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"I'm a mum of 3 boys. Here are 7 things I need you to stop saying to them."

We all know words have power.

But since becoming a mum of three boys, too many times I’ve heard people say things to (and about) them that send the wrong message. Things that are hurtful, sexist, and downright destructive. And sadly, sometimes these words have come out of my own mouth.

Watch: Boys Do Cry, a mental health campaign for men, below. Post continues after video.


Video via The Hallway Group (bosydocry.com.au).

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is "Break the Bias". It got me thinking about the biases around boys, and how these contribute to gender inequality.

A few years ago, I read Breaking the Gender Code by Danielle Dobson, and it made clear how important the early years of childhood are in breaking down biases and gendered assumptions in our society.

But as a mum of boys, I’m sometimes guilty of thinking feminism and gender equality are more of a priority for the parents of girls. The parents who are empowering the women of tomorrow, and teaching their daughters that anything’s possible. 

In reality, the way we speak to our boys plays a big part in balancing gender.

So here they are, seven things I need you to stop saying to my boys - and all boys: 

1. Toughen up.

“Toughen up.”

“Stop crying about nothing.”

“Boys are tough.”  

Yes, I’m guilty of saying things like this to my boys at times. And no, I’m not proud. When we tell boys to toughen up and hide their pain, we’re perpetuating the myth that men shouldn’t show emotion. That it’s somehow weak and unworthy. Or that tears aren’t allowed. 

Boys who aren’t allowed to express their emotions grow up to be men who repress their emotions, or who can’t express their feelings in a safe or constructive way.

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I want my boys to always feel ok about crying, and to share their vulnerability knowing they’re safe and supported to do so.

2. Pink is for girls.

“But that one’s for girls.” 

“You don’t want the pink one do you?” 

“Let me see if I can find you a blue one out the back.”

I remember clearly the day my eldest boy suddenly decided pink was for girls, and therefore not for him. He was in Year 1, and I’d packed his lunch in a pink container. It came home uneaten, and he told me he was too embarrassed to get it out of his bag. My heart sank.

Now aged eight, he still avoids pink at all costs, despite me repeatedly telling him it’s just a colour, and that anyone is welcome to like any colour. 

His younger brothers are still open to pink and purple, and I encourage them to wear, draw with and use all the colours of the rainbow. Because while no one has a problem with a girl proclaiming blue as her favourite colour, if a boy does the same for pink, he’s often questioned or mocked.

Associating colour with gender might seem harmless, but it’s not. Pink is for girls, and therefore inferior (just like dresses and skirts), is the message we’re sending.

3. Is she your girlfriend?

When my biggest boy was in daycare and preschool, his best friend was a girl. He loved playing with the girls, and this continued into kindergarten. It was something I actively encouraged - I wanted him to see the person first, rather than their gender. 

But when we start asking boys, “is she your girlfriend?” or teasing them about ‘liking’ a girl, we’re making them self-conscious about having friends who are girls. And implying that being friendly with a girl could only mean you like them in a romantic or ‘girlfriend’ way.

When my biggest boy turned seven, I noticed that for the first time, everyone on his party invite list was a boy. When I asked him about it, he said he didn’t play with girls at school anymore. 

When we embarrass boys about being friends with girls, we’re painting them as ‘other’. And we’re also making hetero assumptions about relationships. My boys are too young to think of girls as anything other than friends, so please stop implying it is anything more than that.

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4. Boys always play rough.

“Boys love playing rough.”

“Boys love punching each other.”

“Boys will be boys.” 

Erin's three boys. Image: Supplied.

My experience of being a boy mum has definitely been that my boys are physical. They love big hugs, pile-ons, and wrestling on the living room floor. They have energy to burn, always.

But physical play doesn’t have to equal normalising violent behaviour. 

When we tell boys that all boys should enjoy rough play, or that boys hurting each other is normal, we’re excusing them from responsibility for their own actions.

5. Don't you want to be big and strong like your dad/brother?

My husband is athletic and strong - he runs ultra marathons and keeps himself fit and healthy. My eldest boy loves exercise and sport - from Little Athletics to Brazilian Jujitsu and Rugby Union, he does it all.

But my middle boy enjoys different things. He’s not as keen on exercise and sport. He’s creative. He loves imaginative play. 

When people encourage him to take part in things because then he’ll be “big and strong like his dad/brother,” it’s crushing. He doesn’t have to aspire to be big and strong. His worth doesn’t come down to his athletic ability.

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Yes, I want him to be healthy, but I never want him to feel pressured to look or act a certain ‘manly’ way.

6. Boys don't play with dolls.

“Don’t you want to play with the trucks with the other boys?”

“The boys' toys are over there.”

Assuming that boys shouldn’t play with dolls is continuing the assumption that girls are the ‘caring’ gender, and the ones who will go on to play caring roles in our society. 

It teaches our boys that caring for babies is women’s work, and that boys should only be interested in playing with toys like trucks, cars, tools and action heroes. 

Listen to our parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess, below. Post continues after podcast.


For true gender equality in society, we need to encourage more men into caring roles, and to normalise men who want to contribute to parenting, take parental workplace leave, and work in professions like aged care, teaching and nursing.

Please don’t tell my boys not to play with dolls or hug their teddy bears in public. 

7. Give me a hug/kiss.

OK, so this one applies to kids of any gender. Please don’t insist that my children hug or kiss you if they don’t want to.

It’s something we often do without thinking about it. “Come on, give your dad/mum/grandma/grandad/uncle/aunty a kiss.” 

But when we do this, we’re taking consent away from our kids. We’re making them powerless to say no. 

I want my boys to know it’s always their choice if they hug, kiss or have physical contact with anyone. Whether that’s a close relative, or a rarely seen adult friend. 

If I hear anyone saying this to them, I always remind them they don’t have to do anything. And I encourage them to give a wave, high five or fist bump if they feel more comfortable with this. 

Like I said, words have power. We’ve still got a long way to go, and I definitely don’t always get it right. 

But if we all try to choose our words wisely, we can break the bias, and encourage our boys (and girls), to see themselves as humans first, rather than being pigeon-holed by their gender.

Feature Image: Supplied. 

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