When I was young, I got caught between a bully and a locked door. Had not another boy come along with the courage to tell the bully to stand down, I am not sure what might have happened. Of all the reasons the boys behaved differently in that situation, one was most likely parenting. Many of us teach our girls to question stereotypes and develop their whole selves. It is equally important not to assume our boys will figure it out alone. In a world of mixed messages and competing views of masculinity, nothing could be further from the truth.
Two thousand years ago, Paul taught his protégé, Timothy, to “treat… older women as mothers and younger women as sisters with absolute purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). Considering the culture of the day, this is an astounding statement, but I want to focus on one crucial aspect. Paul understood the importance of teaching young men how to interact respectfully with girls and women. We do well to learn from his example. Not because women are weak but because treating everyone well is the right thing to do (Eph 5:1-3, Phil 2:4, Co. 3:12-14).
The way we treat others is often a reflection of the way we view ourselves. Learning to respect oneself in healthy ways does not lead to arrogance or entitlement. It leads to a sense of security in oneself, one that is not dependent on proving something or elevating itself at the expense of others. Society presents masculinity as something that needs to dominate, winning through competition and aggression, and as something easily lost by perceived weakness. What a burden for young men to carry and what a deterrent to healthy relationships.
Children don’t imitate what we tell them; they imitate what they see. Everyone does. For example, boys who grow up around sexist jokes are likely to think differently than those surrounded by men who treat women as equals. Dads, grandpas, and uncles who have been socialized to prove their masculinity toxically or have been shown that male privilege is normative may need to do some personal work to break the cycle. Research establishes what we have long wondered: there are strong links between masculine anxiety and the ill-treatment of women and girls.
Similarly, boys who grow up around women who put themselves down or allow themselves to be pushed around may grow up thinking women need to be protected or are easy targets of disrespect or dishonorable acts. Moms, aunties, and grandmas who have been socialized to self-silence or use their femininity in unhealthy ways may need to do some personal work to break the cycle. Boys who grow up around well-adjusted, confident, competent women will be less likely to put women down or see them primarily as threats. While numerous family structures can provide this, one study found that boys whose mothers were employed were more likely to do more chores around the house and to hold egalitarian worldviews.
Our children are exposed to media that portray women as voiceless. You may have heard of the Bechdel Test that measures how movies portray women. Specifically, it points out which films have at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sadly, the number of movies that pass this simple test is quite low. We need to teach our children to think critically about media messaging—and at younger ages than we might think. The average age of boys’ first exposure to pornography is 11 and is often offered to our boys as fun, secretive, and part of “being a man.” They need to hear about its devastating effects and learn strategies for how to respond when it is presented.
Several studies have linked gender stereotypes, dominating males, and aggression against women in movies and gaming to children’s expectations and perceptions at a critical period for their formation of these views—affecting their social development and social relationships and leading to discriminatory attitudes and behaviors in adulthood.
An American national survey found that 76% of respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. In the same study, 70-85% of the 18-25-year-olds wished their parents had helped them prepare for a loving and lasting romantic relationship. The majority also said that their parents had never talked to them about the importance of consent.
As infants, boys and girls cry equally, but if Tony Porter is correct, by age 5, many boys have learned that it is not ok to show their feelings. This is problematic on several levels. Psychologist Jaime Nisenbaum explains that a pattern of hiding or feeling ashamed of emotions minimizes boys’ ability to be empathetic and care for themselves and others. This can lead to difficulty with compassion and intimacy. Taken to the extreme, it can manifest as aggression or bullying, and there are strong links between bullying and later sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Whatever your views of Gloria Steinem, it turns out she was right when she said: “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
What if there really was an alternative to the dualistic belief that boys must be either vulnerably “unmanly” or dangerously macho? What if there was a brave way?
Jesus lived this out. A friend of men and women, he treated all with equal respect, invited them equally into meaningful conversation and community, and sent them out equally with the mission to co-create a different kind of world.
His life and teaching point to God’s ideal for human thriving: where male and female were breathed into being, marked with the image of God, and commissioned to partner in caring for and stewarding the earth (Genesis 1:26-28).
We cannot complete this commission without gender reconciliation, which is why Paul taught us to treat one another as mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, with absolute purity and why it is so critical that we teach our children to do the same.