‘Boys Will Be Boys:’ The Negative Effects of Traditional Masculinity

The phrase ‘boys will be boys,’ is often used to describe what some consider are normal masculine tendencies boys might have, such as being rough and reckless.

Dr. Tyler Sasser, a psychologist in Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine clinic believes these characteristics of what society deems as masculine can often reflect unhealthy and sometimes risky behaviors.

“In Western culture, boys and men are expected to be competitive, tough and dominant,” Sasser said. “The term, traditional masculinity, labels these expectations. Meaning, boys and men need to be stoic and suppress emotions they experience, other than anger.”

Recent research shows that these beliefs associated with traditional masculinity often lead to harmful behaviors toward themselves and others.

Statistically, suicide and violent crimes disproportionately affect men. They are four times more likely to die of suicide than women, commit nearly 90% of violent crimes in the United States and represent 77% of homicide victims.

They are also overrepresented in a variety of psychological and social problems, including among schoolchildren with learning difficulties and behavior problems.

“In my practice, I work in a specialty attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) clinic,” Sasser said. “ADHD disproportionately affects boys, and one of the behaviors that often go along with it is aggression. To better understand why this occurs, we need to recognize the socialization differences and subtle messages and expectations that society places on boys.”

In August 2018, the American Psychological Association released, Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men, that aimed at recognizing and addressing these problems in boys and men based on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage both physically and emotionally.

“These guidelines have been in development for many years,” Sasser said. “I think that the timing is right in that it addresses the broader trends in our society.”

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, these guidelines speak volumes to how society confronts and reinforces the ideology of traditional masculinity with boys and men.

Providing guidance

The first guideline introduces the idea that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms. The rationale states that many men are socialized by family (e.g., imitating parent and sibling behaviors), friends (e.g., mimicking behaviors and interests), peers (e.g., conforming to group social norms to avoid ostracism), and society (e.g., adhering to media portrayals of gender conformity) to adopt traditional masculine ideals, behaviors, and attitudes.

In Sasser’s practice, understanding how parents play a role in the socialization of their child is crucial.

“It begins in the home,” Sasser said. “I think parents should follow an unrolling sequence of strategies that largely starts with positive relationship building, and working up to setting healthy, safe and effective limits.”

Sasser offers the following recommendations for how families can foster healthy emotional development with their sons.

1) Strive to understand masculinity and privilege in your own life

“Parents, especially fathers, should embrace the idea of striving to understand how we see masculinity and privilege, and how these beliefs affect the way we live our lives and parent our children.”

2) Model healthy emotions

“We, as adults and parents, all deal with complicated emotions and are often engaging in a self-regulation and problem-solving process. Articulating our own emotions out loud when we are going through challenging situations, in developmentally appropriate ways, we are able to model emotional awareness and help our children understand that they are not alone in having strong emotions.”

3) Explicit teaching

“Parents should teach their children how to label and accept their challenging emotions. Coach them in practicing ‘calming down’ strategies and work with them through the problem-solving process.”

At the end of the day, Sasser encourages parents to keep in mind that they are the ones in charge of building strong emotional foundations for their children.

“All children are deserving of care,” Sasser said. “For boys especially, creating healthy limits and teaching them kindness is key in setting them up for success in life.”