We need a massive rethink on the way we raise our boys

Boys as young as eight have already learned to perform masculinity.
Boys as young as eight have already learned to perform masculinity. Photo: Stocksy

A couple of weeks ago my daughter’s teacher sent a photo of her grade three class party. It was a lesson in how children as young as eight have already internalised their gender role.

In the photo, all the girls had formed a conga line behind the teacher. They were dancing, smiling, laughing and clearly having a fun.

The boys, meanwhile, were standing at the edge of the room watching on. All of them.

Some of the boys looked like they wanted to join in the fun. Others had already perfected their look of unaffected cool. Checking with my daughter later, I found that not one of them joined in the dancing.

These boys have already learned to perform masculinity: men don’t dance, and they aren't supposed to be playful.

They probably don’t know this yet, but by the laws of Australian masculinity, they won’t be allowed to dance again until they’re trying to impress a potential mate. Even then, it’ll be a means to an end rather than for joy or self-expression.

While eight seemed a bit young to already be straitjacketed by gender roles, a few weeks later, watching my friend drop her three-year-old son at kinder, I realised that the indoctrination process starts way earlier.

My friend’s three-year-old was standing at the gate of his kinder trying not to cry. That’s right, at three, this little boy has learned that boys aren’t allowed to express their emotion.

I don’t think it’s ever occurred to my daughters, who are aged four and eight, that they aren’t allowed to cry.


What’s more depressing is that my friend and her husband are the kinds of parents who are aware of the damaging effects rigid gender roles can have, and don’t reinforce them. They would never have told their son that boys aren’t allowed to cry.

Yet, he’s learned it anyway. The larger culture that he’s being reared in has done the work of asserting and embedding the rule that men don’t cry — just as the eight-year-olds have learnt that boys are only allowed to let loose and have fun in certain situations, such as sporting fields or playing video games.

Just as the messages telling girls that they must be compliant and pretty are everywhere, the prescription of socially-acceptable masculinity is just as pervasive.

For example, I’m writing this on the couch with my sick daughter watching what feels like a double marathon of the Nickelodeon kids series Paw Patrol. And yes, that is as excruciating as it sounds.

I figured that a kids show featuring animated dogs rescuing lost animals and performing other emergency services would be pretty innocuous. But, it turns out that Paw Patrol is an abject lesson in how to perform gender.

The running gag of the whole show seems to be boys repressing their genuine emotions.

For example, after Rubble the bulldog learned that a kitten was stuck on a boat that was drifting out to sea, he says, “Oh no, the itty bitty kitten.” He then realises his terrible crime of expressing empathy and concern, and corrects himself in his serious, all-business bulldog voice, “I mean we have to save her.”

It’s not an isolated case. After Skye the girl dog performed a daring air recuse the male dog in charge, Chase, says, “Skye I was so worried.” Realising his faux pas of expressing emotion, he corrects himself and says, “I mean excellent flying.”

It might not matter if boys watch this modelling of restrictive gender roles once or twice, but there are roughly 78 billion episodes of Paw Patrol. And it’s just one example. There are any number of kids TV shows, movies, books and computer games that are like it.

If we really want to free our boys and girls from the constraints of gender roles, and give them the freedom to be whoever they want to be, then we need to do more than tell parents to allow their daughters to climb trees and give boys permission to cry.

We’re going to need a massive rethink to the way we rear and condition kids — and the collective conviction to follow through with meaningful change.