by Julie Lutton, Upper School counselor
What does it mean to be a man today? More and more, we see people grappling with this question in the news and the media. In some ways, we see boys and men expressing themselves in ways that would be hard to imagine a few decades ago. Take, for example, Michael Phelps' openness about his struggles with mental illness, or actor Terry Crews speaking out about his experience of sexual assault. The actions of these men show that traditional definitions of masculinity might be changing. At the same time, we also see boys and men show up in the media as perpetrators of hate crimes and of the offenses that have spurred the "Me Too" movement – negative examples of "traditional" masculinity taken to an extreme.
In my work with students who identify as male, there is often a struggle between the narrow societal expectations of how boys should act and the wide range of how an individual boy feels or experiences the world. Unspoken (and explicit) norms for boys – such as the expectation they will be stoic, assertive, and interested in sports – can be especially challenging for boys who may not naturally identify with those qualities. Norms come from many different places; for example, from one's ethnic group, religious community, or from entities like the media. Even when they are abstract, these norms can have a powerful impact on boys and their sense of belonging. Feeling like you fall outside the norms for how boys "should" be can be isolating and make it difficult for boys to initiate friendships with other boys. And boys who do fall within traditional masculine norms may have difficulty learning how to express their feelings to their loved ones or can struggle to form deep connections.
How can you, as an adult, help male-identified students embrace their full complexity as individuals? One powerful thing you can do is create space for a child to express how they are impacted by society's expectations for males. You can learn a lot by asking young people how gender roles affect them and their ability to be their full selves! When I ask boys how they think gender roles impact them, they have often told me they feel restrained by the expectation to be tough, and that they sometimes struggle to fully embrace all their interests if those interests are different from what boys are expected to enjoy.
As a society, we have gotten better at giving space to girls and women to talk about how gender roles affect them, yet we have not been as successful in offering boys and men the same types of opportunities. Asking these questions allows students of all genders to investigate how they may be impacted by the cultural "water they swim in" – in other words, the gender expectations that they are exposed to every day.
Julie Lutton is an Upper School counselor. Reach her at 206-440-2928. Learn more about Lakeside's student and family support program – including learning specialists, tutors, and mental-health counselors. Services are free and available to all students and families.