Every year, Father’s Day is a natural opportunity to discuss the role of fathers in the lives of children. Lately, this conversation has evolved to become an opportunity to discuss masculinity and how fathers can be caring adult role models, providing positive definitions of masculinity to boys. Based on a surface level internet search for Father’s Day, this conversation is desperately needed. The following images repeatedly appear in various forms; all demonstrating both the limiting societal narratives on masculinity and fatherhood, as well as the opportunity for growth and change if men engage in these conversations with boys.
By constantly describing men and fathers as meat and beer hungry superheroes, void of emotion, empathy or caring, conversations on masculinity and fatherhood limit the roles fathers can play in children’s lives by narrowing the definition of what men and fathers can and ought to be.
In much of my work talking and listening to boys and male identifying students, I often hear a common fear of being seen as weak or feminine. The boys that I meet continually describe the belief that the only acceptable emotions for them to feel are strength and anger. This is a limiting narrative on masculinity for boys to grow up with, as it doesn’t allow for a natural range of human emotion and prevents boys from developing a true sense of themselves or being able to engage in healthy relationships. Empathy, gentleness, caring – these emotions are far from the standard definition of masculinity that is promoted on social media, tv and in popular culture, but they are all essential character traits for boys to grow up healthy and happy. They are also the character traits that are the foundation for building mutually respectful relationships.
One of the leading organizations dedicated to conversations on healthy masculinity, consent and ending men’s violence against women and girls is White Ribbon Canada. White Ribbon has had several powerful campaigns over the years, but their recent focus on toxic masculinity and its impact on boys’ emotional and mental health, as well as gender-based violence, is especially poignant. It is essential that caring adults in the lives of children, whether they be fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, elders, teachers, etc. – draw the specific connection between providing healthy definitions of masculinity and healthy, consensual relationships. Without these direct conversations and role modeling, boys are being raised by a media that values strength over gentleness, anger over calm, apathy over empathy.
As part of their campaign, White Ribbon produced a video titled “Boys Don’t Cry”, and perfectly captured the dangers in not disrupting toxic notions of masculinity and how these narratives negatively impact boys and their partners. (You can watch the video and read about White Ribbon’s work at the following link: https://www.whiteribbon.ca/boysdontcry.html)
But simply talking to boys about how they need to demonstrate healthy definitions of masculinity will never be enough. Men and fathers wanting to disrupt such notions of masculinity must first closely examine how they themselves are negatively impacted by toxic masculinity and must commit to being role models for healthier and gentler versions of themselves.
I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on this work and fully admit my own journey in these conversations. As a man growing up in a society where toxic masculinity is the norm, I recognize my own embodiment of these limiting notions on what it is to be a man and am working to be a role model for healthier definitions for what boys and men can be.
As part of the same campaign, White Ribbon published a tip sheet for men wanting to commit to conversations on healthier definitions of masculinity. It is an excellent resource that encourages self-reflection and not shying away from the tough conversations.
The Me-Too Movement was a turning point in the conversation about men’s violence against women and girls, but the conversation doesn’t end with women, girls, trans and non-binary individuals speaking about their experiences. Rather, their experiences need to be the catalyst for men and boys to engage in deep reflection and to then get to work on being role models for healthier definitions of masculinity.
I am looking forward to spending time with my children and partner this Father’s Day. As a Father, the greatest gift we can give to our children is our presence and our commitment to creating a just and loving world for them to grow up in. I don’t want to be their superhero. I want to be so much more.
View Matt's talk on How Teachers Can Support Students in Healthy Relationships and Dating Issues here