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My 5-year-old is one of those stereotypical boys. He loves cars, sports, bugs, burping, and anything else gross, fast, or motorized.
But this spring, when he noticed the flowers blooming in our front yard, he cried out, "They're so beautiful!" When I bought him rain boots in the fall, he chose purple over blue. And when his sister eggs him on to choose a school friend to marry, he usually selects his best (male) friend.
I'm proud that he doesn't feel weighed down by the so-called rules of his gender (after all, he's only 5). And as much as I try to shelter him from media messages that teach him to be rough, tough, and rude, I know he'll eventually learn what society expects of him, whether I agree with it or not.
While today's images of men are certainly more wide-ranging than the Ozzie and Harriet era (though Mad Men has prompted a glamorized flashback to that time), mainstream media seems stuck with a few basic outlines: the tough guy, the nerd, and the clueless dad. And while there's always a little truth behind some stereotypes, there's also a lot of harm that can come from these limiting portrayals.
If a boy doesn't fit into these one-dimensional pictures, he might think something's wrong with him. If he does fit in, he quickly learns to hide the bits and pieces of his personality that might stray outside the lines.
The good news is that parents can counteract these messages with their own. By paying attention to the media that comes into your home and by addressing messages that go against your family's own beliefs, parents can arm kids with the tools they need to make their own decisions about what kind of boy -- or man -- they'll be.
Teach boys that they're capable. The classic sitcom formula involves a dad who doesn't know how to do the simplest things, from cook dinner to dress himself (think Everybody Loves Raymond). Not only is this view of men insulting to boys, but it paints women as perpetual caretakers, which is another limiting stereotype.
The best way to counteract this message is to find role models who blow that stereotype out of the water. Point out when famous dads take pride in their involvement in family life. Brad Pitt, Nick Cannon, and other famous men are visible examples of involved and capable dads. Also point out when dads, grandfathers, and other male role models step up and show how capable they actually are by taking on family tasks. That makes it easier for parents to do a reality check when kids are confronted with media stereotypes by asking, "Is that how your dad acts?"
Limit violent media. Kids exposed to lots of media violence will imitate what they see. If they watch TV shows in which most conflicts are resolved with fists, guns, or other weapons, they'll learn that violence is an acceptable way to fix things. And when kids are exposed to scary movies or violent video games -- or teased for avoiding them -- they can exhibit more anxiety, have more nightmares, and learn to suppress their natural reactions.
Parents can choose to limit what kinds of media violence kids are exposed to. For instance, consider swapping games like Call of Duty for something like LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, which includes adventure but doesn't have hard-core violence. And highlighting when characters resolve conflicts peacefully (like they often do on Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example) can also reinforce positive ways to deal with problems. Talking to kids about the real-life consequences of violence, from injury to death to jail time, can also help kids separate fantasy from reality.
Point out when women are objectified. From rape jokes on Family Guy to girls gyrating beneath Justin Timberlake on music videos, boys are taught that women exist to provide sexual pleasure. These messages aren't only harmful to kids' emerging understanding of their place in the world, but they can also be incredibly confusing. Make sure kids see examples of real girls and women being active and thinking rationally instead of making their way in the world by their womanly wiles. Steer clear of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and Jersey Shore, and instead encourage both boys and girls to watch shows like WordGirl or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Because messages that merge women and sexuality are impossible to avoid, it's important that parents discuss how girls and women are portrayed in the media. With the voice of a reasoned parent in their minds, kids will have a harder time letting these messages slip by and can even take an active role in discouraging insulting portrayals of girls and women.
Encourage emotions. When does a boy first learn that crying takes away some of his male cred? While it might be on the playground or even from a family member, the images in TV shows, movies, and music videos tend to back up this view.
But a boy who learns to suppress his feelings can experience all sorts of issues -- from medical problems to difficulties making lasting friendships. Parents can not only encourage boys to express their feelings in day-to-day life but can also ask boys, "What do you think that character is feeling?" when watching shows or movies in which guys seem to be holding back. Seek out characters like Caillou or even Jamie Oliver, who exhibit appropriate emotional reactions to sadness and frustration as well as to joy and affection.
Discuss unrealistic body image. Body image is an issue normally associated with girls and women. But take a look at the male figures in kids' media worlds, and you'll see pumped-up male bodies that fall way outside the norm. Superheroes like Iron Man and the ThunderCats, as well as almost any male movie star, have gigantic shoulders, ripped abs, and outsized biceps. Since almost no boys will ever attain this level of physical fitness, these images can have a negative impact on boys' self-image.
Parents can talk with boys about their vision for what makes someone manly or masculine. Talk about how being responsible, kind, and independent can be masculine traits. Find examples in real life and in the media of men who are admirable but not necessarily buffed up (Justin Bieber, Sean Kingston, Zach Galifianakis, Barack Obama). And point out how lots of the images of super-ripped male bodies are artificial -- enhanced by computer effects, personal trainers and chefs, and possibly even harmful drugs.
As parents, we know that our boys face just as many challenges as they grow up as girls do. But it can be easy to overlook how much of an impact media can have on boys' physical, mental, and emotional health. By being a critical media consumer and teaching our sons to be the same, we can guide our kids in the right direction.