Welcome to the Party

A friend of mine sent me an article a few days ago.

The piece ran in Time Magazine, famously known for its annual award for Person of the Year and for Billy Joel not understanding the magazine’s contents (among some other journalistic credits, of course). It was entitled “How to Raise a Sweet Son in an Era of Angry Men” and it focused, predictably, on the parenting techniques that are often used toward young boys. The author, Ms. Faith Salie, a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and author in her own right, cites numerous differences in the messages we send our male and female children, from the clothes they wear to expectations of behavior to their potential accomplishments in life. The idea is that parents send different messages to their children based on gender. Over the last twenty years or so, girls have begun hearing much more frequently that they can feel, accomplish and be whatever they want. Boys, however, are still expected to conform to “masculine” interests and professions.

“Boys will be boys, but girls can be anything,” she writes.

Ms. Salie’s argument focuses on the feeling of anger, in particular, and the ways in which men and women use anger to inform their actions. Her examples were predictable: angry men act out by hurting other people, while angry women act out by banding together to fight for equality and social justice. Her message, as a result, was not only that a child should be given the same opportunities and encouragement to pursue his or her interests, regardless of the child’s gender, but also that parents need to focus more on encouraging their sons to learn how to be more comfortable experiencing feelings in the first place. If young boys are taught how to live with negative feelings, perhaps they will not feel compelled to act out their feelings in such destructive ways.

My friend said that she thought of me when she read the article and I don’t blame her. I’ve written numerous times – like here and here, for instance – about processing the messages that I want my son to internalize about societal gender norms and what it means to be a man in today’s world. For that matter, I wrote my own version of this very Time article in a letter to my son just over a year ago. I imagine this Time article received a fair amount of internet applause and other positive attention, particularly in parenting circles, because of its seemingly refreshing message about the benefits of teaching boys to respect the people around them. Ms. Salie cites pertinent examples of the tragedies angry men have caused and makes a strong argument about the differences in the messages that boys and girls receive about their roles in society. It is a good piece of writing and I would recommend it to any new parent.

But I felt bored.

I don’t mean to disparage Ms. Salie or her writing. As I said, I think the article is an important message and there is no question that Ms. Salie has clearly found a larger audience for her message than I have. As I was reading, though, I knew that I had read similar think-pieces about parenting approaches for boys any number of times before. Time is supposed to be a news magazine but Ms. Salie’s argument felt like the latest entry in the “Here Is Some News That Is Not Really News” category. The attacks against conventional gender norms have been around for years and examples of men pursuing more developed senses of emotional intelligence have never been easier to find.

Welcome to the party, Time Magazine. It’s nice of you to finally join us.

All that being said, however, I should cut Ms. Salie and Time some slack. I pride myself on being self-aware and on examining the origins of my own biases and, in this case, they are fairly easy to identify. It makes sense that I would feel like this topic is not exactly newsworthy; I’m a social worker who specializes in working with children and I’ve seen my fair share of examples of the ways anger can lead to destructive behaviors, particularly in adolescent and young adult boys.

More importantly, I know that there are many places in the United States in which challenges to social conventions are not as easily accepted, not to mention the rest of the world. People hold life experiences and perceptions of the world dearly, particularly when the legitimacy of those perceptions is called into question. The messages that Ms. Salie describes being communicated to her son, as well as similar lessons which Trudy and I have seen being taught to Eitan, speak to the very reason why this article needed to be written, even if the message was not necessarily “new.” This type of article will need to continue to be written until our society finally accepts responsibility for changing the concepts we have been instilling in our children. We’ve seen progress; we just need to see a bit more.