There's a reason more than 16,000 people have reacted to a Facebook post that went viral recently describing a mother's decision to let her son cry after he got hurt: It represents one of many things our sons should be able to do without fear. The post's author, publicist, producer, and writer Jaime Primak Sullivan, pointed out that raising our children according to gender stereotypes prevents them from expressing themselves fully and shames them for being different. Instead, we can create a more accepting world for everyone by supporting whoever children choose to be.
When Sullivan's son Max was hit in the head during a basketball game, she hugged him as he cried next to the court — even as someone accused her of "babying" him. "This notion that boys can never hurt, that they can never feel, is so damaging to them long term," she wrote. "The belief that any signs or gestures of affection will somehow decrease their manhood — this pressure to always 'man up' follows them into adulthood, where they struggle to fully experience the broad scope of love and affection. The only emotion they healthily learn to express is happiness, then we wonder why they are always chasing it. ... It all spills into the way they husband and father and I hate it."
Here are some other things boys should be able to do without fear.
1. Wear "Girls'" Clothes (If They Want To)
Our society still treats boys in dresses or pink as weird, but there's nothing inherently feminine or masculine about certain styles of dress or color. In fact, blue and pink weren't considered gendered until the 20th century, and before that, it was standard for little boys to wear dresses. There's no right or wrong way to dress, so policing kids' clothing should be one less thing parents have to worry about.
2. Play With "Girls'" Toys (If They Want To)
The same thing goes with toys. There's no good reason boys should play with cars while girls play with dolls, and in fact, there are plenty of reasons everyone should be offered both options. Playing house or Barbies teaches you important skills like caring for others, and using science kits or building blocks exercises parts of your brain that we too often encourage girls to neglect.
3. Talk About Emotions
According to a study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, moms talk about feelings with their daughters more than their sons as early as age four. Later on, this can lead to an unwillingness to seek help for mental health issues or a tendency to disconnect from loved ones for men. To prevent this, we can ask boys about their feelings and validate whatever they are rather than pressuring them to be stoic or always okay.
4. Show Affection
Research has also shown we touch boys and girls differently, with parents holding girls more gently while rough-housing with boys. This contributes to the discouraging of physical affection in men down the line, which can block them from forming the close relationships essential to our happiness.
5. Be Friends With Girls
It's too often assumed that children's best friends will be people of the same gender, which also encourages the notion that their play should be restricted to gender-stereotypical activities. Letting children of all genders play together encourages them to see one another as fellow humans rather than stereotypes. Preventing men from viewing women as the "other" also prevents misogyny.
6. Date Boys
As our children get older, we should make it clear that they are allowed to love whoever they want, rather than assuming they'll date people of the "opposite" gender.
7. Get Upset
As Sullivan's post points out, discouraging boys from showing emotion leads them to live in fear of something that's an inevitable part of life for most people. We discourage emotions in men because they're considered "feminine" and therefore weak, but they're really a sign of strength. Negative emotions let us know something's wrong, and when we teach people of any gender to suppress them, we teach them to distrust their intuitions and censor themselves. Everyone's feelings deserve attention, because emotions are never right or wrong but always important.