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“Putting it right:" How to raise healthy, connected boys

As Written by 
David Bartlett, Lifting Limits
 - 20 June 2024

Let’s talk about boys - the 13-year-old who blows his top because he didn't get the joke, or some kid insulted him. He doesn’t want to seem weak. And maybe he’s trying to impress his mates?

The 11-year-old who knows boys get kudos for being physically strong, good at sports, and that boys are not expected to show tenderness or to cry. He does not relate to that stuff – he’s not like that and is not interested in being like that. But then one day he realizes he can't even remember the last time he cried or hugged someone.

That second kid? That was me at his age. And that's one reason I’m here today talking about why we should care about boyhood – and what healthy boyhood looks like.

Some of the statistics about boys and young men are very stark. Male mental health in decline, shocking suicide rates, boys falling behind in academic achievement, feeling lonely and isolated.

Lots of people are also noticing a growing divide between young men and women’s social attitudes. Many young men feel that feminism is anti-male, or at least anti-traditional masculinity – and that the challenges they face are being ignored by the mainstream.

We all know that this is not just a problem for boys and young men - a viral TikTok poll recently showed most young women would literally rather encounter a bear in the woods than an unknown man. And over half of teenage girls in the UK have faced public sexual harassment at their own schools.

I don't know about you, but those facts do my head in. We've got a major crisis staring us in the face – but still so much confusion about what on earth healthy masculinity looks like in 2024.

Here's the thing – we all know that boys don't pop out of the womb already conforming to those traditional tough-guy, unemotional stereotypes. There are some small biological differences between men and women, boys and girls, in personality and behavior, but also huge overlaps. The big picture is – most of that stuff is learned - it gets drilled into boys from a very young age… by age 7, and often earlier.

News flash! Not all boys are the same! Some boys see gender equality as just a no-brainer, are stepping up as allies for girls, and for their male friends. It’s great to see them, consciously or not, steeping outside traditional ways of being male.

But nowadays, more than ever before, boys are getting toxic messages about masculinity amplified online - sold a misogynistic fantasy of being a glamorous, dominant "alpha male" with zero room for doubt, sensitivity or empathy. And an us-versus-them vision that paints many men as the demonized, misunderstood, forgotten victims of feminism.

The consequences of all this can be brutal. Boys who conform to those rigid masculine norms are way, way more likely to grow up to be abusive bullies who harass and assault women and other men. They're more likely to be depressed, suicidal, lonelier, emotionally unavailable, and angry – it’s not pretty.

And boys who don't conform? They risk getting socially policed and can also become isolated. Quite a catch-22.

So how do we start putting this right? By listening to boys with real empathy and compassion, in schools, in families, online and offline. Having real, honest conversations with the boys in our lives about what they are experiencing, thinking, and feeling. Giving them a safe space to explore who they want to be and become without judgment or getting shut down. Not judging does not mean making excuses for bad behavior, but it does mean not dismissing their struggles or demonizing them as a lost cause.

Organizations like Movember, Equimundo, Lifting Limits, and Beyond Equality are already supporting young men to find ways out of the outdated "man box." And some men who are public figures are starting to show us just how many different ways there are to be a man. We need much more of all that! Every one of us has a crucial part to play.

This is not a zero-sum game – boys who step outside the man box find it easier to invest in their own wellbeing, build deeper connections, and develop a stronger, healthier sense of self-worth. But it’s also good for women and girls. It helps boys develop into better partners, friends, brothers, and fathers.

Imagine a world where boys are free to express any emotion, build meaningful bonds, and define their identity however they want without judgment or apology. A world where gender does not box boys in, but enables them to embrace whatever qualities we choose.

This change won't be easy, but it will be worth it.

Imagine another boy. This boy doesn’t fit any off the shelf model about boyhood. He is caring, emotional, questioning, sensitive, as well as strong, courageous, bold and adventurous. He doesn’t have all the answers – but that’s okay. Let’s commit to supporting him and growing alongside him. Let’s step up – together. Our boys' futures and our whole society are counting on us to get this right.