05.20.13 Parenting

Teaching Our Sons

Teaching Our Sons

BY Dr. Peggy Drexler

More than just about anything, Fiona’s boys hated having their nails trimmed. They were rough-and-tumble types, with a penchant for superheroes and playing with sticks. So Fiona came up with a diversionary tactic: nail polish. “At one point, both boys had toenails in every color I own—purple, gold, fire engine red, green,” she recalls. “It started out as a bribe, but it turned into a big treat… our little in-joke.”

A few years later, when the older boy, TJ, started kindergarten, he came home and told Fiona that the other boys in his class thought his painted fingernails were “weird.” Fiona told TJ that he could do whatever he liked, but that painting his nails was his own choice. Though TJ’s interests varied widely, he was never a boy people would describe as “feminine.” He was a kid who wanted to tape sharpened sticks to his fingers so he’d have claws like the X-Men’s Wolverine. He was also a kid who wanted his nails painted green and purple from time to time.

Most days, TJ decided to limit the painting to his toenails only. That way, he told his mom, he could still enjoy the ritual but “the other boys won’t know.” One day, though, TJ came home and asked Fiona to paint his fingernails blue. He took some teasing for it at school, but this time around, he didn’t care. Later that week, Fiona and TJ were shopping at the local market when the checkout guy remarked, “nice nails.” The guy had a black leather jacket, black nail polish and, recalls Fiona, “oozed cool.” TJ was visibly proud of himself for being so hip. “It really made his day,” she says. “He walked taller, spoke in a deeper voice, and acted cool for the rest of the afternoon.” All on his own, TJ had figured out something about identity, belonging, and what it means to be interesting— and it had nothing to do with conforming on the playground.

For years, psychologists hypothesized that raising strong, confident boys had more to do with nurture than with nature, and that it was essential for parents—fathers, mainly—to instill in their boys a masculinity and sense of self. But most scientists now believe that boys are hardwired from birth to be boys—and that boyishness can show up in a variety of ways. As mothers of young sons, my friends and I often worried about the influence of just about everything they encountered, from violent movies and video games to divorce, gangs, drugs, and alcohol. We wondered: What kind of men do we want our boys to grow into? How could our boys learn to be masculine without being destructive? How could they learn to be caring without being faint of heart?

Through years studying children and adolescents and their families, I’ve observed that the mothers who are the most successful at tapping into their sons’ boy power are those who realize that boyishness can, and should, show up in many different ways, from messing around in the mud to running home to help fix dinner to expressing themselves creatively. To help your son harness his “boy power” and grow into a strong, independent man:

1. Realize boys will, yes, be boys. Value your son’s manliness while encouraging growth, independence, and a sense of adventure. Though Mac’s mother, Susan, tried to shield him from aggression by keeping him away from TV until age 2, Mac liked using sticks to poke things from the time he could walk. By age 7, despite Susan’s ban on toy guns, Mac and his brother would regularly chew their morning toast into the shape of pistols and pretend to shoot one another. The lesson: Boys will create what they need to express themselves. If they want gun-shaped toast on the menu, they’ll put it on the menu.

2. Respect his individuality. “Boy” has no one definition. There’s a wide range of styles of being a boy. By not insisting that your son acquiesce to standard gender roles or play with “gender-correct” toys, you will help him develop into a more independent, open-minded, and sensitive person. When 12-year-old Ethan had to select 7th grade electives, he chose cooking and sewing. “I’m sure in some circles that wouldn’t be a very popular choice for seventh grader to make,” says his mom, Ursula. “But I didn’t say ‘You’re what?’ I said, ‘That sounds great. What are you learning to cook?’”

Realize that being masculine doesn’t exclude boys’ interest in female activities. The boys I’ve met through my research cook, clean, garden, and primp, all in their own ways and with their own goals in mind. “Nobody’s gotta tell me I’m a boy,” says 7-year-old Sean, a boy with a well-developed affinity for both judo and baking cookies. “I know it inside. Always did, ever since I was little.”

3. Refuse to fall prey to gender-based expectations. We as a society persist with the notion that the male and female genders have different and distinct traits. This is not true. This sort of gender typing is, in fact, thought to impede emotional development and account for violent behavior. Children who are not bound by gender conformity seem to be better adjusted. In my work, I observed that boys who are not trapped in gender roles were more independent, more open minded, and more sexually tolerant than their peers. These boys also more easily related to females with respect and openness.

