When Boys Become Boys

Development, relationships, and masculinity

Helping Boys to “Let it Go”

How parents can enable boys to stay true to themselves

Once upon a time, there was a seven-year-old boy who watched and loved the Disney movie Frozen, Disney’s makeover of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. Unlike other movies that feature princesses as their main characters, Frozen has appealed to a broader audience than usual. A New York Times article (May 16, 2014) commenting on the movie’s popularity noted that, “the real eye-opener is the strength and scope of the film’s grip on children, girls and boys alike.” Nonetheless, at school one day when this boy mentioned that he liked Frozen, his friends made fun of him, saying that it’s a “girl movie.” Since then, he has taken to saying that he doesn’t like the movie at all and goes out of his way to tell people that he doesn’t like it, even before they ask.

When the boy informs his best friend (who is also a seven-year-old boy but attends a different school) that he no longer likes Frozen, his best friend is surprised.

Best Friend: What?! You went from liking it 100% to 0%? That’s strange.

Boy: Yup, I don’t like it anymore. 

Best Friend: I still like it and so does my cousin and [so do] my friends [who are all boys].

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Despite his best friend’s implication that boys can like Frozen, the boy maintains that he doesn’t like it and adds that his favorite movie is now Iron Man 3 (which he never seen).

Many of us may know a boy like this who changed his mind (e.g., from being enthusiastic about something to distancing himself from the same thing) after learning (from adults or peers) that his interests are not gender-appropriate. The object of interest might not have been a movie but a toy (e.g., dolls, kitchen play sets), a hobby (e.g., knitting, ballet), or a favorite color (e.g., pink). When a boy’s conformity to group norms is regarded as detrimental, we say that the boy has succumbed to peer pressure. When conformity is regarded as beneficial, we call it socialization. How we view such changes in a boy’s attitude or behavior depends on our individual points of view.

In this case, the boy’s mother was mad that the other kids’ comments led her son to give up his favorite movie. She reminded her son that he loves Frozen and advised him not to let what other people say change how he feels about it. I suspect that her concern is not merely about stated movie preferences but that her son might come to give up other things (e.g., his ability to be caring and considerate) that tend to be associated with girls and femininity but are in fact a part of his humanity, necessary for developing healthy relationships, and important to his happiness.

So, what can parents do to enable boys (and girls) to stay true to themselves (e.g., like what they like, be who they are), regardless of what other people might think or say?

One thing we can do is to help kids distinguish between their behaviors and their beliefs. Ideally, their behaviors would always reflect their beliefs. But this is not always practical. At times when they feel reluctant to speak up, they can still preserve their integrity by remaining aware of what they really think, feel, or want. That is, they can compromise their behaviors without compromising their beliefs. If forced to choose, it’s more important for them to know than to say what’s in their hearts and minds.

That said, we can also help kids to identify and focus their efforts on relationships in which they wouldn’t have to choose between being themselves and being with others. We can teach them to differentiate good relationships (e.g., where they feel comfortable, safe, and supported) from bad ones (e.g., where they feel anxious, insecure, and compelled to say things they don’t mean or be something they’re not). We can encourage them to confide in people they trust and to be respectful of differences (in themselves and in others).

Instead of telling kids they shouldn’t care what other people think (because many of us do care, and that’s not always a bad thing), we can emphasize that the opinions that ought to matter most are of people they admire and respect, who care about them, like them for who they are, and are looking out for their best interests. Kids should be able to consider other people’s opinions but also trust their instincts, think for themselves, and feel entitled to their own opinions. Perhaps then boys as well as girls can live happily ever after.

Judy Y. Chu, Ed.D. is an Affiliated Faculty member of the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University.

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