Health Agenda

Family

Raising boys: respect and equality

Raising boys to break free of outdated gender stereotypes about what it means to be a man benefits everyone – in childhood and throughout life. Here’s why equality starts at home.

Many of today’s parents of girls are challenging gender stereotypes, whether it’s through their choice of books and toys in childhood, the allocation of household chores, or seeking out role models in adolescence.

“For perhaps three decades, parents have been rethinking some of the traditional lessons they used to give their daughters,” says researcher and sociologist Dr Michael Flood from Queensland University of Technology. “They’re now encouraging their daughters to pick up a football, to aspire to be prime minister and to dream of being an astronaut.”

But the messages we’ve given our boys in the past – men are strong, they should be breadwinners and when they’re physically pushed, they should physically push back – remain largely unchanged.

“We’ve done less to open up the ways we raise sons and to question traditional gender stereotypes that also shape our sons’ lives,” Dr Flood says.

The harmful impacts of gender stereotypes 

Perpetuating gender stereotypes when raising boys can be harmful for them and the men they’ll become, just as it is for the girls and women around them. When men aren’t confident showing their feelings or asking for help they feel trapped and are less able to lead healthy and fulfilled lives, according to research by VicHealth. 

According to The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in Australia, young men with old-fashioned ideas about what it is to be ‘real men’ are more likely to experience depressed or suicidal feelings, binge drink and have car accidents.

There’s also evidence that negative attitudes to gender equality, like holding onto rigid ideas about gender roles and denying that inequality is a problem, are the biggest predictor of mindsets that support violence against women. Recent statistics show one in six Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous live-in partner. 

“It’s not the boy that is the problem – it’s the story about the boy,” says Dr Sarah Epstein, a lecturer in social work at Deakin University, of the cultural messages boys receive about what it means to be 'a man'. 

“It’s a very powerful story and suggests that all boys are the same, that they want the same thing, and creates the idea that not only should boys behave in the same way, but that relationships between boys and girls should be a particular way as well.”  

Dr Epstein says boys and men who match the narrow stereotype are certainly rewarded for it (athletes, for example, are often held up as role models that all boys should want to be like), but we all know plenty of boys who don’t fit that mould. 

She says we have to change the story, and that we can by being conscious about how we “do gender” in everyday ways. 

Boys feel the pressure to conform to stereotypes of traditional masculinity, the cultural messages they get about what it means to be a man, even if they don’t really believe in them. It’s exhausting for them and bad for the women and girls around them.

Encouraging gender equality in the younger years

So how do you promote gender equality in your home? Encouraging personal expression when it comes to toys and games is a great first step. 

“There’s no such thing as boys’ colours, boys’ toys and boys’ clothes,” says Dr Epstein. “Give children choice. They may choose the clothes that let them fit in at school, but as a parent if you’re offering alternatives, that’s a disruption to the dominant story.”

Another effective strategy is to use traditionally masculine activities like rough play as opportunities to teach boys skills and values – listening to and prioritising other people’s feelings and helping people in pain. 

“Boys are frequently raised to be the centre of attention, to not think about the impact of their behaviour on other people,” says Dr Epstein. “Instead, say to them: ‘If you want to wrestle, go for it. But before you do it, look at the space you’re going to wrestle in. If there’s stuff you could damage or get hurt by, move it out of the way. If someone cries, don’t just keep going. Ask them if they’re okay.’”

Teaching gender equality to teens

As children get older and become exposed to more influences outside the home, Dr Epstein says talking – whether it’s about human rights and gender issues, or being open about things like periods and menopause – are conversations that occur in households in which gender equality matters. It’s important for boys to see the reality of women’s lives, in and out of the home.

Dr Flood says this approach promotes critical thinking and prepares teens for complex situations and peer-pressured environments. 

“Particularly as our sons move into their teens, they spend greater amounts of time with their peers and online, and in doing that they will be exposed to some sexist, toxic and other violence-supportive messages,” says Dr Flood. “When they encounter a sexist message, they’re more likely to be able to reject it and to view it critically.” 

Boys can also learn a lot from having adult men in their lives who care for and nurture them, and who model respect for women and gender equality. But it doesn’t really matter what your particular family looks like. 

“The evidence shows it’s not the genders of the parents in the household that make a difference,” Dr Flood says. “It’s the quality of parenting.”

Equality and respect at home

Are you raising boys? Here are some practical ways to guide your boys into becoming respectful men.

Share domestic jobs: model gender-equal behaviour by splitting cooking, cleaning and laundry duties with your partner. When your boys are old enough, teach them to cook, clean and do laundry for themselves.

Give kids wider choices: try not to limit the choices they’re offered by gender – boys may enjoy dancing just as much as girls may like playing with cars.

Challenge traditional gender assumptions: call out gender inequality when you see it and use TV shows and popular culture to talk about breaking down gender stereotypes.

Chat about sex and relationships: talk frankly about expectations, consent, pleasure, rights and responsibilities, and emotions – the whole complicated gamut.

Bring home the reality of women’s lives: talk about human rights, the pay gap and everyday 

sexism, as well as periods and the mental load. Encouraging mixed-gender friendships will help your boys develop personal, real-life alternatives to the stereotypes.

If you or your family need assistance with domestic and family violence issues, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.  

Becoming a parent can be the greatest and hardest thing you experience, and our award-winning Navigating Parenthood podcast meets the parents, experts and teens who prove it. Season three, Imperfect Parents, hosted by Jessica Rowe, includes tips for parents at all stages in their parenting journey.

Words by Mariella Attard
This article first appeared in the March 21 edition of Health Agenda magazine.

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