How boys suffer from gender stereotypes — author Emma Brown weighs in

Editor’s Note: Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, ghostwriter, book coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories From the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work That Built America.”

CNN  — 

When it came to raising her daughter, Emma Brown trusted her instincts. Determined to combat the stereotypes deployed against girls from birth, she developed a mantra for her little girl: “I am strong and fearless.”

But three years later, when her son was born during the groundswell of the #MeToo movement in 2017, the best way to raise him didn’t seem so clear. While nursing her newborn, Brown read stories about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior.

Breaking down rigid concepts of masculinity can propel social progress on gender, author Emma Brown said.

Then, shortly after returning from maternity leave to her investigative reporter job at The Washington Post, she received an anonymous tip from a woman stating future US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her. The uproar that ensued drew Brown’s attention to the reality that sexual violence is “braided into the lives of not just men and women but also boys and girls.”

Through hundreds of interviews, she discovered the fallout of societal expectations about manhood. She heard heartbreaking stories about how often parents, educators and institutions fail to meet boys’ emotional needs, or to protect them from shocking rates of sexual assault.

Brown’s new book, “To Raise A Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood,” reveals that dismantling rigid concepts of masculinity is the next step toward true social progress on gender.

Emma Brown's "To Raise A Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood" was released March 2.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: In your book, you spotlight how rigid gender expectations affect boys worldwide. What do you make of the fact that the “boy” script is so global?

Emma Brown: While gender norms are rigid for both boys and girls, researchers have found that expectations for girls are loosening more quickly than for boys.

Around the globe, boys face intense shame if they try to move outside the rigid rules of what it means to be a boy. We see parents and teachers and coaches and certain media personalities enforcing the “boy box,” even when it’s unintentional.

CNN: What do boys in particular have to gain from society loosening the reins of gender norms?

Brown: Rigid gender norms for boys and men put their own health at risk. They make it hard for boys and men to ask for help, whether physical or mental.

Rigid gender norms can lead to isolation in boys, Brown said. Rohaan, 9, from Kate T. Parker's "The Heart of a Boy" is shown.

Another problem is isolation. Many boys are forced to disown their desire for emotional intimacy. One of the most memorable conversations I had was with a 50-year-old man who woke up in middle age and realized he didn’t really have any friends — no one he could connect with emotionally.

Society’s rethinking gender norms would allow boys to connect with others and with themselves in a deep way. If you’re burying parts of your true self, it’s really hard to connect.

CNN: You recommend laying off the term “toxic masculinity.” But when enumerating the pressures men face, you explain that these are literally “toxic” to men’s health. Is there a connection here?

Brown: I don’t use the term “toxic masculinity” because it provokes such strong reactions, especially from boys who feel like you’re attacking them. Some people take the term to mean that you’re saying there’s something wrong with masculinity.

But the research shows me, a mom of a boy, that it’s really important for his health and for the health of his relationships as he grows up, for him to think about the kinds of stereotypes he’s being told he needs to live up to, and to have a chance to resist them.

CNN: How can parents combat the incredible pressures of societal expectations?

Brown: Close relationships with caring adults are absolutely a powerful force in the lives of children and teenagers. They help our sons resist the pervasive societal messaging. As (Stanford University lecturer on boys’ psychosocial development) Judy Y. Chu explained to me, if we give our boys a harbor where they know they can be themselves and be safe, respected and loved, then they’ll always have that self to come back to.

CNN: You shared a study involving babies crawling down a ramp that indicated mothers overestimate their boys’ capabilities. In so doing, moms set them up for failure. Meanwhile, given the emotional constraints placed on them, many boys never learn skills for managing the emotions that come with that failure. Can you talk a little bit about that experiment?

Brown: Moms were asked to predict how steep a ramp their 11-month-old baby could crawl down. There was no actual difference between these boy and girl babies in their ability to crawl down a ramp to the floor — or in their willingness to take risks. Still, moms predicted their sons would be able to crawl down much steeper slopes.

The researchers wrote that the difference in mothers’ beliefs about their children’s abilities was so stark that they “expect their girls to fail when the probability of success is 100% and they expect their boys to succeed when the probability of success is 0%.”

Yes, we have to be careful that we’re not limiting our girls’ potential. But if I always think my son is going to succeed, I’m going to raise a person who doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with failure.

CNN: What have you learned about the realities of sexual harassment and assault among younger children?

Brown: Sexual harassment is a huge problem at K through 12 schools — and online — that our kids deal with, day in and day out. When kids see other kids being sexually harassed, and nobody does anything about it, then they learn that it’s normal. We have to teach them, starting much younger, that it’s not OK.

CNN: You mentioned that there are far higher rates of sexual harassment and assault in elementary school than many seem to realize. Sexual assault in elementary school? Really?

Brown: Yes. Assault is touching somebody in a sexual way or in a sexual place against their will. That does happen with elementary school students. There are shocking stories in the book, including one involving a 5-year-old at a school that failed to investigate — although the incident was reported. We need to be more attuned to the fact that other children can also sexually assault or harass our kids.

Uncovering this was just so profoundly upsetting, and also transformative. Violence against men and women, girls and boys, are tangled up in the same deeply ingrained notions of manhood. Yet, sexual victimization of boys and young men is often left out of the conversation. We cannot dismiss that — or boys’ pain in those cases. And we certainly can’t solve the problem of violence against women unless we also address violence against boys and men.

CNN: How do societal notions about what it means to be a man connect with the problem of sexual violence?

Brown: We tell boys that boys and men are tough, strong, dominant and don’t cry. Those messages make it really hard for boys to acknowledge when they’ve been victimized at all, but particularly sexually. Boys often have trouble recognizing what’s happened to them as sexual assault and difficulty getting help.

Research has also found links between boys who believe they must live up to standards about being “real” boys or men and those at a greater risk for perpetrating sexual violence against women. These gender norms are harmful for everyone.

CNN: By the end of the book, you say you’ve shifted away from instructing your daughter to be strong and fearless. Where have you ended up?

Brown: I realized I had been telling her that it was not OK to be afraid. I was also reinforcing the value of qualities we think of as masculine over those we think of as feminine.

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But I now better understand that the most successful, creative people can access character and leadership traits from all parts of the stereotypical gender spectrum.

I want to tell both my children to be strong and gentle — to embrace the best qualities of all humans because all of them are accessible to all of us.