This innocent question we ask boys is putting more pressure on them than we realize

This article originally appeared on 06.20.18


Studies show that having daughters makes men more sympathetic to women's issues.

And while it would be nice if men did not need a genetic investment in a female person in order to gain this perspective, lately I've had sympathy for those newly woke dads.

My two sons have caused something similar to happen to me. I've begun to glimpse the world through the eyes of a young male. And among the things I'm finding here in boyland are the same obnoxious gender norms that rankled when I was a girl.


Of course, one notices norms the most when they don't fit. If my tween sons were happily boy-ing away at boy things, neither they nor I would notice that they were hemmed in.

But oh boy, are they not doing that.

In fact, if I showed you a list of my sons' collective interests and you had to guess their gender, you'd waver a bit, but then choose girl.

Baking, reading, drawing, holidays, films, volleyball, cute mammals, video games, babies and toddlers, reading, travel, writing letters.

I imagine many of you are thinking at this point: That's awesome that your boys are interested in those things!

There's more. One loves comics and graphic novels but gravitates to stories with strong female protagonists, like Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Cool! I love it.

And sports. They are thoroughly bored by team sports. They don't play them. They won't watch them. They will up- or down-arrow through any number of sporting events on TV to get to a dance contest or to watch competitive baking.

So? Nothing wrong with that.

Those are the kinds of things all my progressive friends say.

But it's often not the message my sons themselves hear from the other adults in their lives, their classmates, and the media.

For example, the first get-to-know-you question they are inevitably asked by well-meaning grown-ups is, "So, do you play sports?" When they say, "No, not really," the adult usually continues brightly, "Oh, so what do you like to do, then?"

No one explicitly says it's bad for a boy not to play sports. But when it's always the first question asked, the implication is clear: playing sports is normal; therefore, not playing them is not.

The truth is that one of them does play a sport. He figure skates, as does my daughter. When people find out that she skates, they beam at her, as if she suddenly has possession of a few rays of Olympic glory. In the days before my son stopped telling people that he ice skates, most of them hesitated and then said, "Oh, so you are planning to play hockey?"

But it's not just what people say. It's all those pesky, unwritten rules. When he was in second grade, my younger son liked the Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew series. But he refused to check any out of the school library. He explained: "Girls can read boy books, but boys can't read girl books. Girls can wear boy colors or girl colors, but boys can only wear boy colors. Why is that, Mom?"

I didn't have an answer.

An obvious starting point — and the one that we have the most control over — is to change the way we speak to the boys in our lives.

As Andrew Reiner suggests in a spot-on essay, we should engage boys in analytical, emotion-focused conversations, just like we do with girls. In "How to Talk to Little Girls," Lisa Bloom offers alternatives to the appearance-focused comments so often directed at young girls: asking a girl what she's reading or about current events or what she would like to see changed in the world. I could copy-paste Bloom's list and slap a different title on it: "How to Ask Boys About Something Besides Sports."

And with a few more built-in nudges, we might expand the narrow world of boyhood more quickly. Boy Scouts could offer badges for developing skills in child care, teamwork, and journaling. Girl-dominated activities like art, dance, gymnastics, and figure skating could be made more welcoming to boys, with increased outreach and retention efforts. My son could write his own essay about trying to fit in to the nearly all-girl world of figure skating, including the times he has had to change clothes in a toilet stall at skating events because there were no locker rooms available for boys.

I used to think that the concept of gender — of "girl things" and "boy things" — was what was holding us back.

Now I see it differently.

The interdependent yin and yang of gender is a fundamental part of who we are, individually and collectively. We need people who like to fix cars and people who like to fix dinner. We need people who are willing and able to fight if needed and people who are exquisitely tuned into a baby's needs. But for millennia, we have forced these traits to align with biological sex, causing countless individuals to be dissatisfied and diminished. For the most part, we've recognized this with girls. But we have a long way to go when it comes to boys. As Gloria Steinem observed, "We've begun to raise daughters more like sons … but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters."

I acknowledge that young boys feeling pressured to be sports fans is not our country's biggest problem related to gender.

Transgender individuals still confront discrimination and violence. The #MeToo movement has revealed to anyone who didn't already know it that girls and women can't go about their everyday lives without bumping into male sexual aggression.

But if our culture shifts to wholeheartedly embrace the whole spectrum of unboyishness, it may play some small role in addressing these other issues, too. Male culture will be redefined, enriched, and expanded, diluting the toxic masculinity that is at the root of most of our gender-related problems.

Boys and girls alike will be able to decide if they would rather be made up of snips and snails, sugar and spice, or a customized mix. And my future grandsons, unlike my sons, won't think twice about wearing pink or reading about a girl detective at school.

This story originally appeared on Motherwell and is reprinted here with permission.


Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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