parent opinion

'They serve no one.' The 5 myths we need to stop teaching our sons.

Masculinity is a hot-button issue at the moment, and with good reason. Whatever your politics, there are certain facts that aren’t really up for debate. The epidemic of violence against Australian women, for starters – and the suicide rate in Australian men. Both of these ongoing issues can be traced back to the emotional wellbeing and subsequent behaviour of men. 

On the subject of toxic masculinity, there are no winners. Which is why, it could be argued, it’s in everyone’s best interest to raise happier, healthier boys; free from the burdens that come with more restrictive, traditional ideas of masculinity. 

When working on my book How To Be A Big Strong Man, I attempted to deconstruct popular notions of masculinity in the only way I knew how – through humour. As someone living with chronic anxiety, effectively dealing with confrontation and conflict isn’t really in my Rolodex of skills. As such, art and comedy have become my most useful tools in understanding and critically engaging with important topics, masculinity being one. 

Reflecting on my own experiences as a man, as someone who was bullied relentlessly for being the wrong kind of boy, I kept coming up against the same key points; the messages we’re sent, consciously or otherwise, during our formative years – the messages we absorb and hold onto, those which manifest into beliefs and, eventually, unhelpful and destructive patterns of behaviour. 

Toxic Masculinity: An animation from Sam Leighton-Dore’s new book, How To Be A Big Strong Man. Post continues after video.


Here are five of those messages – the ones our sons don’t really need to hear, the ones we need to stop teaching them if we’re to raise them into happy, healthy men. 

'Boys don’t cry.'

Growing up, I could count on one hand the number of times I saw a male loved one cry openly. There was a distinct sense of shame attached – the idea that being vulnerable just wasn’t the manly thing to do. 

The phrase ‘boys don’t cry’ is often uttered in total and complete exasperation, while in the throes of a toddler’s tantrum. I get it. But, on the most basic of levels, it’s incorrect. Lying to our children is all fine and good when it comes to the serious matters of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but when discussing the fundamental truths of identity, it’s perhaps best to keep things honest from the get-go.

Boys do cry. Men cry. Strong men cry. Popular boys cry. Sexy men cry. 

When boys know that their vulnerability doesn’t render them weak, they won’t feel such a need to bury their difficult feelings deep down. After all, sadness ignored and unexpressed only erupts as anger down the line, which isn’t good for anyone. 


It’s football or bust.

Football is a cornerstone of our Australian culture and, I believe, can be an incredibly positive platform for healthy displays of masculinity. I think it’s great that families can bond over a shared love for football – but it’s only a shared love when we let boys and young men decide for themselves that they enjoy it. I’ve got two young cousins, each under the age of 10. One loves football and fancies himself the next Dustin Martin. The other is more creative and prefers taking drama class. 

They’re both boys and their respective passions should be considered equally masculine. They’re fortunate in that their parents have done a stellar job of sitting back and observing their natural inclinations, nurturing their skills and interests whichever way they naturally lean. When we pressure young men to be a certain way, they’re less able to discover their genuine passions and instinctively begin altering themselves to meet perceived expectations – which only leads to challenges down the track.

Women are objects.

Media coverage of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements brought a whole new level of awareness to the serious harm that sexual harassment and assault cause to women around the world. These behaviours aren’t inherent, they’re learned – and from a young age. They stem from picking up on derogatory language on TV, around the house and in the school playground. 


Learning to respect women starts at home. It starts with boys watching how their mothers and sisters are treated and talked about by men at home. Using respectful language and treating women as equals, as valuable multifaceted human beings with limitless potential, will encourage boys to grow up doing the same.

They just need to 'toughen up a bit'.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told to toughen up a bit, I’d be well-positioned to enter Australia’s impossible housing market. This phrase couldn’t be more damaging, and feeds into the idea that stoicism is the ultimate expression of masculinity. Instead, boys should be taught that truly “tough” men are those who feel comfortable and confident within themselves; those who are unafraid of expressing their emotions. If we keep telling boys to “toughen up”, they’ll only turn into hard men. Hard men don’t have the flexibility to deal with the inevitable challenges of adult life; they don’t know how to reach out for help when they need it.


Men should 'take it like a man'.

When we look at the suicide rates in men, it becomes clear that men often aren’t well equipped to seek help when they need it. They’re probably less likely to reach out to a friend or loved one; less likely to visit the GP and organise a mental health plan; less likely to speak to a psychologist. The notion that men need to “take” difficult situations “like a man” (ie. just deal with it) perpetuates isolation as the answer, when the truth is that open communication, connection and the sharing of experience are far more helpful. 

Hopefully one day “take it like a man” will have different connotations; the word ‘man’ itself will connote vulnerability and a willingness to admit hardship. Hopefully one day the word ‘strong’ will have less to do with the weight you can dead-lift at the gym, and more to do with a person’s ability to look after themselves emotionally. Until then, I think it’s our responsibility to go back to the drawing board and re-draft our traditional sense of what it means to be masculine. Because when we do, everyone wins. 

This article was originally published in August 2019 and has since been updatyed. 

Feature image: Getty.

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