A recent survey of over 800 teenage boys in Singapore by Aware (Association of Women for Action Research) found that 90 per cent had experienced “gender policing” (in other words, they had been chastised for not being “manly”).
The most common form of this pressure was being told to “man up” or to “take it like a man”.
In addition, the survey found that boys who had been pressured to be more gender-conforming were four times more likely to commit violence against, and six times more likely to experience violence from, other boys.
They also had lower self-esteem
Like many of these boys, some parents think manliness must always involves aggression – they reason that it’s a tough world and a growing boy has to be able to stand up for himself, to defend himself, and to be violent when necessary.
Other parents think manliness involves assertiveness – they reason that a child can stand up for himself by being assertive, and that violence is never justified.
Related: Good grades vs good character: a mother’s dilemma
Assertive vs violent
Manly assertiveness is a child’s ability to stand up for himself and to express his views confidently and clearly without threatening others with violence.
An assertive child, for instance, is one who is able to tell another: “No, I want to finish my homework and then I’ll play football with you,” and if he can say this with a smile and a calm voice, then so much the better.
His assertiveness is not at the expense of someone else and does not involve hostility.
It is a combination of self-belief, clear thinking, independent thought and a sensitive personality. In contrast, manly aggression is all about “me, myself and I”, about the hostile child’s feelings and ideas.
A violent kid puts his emotions and needs over and above those of everyone else, and he is not in the least concerned by their protests or distress.
He hits out when others don’t do as he wants, and he continues to be violent until he gets his own way. He doesn’t care about hurting others because he thinks that makes him more of a man.
Which style of manliness do you want him to adopt?
If you prefer to help your son develop manliness based on his ability to be assertive with others, rather than on his ability to coerce and intimidate others with violence, here are some suggestions:
Chat about violence
Talk to him about the negative social effect of aggression towards others.
Explain, for instance, that kids are more likely to be pals with someone who is sensitive, kind and friendly towards them, rather than with someone who is violent.
Aggression is not good for either the victim, or the aggressor.
Related: How to raise a child with good character
Encourage him to think about how he would feel if someone was violent towards him.
Discuss the range of emotions that violence engenders, such as fear, insecurity and anxiety.
The more your son thinks about how aggressive behaviour is likely to upset others, the less likely he is to be hostile to his peers.
Teach assertive techniques
Suggest ways that he could react to others without being aggressive.
For instance, he could use a lighter tone in his voice, respond with a smile on his face, or speak more softly when suggesting directions.
Assertiveness means stating his point of view firmly without making the listener feel threatened.
Related: Character education: How to teach your kid morals
Suggest assertive speech
Teach Junior how to express himself. For instance, an aggressive child may say: “If you don’t do that, then I am going to hit you”, whereas an assertive child might say: “It would be great if you would do that because I think that would help both of us.”