How can we raise more respectful boys?

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how to create a nicer society of people. Cultural change is never easy, but it’s important we rise to the challenge.

In this essay, I want to focus on men and masculinity. There are many facets to this, but I think two of the biggest components are reducing sexual violence and increasing cooperativeness.

How can we raise boys who grow up to be respectful, safe, and cooperative men? A lot of solutions seem obvious if you’ve spent time thinking about it, or done any research, but apparently it’s not obvious enough because these strategies are still not widespread. Let’s have a look.

Teaching consent

It’s been nearly 4 years since the #MeToo movement revealed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. Of course, women have always known that sexual violence is a pervasive problem, but this still came as a shock to many men. I have to believe that schools are doing a better job of teaching consent these days, but I wonder why this wasn’t always the case.

This is somehow a controversial topic—some people think that talking about sex will make kids more likely to have sex. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that talking to kids about sex makes them less likely to have sex.

The reason is pretty simple. When you talk to kids about sex, you give them the information they need to make good decisions. And even horny teens will often realize that abstinence is the right decision to make.

But back to consent. What we should tell kids depends a lot on their age. “Consent” is a broad topic and it’s extremely easy to give age-appropriate lessons on it. If you have a five-year-old, it’s as simple as teaching them that you should ask for someone’s permission before you touch them, and others should do the same for you. Only good things can come from teaching healthy boundaries!

What if you have a teenager? Well, of course we should teach them that no means no. But it’s also important to teach them that yes sometimes means no (for example, if someone is too drunk to consent). And teach them the concept of “enthusiastic consent”—that is, you should only have sex with someone who has made it crystal clear (either verbally or physically) that they want to have sex with you. If you’re not sure, then it’s a no until you ask.

Teaching consent is actually the easy part, in my opinion, because it’s totally within your control as a parent. The other interventions that make boys into respectful men require a bigger cultural shift.

Acceptance of yourself and your emotions

Journalist Emma Brown writes in her new book that we’ve spent the last 50 years telling little girls they can be anything they want to be, but we haven’t been telling little boys the same thing. For as long as we can all remember, there has been one primary rule for boys to follow: don’t act like a girl. Luckily, this attitude has shifted in recent decades (and I didn’t experience it much myself growing up), but it still has damaging consequences when we socialize boys this way.

How do girls act, anyway? The stereotype is that they’re emotional, nurturing, sensitive, and cooperative. So, the message to boys is that they better not be any of those things. They’re supposed to be tough, aggressive, independent, and competitive. The result of this is boys who grow up suppressing or externalizing their emotions. There are many men out there who would rather turn angry and violent than admit that they’re hurting over something. I’d like to see the Venn diagram of those men, and those who commit sexual violence; there’s almost certainly a lot of overlap.

But it’s not just about how boys are socialized as children. It’s also about how they’re socialized as adults, and this is where we run into a problem: Men are often rewarded for being aggressive and dominant, and punished for being vulnerable.

The most obvious example of this is in the workplace. Women are often penalized for expressing anger at work, but men are rewarded for it. In a 2008 study published in Psychological Science, Brescoll and colleagues found that men were more respected by their colleagues after expressing anger. On the other hand, “women who expressed anger were consistently accorded lower status and lower wages, and were seen as less competent.”

This is depressing to think about. It’s a deep, cultural problem that will take time to fix. But it’s not hopeless.

In the meantime, there are some things we can do to help boys and men learn to express their emotions in healthy ways. One of these is simply talking about it. We need to teach boys that it’s okay for them to be vulnerable, and that they should feel comfortable expressing their emotions.

This is a big part of the “Man Up” campaign in Australia. The Man Up campaign encourages boys to talk about their feelings and to be open about their struggles with mental health issues. It’s not just a slogan — it’s an actual program that helps boys learn how to express themselves.

There are similar programs being tried stateside. A program called Coaching Boys Into Men asks coaches to take 15 minutes a week to talk to their players. Coaches are influential figures in the lives of their players, so it’s effective to have them talk about issues like consent, respect, and what it means to be a man. These boys may not have this kind of guidance elsewhere in their lives, and it’s important that they hear it from a trusted adult.

Redefine what it means to be a man

Another program, called Becoming a Man, takes a similar tack. It fosters six core values in its high school participants: integrity, accountability, positive anger-expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal-setting. This, combined with the cool name, makes me think that every high school should adopt the program.

This is something I feel really strongly about. We can’t just teach boys about “toxic masculinity” and hope they get the message. As Emma Brown rightfully points out: that doesn’t work, because the phrase makes many boys and men defensive right off the bat (even the good ones!). What a lot of men think when they hear the phrase “toxic masculinity” is “I’m a man, therefore I’m masculine. So, you think I’m ‘toxic’ just because of my gender and you don’t even know me yet.”

It doesn’t matter at all what the phrase actually refers to, or what your intentions are—you’re setting up a frame of conflict rather than collaboration when you use the phrase. It’s much more effective to approach it from the angle of “women are great, men are great, so let’s all be nice to each other.” No one in their right mind is going to object to that! (Some still will, but I’m afraid they might be lost causes.)

So let’s redefine what it means to be a “real man.” Rather than teaching boys that anger is the only emotion they’re allowed to express, let’s define masculinity in terms of its positive qualities like strength and leadership. And by “strength,” I of course don’t mean “picking up heavy things” or “not getting emotional”—I mean resilience and self-determination and those other values in the Becoming a Man program.

Let’s close with one more thought by Emma Brown, because she has a lot of wise things to say about this stuff:

When my daughter was two, she was on the playground and she was just struggling against her fear of going across this rope-netting bridge that was strung high up above the ground. And I told her, “Tell myself, I’m strong and fearless,” and for my daughter that’s what I wanted.


I realized I didn’t want to tell both my kids that. They should think of themselves as strong and gentle, that telling a kid they need to be strong and fearless is like telling them they have to choose only the traits that we have associated with masculinity.

I think we’re continuing to find effective strategies for increasing cooperativeness, promoting equality, and reducing sexual violence. It may not be happening as quickly as we’d like, but that’s no reason to give up hope. Let’s keep working toward it!

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