What it means to be a man

Parents, teachers, the community have a role in helping boys understand masculinity 

By Suzanne Rent

When Bruce Dienes entered a Grade 5 classroom in a school in the Annapolis Valley he wanted the students to think outside the box about their gender roles. Dienes had the kids help him create a list of what it meant to act like a boy and act like a girl. 

The kids also watched a video of snippets of male and female characters from Disney movies. Boys are tall, strong, and brave, they said, while girls are quiet, perfect, and have skinny waists. 

Illustrator Mark Oakley joined Dienes. When he asked the kids to talk about what it meant to be a boy and what it meant to be a girl, that illustrator put those words into drawings. 

In one drawing, the girl was in a cage. In another, the boy was dressed in a suit. Still another picture showed two kids, sitting back-to-back, and upset, indicating what happened when they didn’t conform to gender roles. 

Yet when Dienes asked this same group of kids what they wanted to be, those drawings took on another image. The kids’ collective imaginations created a world in which a girl and boy named Amanda and James, armed with sandwiches and flashlights, went on an adventure, finding resourceful ways to help each other. Gender roles took on other meanings.

“These are not rocket-science questions,” Dienes says about the boxes. “You can ask them of a seven-year-old. You can ask them of a 70-year-old. You will get different answers, but almost always you will get some excitement. At 10, you know what it’s like to be put in that box.”

Dienes is a part-time instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University, where he teaches courses on psychology and masculinity. Since the 1970s, he’s worked with men’s groups to talk about what it means to be a man. He currently works with adults, including teachers, community leaders, and parents, who are the role models for children.  

Some of the illustrations created during Dienes’s sessions with Grade 5 students. Dienes says when given the choice, students create worlds that are very imaginative and free of gender constructs.

Do you see the lightbulbs go off when you talk about these things to kids?

Absolutely. Especially when you ask them what they’d like to be. There was one girl who wanted to be a vet. Others want to travel, have fun. They are kids. That’s what they want to do. It’s having them tell their own stories. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. That narrative is so powerful. Storytelling is so powerful. And media is storytelling. It’s coming at us. So, having an opportunity for children to write their own stories, with some cues, is a way to resist that influence. If you have them write their own story, they might write a typical Disney story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Then say you can have a story that works for you. And then have them do it collaboratively. It isn’t a competition. It is “How do you want this to be?” They recognize there are differences between male and female, biological differences, but it doesn’t mean girls aren’t smart, resourceful, and can’t do the work. They wrote a story that was a fun adventure with shared power. That came from them. It was brilliant. 

What do parents need to tell their kids about what images they see in the media?

I think like with any situation it’s about helping to be constructive. I wouldn’t use that word with a 10-year-old, but it’s asking them, “So, what did you think about that?” particularly if it’s something really stereotypical. Ask them, “Is that how you’d like it to be?” It doesn’t have to be super sophisticated. Just ask them what they think as they encounter certain things. 

What do you think boys lose out on being subjected to stereotypical images? 

I remember I was at a conference that included all ages, so there were kids there. There was a boy and a girl there. They were probably about nine or 10. There was something the girl was playing with and the boy just went up and grabbed it. She was upset. I went up to the boy and said, “You know, it’s true boys are stronger than girls. It’s really not appropriate to use that. Would you be willing to give that back to her?” Then I realized that is just level one. It was this girl’s toy this boy was conditioned not to like. So, I asked, “Is that a toy you want to play with or were you just trying to make a connection?” He had no idea how to communicate with a girl. So he grabs something she liked so she would be connected with him. Not the best way to do it, but he was trying to reach out. So, rather than say, “bad boy, men are evil,” let’s figure out why a human being would do something like that. Maybe we can help him find better ways to do that. 

Do you think fathers still have a hard time talking with their sons?

Who taught them? The default is the media. If you as a parent, an uncle, a teacher, a mentor don’t do the teaching it’s not that they won’t get taught. They will get whatever is streaming in through their phones, their emails. Media literacy is hugely important. That’s what we were trying to do with this initial workshop. We want them to think critically about what they are seeing. I don’t mean write an essay about it at 10 years old. Think about what’s going on in that relationship. What’s going on in that movie? Is that the kind of man or woman you want to be? Is that the kind of relationship you want to have? The challenge is where do they express that? Where are the opportunities for children or youth to express through music, through writing, through arts, through play? I think the arts are a huge empowering process. They are creating their own worlds. 

What should parents be doing at home to help their sons? 

I think the most important thing is to be role models. Is there equal sharing of labour at home? What does that look like? Again, you go back, maybe not even 20 years, did you see men doing dishes? Part of it is are you consciously or unconsciously interfering with what your kids want to do with play and creativity if that doesn’t fit gender roles? Again, it’s not a critique. We adults are just as conditioned by the media. Are we also being self-reflective about expectations we are putting on our children? Do we not let them play with certain things because they seem socially inappropriate? If you do and you think it is OK, then I won’t tell you what to do in your house. But at least think about it. Have that kind of critical analysis.

What do the parents learn by doing those exercises? 

One parent was almost startled—particularly with the man box exercise—realizing as a female parent she hadn’t really consciously looked at the box her young son was living in. Bringing that into consciousness is like, “Wow, that’s pretty limiting. Is that what I want for my son?” 

Women are often used to being told they have limits. Are men shocked to realize they’re put in a box, too?

One of the questions I present to men as we are looking at male stereotyping is: “Are you aware you have been conditioned without your consent to behave in this way?” Men are not used to feeling controlled. You use the male conditioning against itself and it works. They want to take back their free choice. One of the challenges with working with men and boys to stop violence against women is it can’t be out of guilt and shame. You might guilt them for awhile and for a week they feel badly. But it can’t stay there. It has to be about why this is something they really want to do. It frees them too.

When you work with Grade 5 boys, teens and men, what do they all have in common?

I think what’s in common shows when they actually realize what is being done to them. That it’s not a choice. That’s the “ah ha” moment at all ages. I think that’s the key. What we’ve been conditioned to is “this is what I must want.” And suddenly realizing it’s not what I want. It’s realizing you have a choice and realizing the media image of what men are supposed to be is absolutely not true. Or certainly not complete. You have a choice. And it’s not about me trying to replace the message of Hollywood with my message because I have the one true path. You would then just be like me; that’s not how it works. It’s about helping youth and kids ask, “Well, what do you want to be?” The answers they come up with are inspiring.   

Learn more

It Starts With You. It Stays With Him: itstartswithyou.ca

The Empowerment Project: drive.google.com/open?id=0B6ByhqWJZw2WGpmOVBMWVgzLUE

Man to Man: drive.google.com/open?id=0B6ByhPqWJZw2N1FGb1pJQXRIVzQ

Engaging Men and Boys in Ending Violence Against Women and Girls: facebook.com/engagingmenandboys

Centers for Disease Control: Injury Prevention & Control, Division of Violence Prevention: cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/prevention.html