Healing Our Boys: How Toxic Masculinity Is Connected to Violence

Two young children in pajamas play on their bedroom floor with toy soldiersWe are doing something wrong.  When thinking of the recent school and mass shootings, whether I’m considering the issue of gun control, mental health awareness, or any other related topic, one thing stands out to me more than anything else: socialization.

How Toxic Masculinity Develops

While I agree we need to evaluate (or re-evaluate) many issues that may contribute to tragedies like the Parkland shooting, one thing likely to contribute to a major generational shift is the way we parent our boys. I am not saying there have not been female school shooters, but no one can deny the staggering difference in the number of male school shooters vs. female.

As a social worker trained in child development, certain trends stand out to me when reading about school shootings. Most school shootings in America are perpetrated by young males. It is common for shooters to have a history of abusing others or of experiencing abuse themselves. They often have a sense of entitlement to specific people (usually female peers) or the attention of a group (again, usually female peers).  Another common trend is a desire for retribution and revenge against those who they feel have wronged them. 

My professional opinion is that not all of this phenomenon can be attributed to the way our culture socializes boys—but a lot of it can be. Men in America are generally raised to embody the masculine ideals of Western culture. They are encouraged to be strong and tough. They are told they should always be willing to fight for themselves, their loved ones, and their beliefs. The problem here is not the idea of masculinity, but how we encourage our boys to follow these ideals.

We are damaging our children. We are teaching our sons and daughters that women are weaker and that emotions are a sign of that weakness.

My office overlooks a playground, so I can often hear what is going on in the microcosm below. My attention is frequently caught by disagreements between children. Let’s say someone took a toy out of a child’s hand. The girls will often cry, run to an adult for help, or let the toy theft happen while disappointedly moving on to something else. Sure, some girls are stronger advocates for themselves and will take the toy back, but often they do not. On the other hand, the boys will typically follow their peer, steal the toy back, and continue playing. Sometimes when one boy hits or smacks another, the original victim of the action will return the hit with equal or greater aggression. Again, this is not true for all boys. But most of the time, this is the type of interaction that will play out.

I see how this type of socialization begins both in my office and out in the world. As a society, we can unintentionally instill gender roles into our children through positively reinforcing certain behaviors. Girls are often encouraged to show gentleness and compassion. We often urge our boys to stifle their healthy emotions to avoid appearing weak (or by implication, feminine).

When boys experience bullying, they are typically taught not to cry or talk it out. Instead, we usually teach them to fight back and prove their manhood to those who challenged them. Sure, self-defense is appropriate in certain situations, but I have found we disproportionately encourage our sons to prove their toughness. I rarely see parents validate their sons’ emotional experiences or encourage boys to be in touch with their feelings.

Redefining Masculinity

We are damaging our children by teaching them that women are weaker and that emotions are a sign of that weakness. As teens, boys are socialized by their peers to view their value and sense of self in terms of how many sexual partners they have, how much weight they can lift, how many beers they can drink, and whether they can finish a fight. As adults, men are often encouraged to be aggressive in the boardroom so they are not seen as pushovers. Meanwhile, women with the same aggressive attributes may be shamed and belittled by coworkers for their “nastiness.”

We need to foster empathy and destigmatize sensitivity in men.

This is where we as a culture and a country need to step up and do right by our children, especially our boys. We need to foster empathy and destigmatize sensitivity in men. (Better yet, let’s validate the feelings of all children, regardless of their gender.) We should allow our boys to cry without making them feel as if they are weak or less worthy of respect when they do. Instead, let’s praise our children for showing their emotions and encourage them to see the strength that comes from doing so. If we work to impart this altered view of masculinity, our sons may not be so quick to hit back when insulted, may not start rumors about girls who reject them, and may not pick up a weapon to punish those who they perceived have done them wrong.

If you have a child who is displaying aggression, or if you would like to look deeper into how gender roles affect your own behavior, therapy can help. You can find a therapist who specializes in aggression, child development, men’s issues, or any other relevant concern.

References:

  1. Larkin, R. W. (2011). Masculinity, school shooters, and the control of violence. In W. Heitmeyer, H. Haupt, S. Malthaner, & A. Kirschner (Eds.), Control of violence: Historical and international perspectives on violence in modern societies, (pp. 315–344). New York, NY: Springer.
  2. A study of active shooter incidents, 2000 – 2013. (2013, September 16). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/active-shooter-study-2000-2013-1.pdf/view

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Heather Zawislak, MA, LCSW, therapist in Garden City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dennis

    Dennis

    March 11th, 2018 at 6:24 AM

    I am concerned with trends in schools where our boys are not provided an opportunity to be boys but are treated as defective girls. Boys have a lot of energy. Boys need an outlet for that energy but are often cooped up all day with feminist teachers. I have witnessed in my 30 years in education far too many feminist teachers badger boys for not behaving like the girls. Boys are often not allowed anymore to run on the playgrounds! I have seen them chastised and punished for running, playing, and rough housing, all normal behaviors for boys.

  • Heather

    Heather

    March 11th, 2018 at 3:36 PM

    I think it’s important we allow our children to express themselves however is best for their personality whether it be running around the playground or talking and discussing. I think there needs to be more focus on healthy play rather than strictly classroom work.

  • Cami

    Cami

    March 14th, 2018 at 8:39 PM

    I’m a “millenial” woman. I think our generation of men are better than the older generations in terms of emotions, not jumping straight to violence, and respecting equality, which gives me hope this is getting better. That said, the patriarchy persists and society STILL boxes boys into limiting and potentially dangerous roles. For ex: look at movies, TV, video games. So many have a message of men w/ guns or money = power.
    One part of the solution is respecting strong women – then men don’t have to be the only “strong” ones and maybe can be ok w/ vulnerability. Don’t know about you but I want to be with a man and have men in my life who are in touch w/ their emotions and don’t need to be on power trip.

  • Dennis

    Dennis

    March 19th, 2018 at 4:04 AM

    Cami,
    You lost credibility at patriarchy. Women jump to violence as much as men do. Men are in touch with their emotions but men are men and should not be expected to behave and act like women.

  • Ben

    Ben

    January 18th, 2019 at 10:08 AM

    I came here to check the comments. So far so good with the response from women. Predictably the response from men has been the same. The counter argument is based on subjective personal experience and personal value judgements. This is based on a preponderance of evidence based research. Seriously, put your outrage aside and look at the research.

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