How are we raising boys for tomorrow? 5 things I did as a mom

Relationship expert Esther Perel on modern masculinity and how she raised her two sons.
by Esther Perel / / Source: TODAY

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How are we raising our boys for tomorrow? Do we as parents have a clear view of what we want positive, modern masculinity to become? We’ve begun to develop a clear definition of toxic masculinity. And women have spent the last 50 years redefining their roles in domestic and professional contexts, yet modern masculinity remains a complex knot of conflicting expectations.

When I raised my two sons with my husband in New York, I raised them with intention. To be emotionally aware, to play well with others — regardless of gender or culture — and to value true connection. Our boys need us to help them cultivate these qualities. Only with thoughtful support will our boys have a chance to break out of the outdated gender norms that cause so much trouble today by demanding stoicism, fearlessness, competition, invulnerability and aggression.

Every parent-child relationship is different, but there are a few ways I think we can all work to change what it means to be a man in today’s world. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. It starts with curiosity and exploration.

We sometimes take it for granted, but it never ceases to amaze me that the uniqueness of this country is the enormous diversity of lifestyles living side-by-side. Our kids can experience myriad beliefs, practices and cultures right here. We don't have to go broke to visit faraway lands; we simply need to choose to take advantage of what’s right in front of us.

On the beach with my boys.
On the beach with my boys.Esther Perel

When I raised my sons, I wanted them to meet and connect with families from a variety of cultural backgrounds. This is key to developing tolerance and openness. We visited other homes frequently so that they could see that while our family had one way of doing things, there are so many other ways people eat, live, love, listen to music and play.

When our sons, and daughters, experience multiculturalism at an early age they gain a broader perspective of the world and others. Children quickly learn that there are different roles mothers and fathers can play and they begin to realize there is nothing intrinsic about masculine identity. Stay-at-home dads. Mathematician moms. The top chef of the family could be mom or dad when talent and competence aren't inherently driven by gender.

2. Encourage them to play.

To connect as children with other children without the false division of pink and blue is one of the greatest opportunities of childhood. Encourage your boys to be friends with girls as well as boys, and to play for the sake of play.

Don’t ascribe a stereotypical gender specificity to sports or activities: Baseball isn’t just for boys; horseback riding isn’t just for girls. What about swimming, tennis or skiing is feminine? These are myths, long overdue for debunking.

One of my boys was born blind in one eye. He could not play ball games and saw himself as deficient. Swimming enabled him to think of himself as athletic, and when he played music, it too transcended gender.

When boys and girls grow up playing together, they learn from and about each other. It fosters a greater culture of respect and familiarity sets them up for a more robust social circle as adults.

3. Then ditch the kid's table.

So often we put kids at the kids’ table, with the kids’ menu. Simple conversations, simple food. It’s important to let kids be kids, but it’s also important to expose them to the world of adults.

My sons joined the dinner table with the rest of us, ate the same foods and we raised them to be interested in the adult conversations. And it’s still one of my greatest prides when they come home to visit, join one of my dinner parties, and engage in kind-hearted debates with guests twice their age.

Beyond cultivating their minds, this helps kids build relationships with other parents. When my sons had questions, I wanted to be able to say, "Go talk to so-and-so." I created a community of other people who cared about me and my family. This taught my boys to seek advice and comfort from people who weren't their parents, about school, teachers, their struggles and their pursuits.

Exposing my sons to the world of adults early on gave them role models for sure, but it also taught them that they were not alone, that there is nothing unmanly to depend on others, and that asking for help is human.

4. Build a community around your family.

We are often afraid when our children don't abide by the norms. We want them to be unique, but we don't want them to be too different — to feel alone or isolated because of their difference. In American culture, where ball sports often reign and competition is highly valued, this can create as many challenges for parents as it does for our boys.

I remember seeing fathers on ball courts and fields who are crushed if their kid doesn't run for the ball fearful that their sons might not be strong, competitive or willing to play through the pain. The underlying shame and worry is that their child might be weak, a pushover or that he’s going to be bullied. As a result, some fathers go to great lengths to “toughen up” their boys. But it is shame of not being manly enough that often underlies the aggression displayed by men.

Parents need support to deal with those fears, and nothing is more helpful than a community with other parents who have similar kids: Oh, I too have a kid who doesn't like to be on the field. My kid would much rather draw on Saturday. My kid would much rather play the piano.

When parents come together with other parents and they recognize the unique strengths in each other’s children, they create new norms for the next generation of boys as they grow into men.

5. Treat both genders equally — with your affection.

Did you know that by the age of 3-4 we stop giving affection to our boys the way we give affection to our daughters ?

We touch them less, we cuddle them less and we deprive them of the small physical signs of love. This starts the systemic dismantlement of our boys’ emotionality.

We teach them that performance and competence are the key to self-worth. We hype up the value of autonomy, disconnecting them from their feelings and from dependence on others. We tell them not to cry, to be fearless and competitive.

What do you think this does to our boys as they grow? Men consistently have to prove they are “men” — to live up to a definition that doesn’t serve them, their partners or their co-workers down the line.

If you want your son to be a great leader, a great lover, a good husband and a good friend, raise him with affection. Continue to give him hugs as he grows, encourage him and continue to feed his emotional life.

Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of "The State of Affairs" and "Mating in Captivity." Her celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 20 million views and she is also the host of the award-winning podcast Where Should We Begin?Learn more at EstherPerel.com or by following @EstherPerelOfficial on Instagram.

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