Talking to boys about being 'a man'

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From a very young age, boys learn unhealthy ideas about what it means to be manly and masculine – and that they need to be these things in order to be accepted and valued.

Some of the key messages that boys hear about how to ‘be a man’ include:

  • Be a winner: Manly activities are those that increase your wealth, social prestige, and power over others – including in romantic and sexual relationships.
  • Be tough: Men should be physically and emotionally strong. You can show anger, but not weakness, pain, fear or self-doubt.
  • Be a man’s man: Seek approval from other men and avoid all things feminine – never be seen conforming to any feminine norms.

We need to rethink what it is to be a man so that men and boys can confidently express all parts of themselves, without fear of being shamed or losing status. We need men and boys to feel free to show empathy and vulnerability, be nurturing and considerate, and express their sexuality without fear of judgement.

The point is not to tell young men how they should act, but to create space for them to explore and define for themselves what it means to be a man. In other words, telling boys: ‘being a man is whatever you want it to be – just try to be a good man who’s happy within himself’.

So, how do we do that?

1. Talk about what it is to be ‘a man’

Ask boys what they think is wrong with rigid and ‘old fashioned’ gender roles. Highlight the broader range of possibilities, including:

  • men are intelligent
  • men are caring
  • men control themselves, not others
  • men are considerate
  • men are open-minded and
  • men do take no for an answer!

2. Ask about their role models

Ask boys which men they respect or admire. Are they traditionally ‘manly’ or ‘masculine’? Are there other role models who demonstrate fairer or kinder values?

3. Discuss the media’s portrayal of men

Ask boys what they learn from the media about ‘being a man’. Do they only ever see ‘the tough guy who won’t take no for an answer’, or ‘the guy who fights hard to get the money and the girl’? What’s wrong with these models?

4. Take a long, hard look at yourself

Ask boys what masculine qualities they have adopted and how that might affect their attitudes and behaviours. Explore how certain attitudes and behaviours can lead to men as a group having more power than women, or feeling they are entitled to something from women.

5. How does the ‘traditional man’ treat women?

Talk to boys about the traditionally powerful and aggressive man, and his attitudes – like ‘men should take charge’ or ‘boys can’t control themselves’. Discuss how these attitudes may lead to promoting dominance and excusing violence.

6. Be a champion of change

Suggest to boys that the truly ‘strong man’ challenges violence against women and the attitudes that support it. Demonstrate there are always ways we can all do even better – whether it’s gaining a better understanding of the issues, actively discussing them with their peers or working/volunteering with gender advocacy groups. Getting them to visit The Line , which talks to young people about respectful relationships is a good start!

It takes work to start these discussions, but it’s worth it. You will be raising a smarter and fairer young man, who has the opportunity to explore and meet his full potential.

For more information on unpacking masculinities and engaging boys and men in the prevention of violence against women, have a look at our Men in focus resource .

To see a range of available support services please visit our Help and support page.

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