyond tolerance to acceptance, then to appreciation, and ultimately to celebration. The Expanding Tolerance steps provided in this lesson will help you to raise boys who recognize and appreciate the differing opinions, beliefs, and practices of those in the family as well as in the community. The diversity in your family and community is embraced, shared, and celebrated. Boys learn that their family is stronger and their community is enriched because of the diversity within it.
Lesson 8: Teaching Sex and Sexuality
Lesson 8 is more than just teaching boys about how babies are made, how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, and how not to get someone pregnant. In this lesson you learn how to remove obstacles parents face when talking about sexuality, important myths about sex to dispel, topics to confront directly, how to teach boundary setting, and how to talk to boys about rape culture. Through this lesson you will help your son develop the fundamental building block that defines who he is, how he treats himself, and how he treats other people: his sexuality.
Lesson 9: Teaching about Consent
Lesson 9 addresses the topic of consent: what it is and what it is not. Central to this lesson is teaching boys how to ask for consent, give consent, and accept the answer that is given. You will learn the components of consent and the importance of autonomy in giving and receiving consent. Specific steps in the process of acquiring autonomy are provided to guide you in raising a boy who experiences many opportunities and makes responsible choices within them. The instructions in this lesson help you teach boys how to become autonomous while maintaining responsibility, the key to understanding consent.
My partner Valerie and I have taught these lessons in our own home. We have two boys, ages twenty-one and eighteen. Our older son, Reese, is finishing his senior year at a prestigious college in Michigan, majoring in feminism, and is heading off to graduate school in the fall in pursuit of a doctoral degree in feminist epistemology. His younger brother, Parker, is completing his senior year in high school and plans to seek a college degree in aerospace engineering. Both are young adults who are responsible, caring, compassionate masculine men. I am proud for them and who they already are. I am excited for whom they are yet to become and how they will touch the people they encounter along the way.
In the pages you are about to read, I share with you what Valerie and I have done in our home to raise empathetic, compassionate men. Our goal is that you continue our mission of dissolving toxic masculinity in the culture by implementing some of our strategies in your own family.