Fostering Healthy Masculinity


More than 2/3 of parents in the United States say boys don’t feel comfortable sharing when they feel scared or lonely

The Kering Foundation and Equimundo have released a report from a national survey of parents of boys ages 4-14 in the US, based on research conducted by PerryUndem.

While 56% of parents (of boys ages 4-14) report it is “very important” to them that their sons have emotional strength, they also say that boys are not comfortable sharing their full range of feelings, finds a report launched in May 2020 by Equimundo and the Kering Foundation.

The report, “Staying-at-Home with our Sons: Fostering Healthy Masculinity in Challenging Times,” reveals that approximately 2/3 of parents agree that boys feel comfortable expressing anger; but that they are uncomfortable letting on when they are scared, sad, lonely, or unsure of themselves. Nearly half of parents say boys don’t feel comfortable talking about love.

The report points to social pressures on boys to conform as being influential, and it shares recommendations on how to support them to break free from masculine stereotypes, aiming to support boys to: feel more comfortable expressing their emotions in positive ways, being themselves (without feeling pressured to “act like a boy”), and forming and maintaining connections with others, which will ultimately contribute to achieving gender equality and preventing violence. This data comes from a nationally representative survey conducted with parents of boys ages 4-14 in the US, supplemented by in-depth interviews with 16 boys ages 8-16 in California and Pennsylvania, conducted by PerryUndem.

The majority of parents (of boys ages 4-14) in the United States (US) – about 60% ¬– recognize the social pressures boys face to be physically strong, show interest in sports, and “fit in.” Additionally, 41% of parents said boys face pressures to have a girlfriend or like girls romantically (in other words, to be straight); and, 45% said boys face pressure not to cry.

“If you show feelings, it makes you look weak and vulnerable. People will take that vulnerability and use it against you.”

– 15 year-old boy, interview respondent

These pressures seem to get more intense as boys get older: through interviews, boys themselves report that when they hit early adolescence, around 10-12 years old, they felt more pressure to fit into masculine stereotypes than before. This trajectory may continue to mount with age: across every category, parents surveyed with sons on the older end of the spectrum (12-14 years old), reported their boys face more pressure to fit into a masculine ideal, than did parents of boys aged 4-11. Some parents may consciously, or unconsciously reinforce these masculine stereotypes: 25% of parents surveyed agree it is very important for their sons to “act like a boy,” (and not like a girl), 19% think it is very important for their sons to be straight.

This isn’t surprising, considering Equimundo’s research, which finds that at least 72% of young men (18-30 years old) in the US say they’ve been told that, “A ‘real’ man behaves a certain way,” at some point in their life, and that this way often involves being heterosexual, tough, and a risk-taker. This can have negative consequences: young men who hold more stereotypical views about manhood are more unhappy, depressed and anxious, more likely to have considered suicide, to binge drink, to harass and to bully, and to use violence than young men who have less restrictive views of manhood.

However, preferences for honesty, respect, and emotional health for their sons demonstrate that, despite the persistence of harmful ideas about masculinity, many parents are working to help their sons break free from stereotypes: 61% of parents voted ‘being honest’ into their priority list of 5 traits they think are most important for their sons to learn, while 56% opted for ‘respecting others’, and 53% for ‘being responsible’. Only 7% of parents agree that being physically strong should make the top of their son’s priority list. With many parents spending additional time with their children, due to the spread of COVID-19, there is a challenge and an opportunity to continue to support boys to break free from stereotypes and to share their feelings in constructive, safe ways.

"The spread of COVID-19 has meant that many of us are not only spending increased time at home with our children, we are also worrying about the impact of the crisis on their wellbeing as well as our own,” says Gary Barker, President and CEO of Equimundo, “During this time, as adults, we have the opportunity to model how to express fears and concerns, and how to give and receive comfort and support. Our hope is that this guidance supports parents as they seek to encourage their children, particularly their sons, to express and cope with difficult feelings during this difficult time as well as long afterwards."

The report recommends actions parents can take, including to: Talk openly to children about their own fears, uncertainties, and disappointments, in age-appropriate ways; Take advantage of the time at home to talk constructively with boys; Acknowledge the particular challenges boys feel about being vulnerable, and the courage it takes for them to be open; Reinforce that it’s okay to need help and to ask for it; Seek help for yourself to care for your mental and physical health; Remember that you are not alone.

“Perpetuated generation after generation, gender stereotypes about what it is to be a “real man” – not tolerating the expression of emotion – have a direct impact on violence against women around the world. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, ‘you are not born a man, but you become one’. The role of parents, as well as school, sports and TV, are all essential in building a new concept of masculinity, based on gender equality,” states Céline Bonnaire, Executive Director of the Kering Foundation.

This report is the first in a series of new research and resources from the Global Boyhood Initiative, a project of Equimundo and the Kering Foundation.