4. Help him deal constructively with criticism and prejudice. Teach your son how to be assertive and stand up for himself without being overly aggressive. Ten-year-old Caleb was struggling with being small for his age, and his classmates were starting to tease him about it. His mom talked with him about “all the great things about being small—like when playing hide and seek, you can find a really good place to hide,” she recalls. Later, Caleb was heard playing with his younger cousin. The young girl said, “Caleb, you’re really small for your age, aren’t you?” Caleb replied, “Yes, I am,” and proceeded to proudly enumerate all the good things about being small.

5. Foster diverse interests. Many parents want their kids to be just like them: If they like piano, they want their kids to be pianists, only better—and the same with sports, choice of career, and lifestyle. But encouraging your son to participate in a wide variety of activities will enlarge his scope of interests, enrich his life, and help him appreciate freedom of choice for himself and in others.

Maria enrolled her son, Zane, in ballet when he was four, wanting to expose him to a range of cultural experiences. Though he loved dancing, as he grew older, teasing ensued. Finally, at age eight, Zane quit, only to find that he missed ballet. “You can handle this teasing thing,” Maria told him. “Tell your friends to shut up and get over it.” Deciding that he wasn’t going to let his friends influence his decisions, Zane made his friends apologize. Then he returned to ballet class.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, author, speaker, and a regular featured contributor to a range of publications and Web sites – from The Huffington Post to Psychology Today to HelloGiggles. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Peggy has spent her career studying the magic and mysteries of families. Her recent book: Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers And The Changing American Family, explores the powerful – and sometimes surprising – connection between dads and a new generation of independent, accomplished women. Peggy’s bestselling book, the highly acclaimed Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men, is a seminal work in the social sciences. It offers an illuminating look at how single mothers by choice, chance and circumstance and two-mother lesbian families are raising happy, healthy and masculine young men. The book was nominated for the Books for a Better Life award and the Lamda Literary award. Peggy can be found on  Facebook, Twitter @DrPeggyDrexler and on her Website.


  • rdavis

    Thank you! I am so grateful for your article. I am continually enriched by the wonderful outlets rising all over the place for women, and yet, I have been longing for the conversation to include and help raise the revolution for men–redefining of masculinity. So refreshing.

    • We have to include men in the conversation if we truly want to effect long term change for women ..

  • I love this article, I won’t paint my sons fingernails just because, he loves getting his nails trimmed since he was a baby (I don’t know how or why cause I’ve never seen a child si quietly and still on that but he does) but I do teach my son how to be a great independent human being! I don’t teach him to be a boy nor to do things delicately like me (a girl) I teach him to be a respectable loving person, I never see gender roles in my home. I do t want a boy who only thinks his role is to be super tough, messy, overly playfull or that he can’t cry or show emotion be ause he needs to be masculine. To me that is immature thinking and harmful behavior. I want my son to be a BOY and do what boys do but to also be loving, emotionally open, caring and delicate to things and others, I want him to know how to cook, clean, learn to take care of a sibling like a mom would (I mean to an extent because taking care of his siblings is my job not his but I want him to know how to help, how to change a diaper or feed them, how to soothe them and show support to them) I want my child to be who ever he truly is without being bound to that annoying GENDER ROLE

  • Allison

    This article is wonderful. I’m expecting my first child – a son! – in a few weeks, and this article is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I hope to raise a strong, independent boy who respects others and himself, and understands and embraces the differences in others. I love the advice here!

  • Linda, London

    What a lovely article to help parents understand more about bringing up boys in this modern society. I have two wee boys and its very refreshing to read about positive upbringing because so many articles talk about how unruly, energetic and ‘boyish’ they are compared to obedient, gifted, mature girls. I agree with so much that Dr Peggy has touched on, just brilliant! Thank you xx

  • Lynn

    My 2 year old son goes s to dance class with his sister but only because he wants too, I paint his nails when he see s the girls painting their nails.
    He loves 1 direction and dances to their music, he loves play fighting , batman, spider man, Mickey Mouse and power rangers.
    I allow him to choose clothes , wether it be pink t- shirts ect
    He s a boy with his own mind, I hope he doesn’t change

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