Language is powerful! What do you convey in the words you use with boys?

Explore whether your conversations with boys are perpetuating or challenging gender biases.

Being unemotional, tough, sexually aggressive and in control – all of these are qualities of masculinity that show up in many cultural and media messages about gender. Thanks to the work of educators and scholars including Jackson Katz and Byron Hurt, along with the efforts of organizations like The Representation Project and the Media Education Foundation, there is growing understanding about ways these messages affect the lives of boys and girls. We also have more insight about ways that messages about gender can be linked to issues of violence within our communities.

It’s important to help young people (and adults) learn to build their capacity to read and challenge these kinds of limiting media and cultural messages. Many experts also stress the need for adults to examine the language they use in their interactions with children and adolescents. Hearing adults use language that is “gendered” – that is, language that incorporates gender differences, stereotypes and biases – can deeply affect how young people think about and act toward themselves and others.

Whether you’re a woman, man, parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, neighbor, youth leader or other kind of adult in the lives of kids, you can strengthen your ability to use language that contributes to the health and wholeness of girls and boys. The following are some suggestions for your interactions with boys:

  • Notice the words you use to describe boys. “Aren’t you a tough little guy?” “You’re the man of the house.” “He’s so strong – he didn’t even cry when he got hurt today.” Throughout their lives, and starting very young, boys take in messages about the need to be rough and tough, in control and in charge and unemotional. An overabundance of these kinds of messages from the significant adults in their lives can lead to boys believing that masculinity is limited to these qualities. Find opportunities to focus on boys’ complexity and wholeness, including their range of feelings, qualities of empathy and nurturing, whole-hearted strength, curiosity and intelligence. Instead of describing that newborn boy as a “strong little man,” talk with him about his sparkling and caring eyes and his inquisitiveness. Also, even if you think he has no idea of what you’re saying, don’t underestimate the value of practicing these kinds of conversations. Compliment your 3-year-old grandson about the gentle and caring way he plays with his stuffed animals. Rather than pushing the 8-year-old boy in your afterschool program to join the rough-and-tumble game of tag that the other kids are involved in, share that you admire his enthusiasm for the book he’s engrossed in. If your teen son likes a popular singer whose songs you consider to be aggressive and offensive, ask what he admires about him. While he might mention that he likes the artist’s songs, he might also comment that he appreciates their writing talent, his relationship with his young children and the opportunities that he’s provided for up-and-coming artists.  All of these could lead to deeper conversations about ways that some artists have had to compromise parts of who they are in order to succeed.
  • Pay attention to how you talk about bravery and courage. Too many messages aimed at boys limit bravery and courage to standing up to or dominating an opponent. Help boys think about and identify examples of emotional courage, like the courage involved with speaking in front of a group, trying out for a team or using one’s voice to interrupt hurtful bullying behaviors. Be vulnerable and share with boys about times that you’ve had to display emotional courage in your work or personal life. Keep in mind that girls can benefit from conversations about bravery and courage, too.
  • Go further and notice the language you use to describe boys and men who don’t fit inside the so-called “real boy” box. Research shows that kids frequently get bullied during elementary school for being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy.” Because biases related to gender, gender expression and sexual orientation are so pervasive, many of us may be unaware of how they show up in our own language and behaviors. Examine whether you’re using phrases like “those are boy activities (or boy games or boy toys),” “those colors are for girls,” or “don’t act (or cry) like a little girl.” If you notice yourself using phrases like these, don’t be afraid to model what it sounds like to catch yourself in the act and challenge what you just said. Kids will appreciate your willingness to show that you too have learned messages that are limiting and toxic, and that you’re not afraid to grow and change in healthy and positive ways.
  • Focus on your messages about sexuality. Too many media and cultural messages perpetuate aggressive male sexuality as normal, which can be really confusing for boys and girls. Add to this the ways in which girls and women are highly sexualized within the media, and it’s no wonder that young people have a hard time understanding differences between healthy sexuality and sexualization. Ask yourself if you’re contributing to this confusion by using comments like “That’s my boy!” or “He’s such a player.” While such statements might be based in lighthearted jest or misdirected parental pride, these sentiments just add to the confusing set of messages that boys encounter as they’re trying to figure out how to navigate romantic relationships.
  • Provide a thoughtful response when a boy shares concerns about not measuring up to cultural standards of masculinity. When a boy shares his thoughts about not fitting in with the ways boys and men are “supposed” to look and act, listen deeply and respond in ways that take his concerns seriously. Rather than dismissing these concerns or responding in a way that makes him think that he’ll eventually get past his concerns and “fit in,” stress that you love and admire him for all of the qualities that make up who he is.

Taking a critical look at how gender bias may be reflected in our own language and actions can be a challenge. Find time to “do your own work” around these issues by reflecting on ways that cultural and media messages have influenced your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors related to gender and gender expression. Also take into account other areas of differences such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation (real or perceived) and disabilities. Find ways to hold yourself accountable as you help young people along this important journey.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that cultural and media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.