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Dad Next Door: Boys Will Be Men, Part 2

It’s not enough for fathers to just be good role models. Our sons need a counterweight to balance the rest of society, and that’s a heavy lift.

A little encouragement from across the fence


When I was growing up, there was a kid in my class named Michael. Even in elementary school, everyone knew he was different. The way he talked, the way he walked, the things he did — they made me vaguely uncomfortable, even if I didn’t know why. But by the time we got to middle school everyone had a word for it, and we used it often — not just for Michael (though I’m sure he heard it every day) — but as a sharp, handy weapon for any occasion. “Faggot” was the verbal switchblade of adolescent boys.

Most of the time, “faggot” didn’t specifically mean homosexual. Our understanding of sex, in all its details and permutations, was rudimentary at best. We used the word to denote all things unmanly: weakness, timidity, sensitivity, girlishness. And often, we used it as a generic insult, as in: “Get out of my chair, you faggot.” We sprinkled it liberally around every conversation with other boys.

Along with the language of homophobia came the language of misogyny. Instead of calling someone a “fag,” you might call them a “girl,” or a “little bitch.” The meaning was the same: “You are less of a man than I am, so I am better than you.” Though directed at others, these insults were primarily meant to protect the speaker — to prop up the egos of adolescent boys.

After school, Michael worked at an ice cream shop, tending the counter in a little white hat and a red-and-white striped jacket. If you went there with your buddies, it was an absolute requirement that you harass Michael. Anything less would call into question your own manliness and jeopardize your place in the pack. Michael was our candy-striped human shield. By demeaning him, we deflected cruelty from ourselves.

Remembering this gives me a sharp pang of shame. I want to travel back in time and stop my younger self from joining this outrageous public stoning. But to do that, I’d have to go back further than middle school. I’d have to figure out when and where I got the message that this is how you act like a man.

None of that nonsense came from my father. He was a small, quiet, shy Chinese man. He was far from the western ideal of masculinity — a fact that I resented as I tried hopelessly to attain that ideal myself. Forming a male identity was an insidious process, woven from TV shows, advertisements, playground morality and hormonal surges. Even if I could go back to my childhood to change it, where would I start? And as a parent raising a boy today, where do you begin?

The first step is to recognize that misogyny and homo/transphobia are everywhere. Not just at a massacre in Orlando, or in the rape culture of college campuses, but in schools and ice cream shops and in the magazines on our coffee tables. Because of that, it’s not enough for fathers to just be good role models. Our sons need a counterweight to balance the rest of society, and that’s a heavy lift.

We can begin by looking at all the unconscious messages we send. How do we react when a boy cries? When he feels timid or afraid? When he’s drawn to pretty things, or “girly” activities? Try to imagine how we would react to a daughter behaving in exactly the same way. That gap defines the work before us.

A recent study showed that a steady diet of Disney princess movies (though problematic for girls) had a beneficial effect on little boys. They were more likely to be helpful and include others, both at school and at home. Sensitivity, compassion, beauty — aren’t these gifts that our sons need as much as our daughters?

I think our goal should be to define gender by all the things it can be, instead of what it shouldn’t be. At a certain age, both boys and girls spontaneously seek a gender identity. Sometimes it lines up with traditional gender roles, and sometimes it doesn’t. But invariably, they gravitate toward things that will help them define themselves. Suddenly, preschoolers become obsessed with certain colors, certain clothing, certain objects or activities. At that tender age, they are already deciding what it means to be a woman or a man.

Our job is to show them, as clearly as possible, that no gender or expression of gender makes anyone more or less worthy as a human being. Of course, the devil is in the details. To clear that path for our children, we need to root out our own gender brambles: the fear, cruelty and insecurity that we’ve absorbed and inflicted throughout our lives.

Let’s help our kids make their world better than ours. Better than Michael’s. Better than the one that 49 people in Orlando left behind.

Jeff Lee lives in Seattle and can inexplicably sing the songs from every Disney princess movie.

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