Masculinity, Media, and Josh Daniel Moving Everyone To Tears

Josh Daniel and his best friend, the late Tom Wolley.

Josh Daniel and his best friend, the late Tom Wolley.

I wish we saw more examples through media of men being human, being emotional (beyond variations of anger) and having vulnerable hearts. Because when we see it, it is beautiful. Josh Daniel, a 21-year-old contestant on the X-Factor, is one brave young man who shows us this beauty.

I know this is a silly reality tv show, but for so many kids the media plays a huge role in how they develop their understanding of gender. So I’m grateful Josh’s story is going viral, because in it we see his love for his best friend, as well as his love and respect for his mama. We better understand his connection to the beautiful lyrics and music of this song, “Jealous” by Labrinth, especially as interviews come out in which he talks about the depression he suffered after his friend – who five years prior had received a lung transplant – died from complications of pneumonia following a biking accident. Josh’s ability to expose himself raw, to bring an audience and three judges to their feet, tears streaming down their faces was remarkable. In today’s hyper-masculine culture, it is also rare.

One of my favorite parts of this clip, and it only lasts a brief few seconds, is when we see Josh take a bow and stay with his hands on his knees, overwhelmed with the feeling in that moment. He smiles for himself over a job well done, yet shows us his bittersweet emotions following the perfect tribute to the dear friend he said goodbye to all too soon.

And this kid’s voice. Oh my word, his voice.

I hope to raise my little boy in a way that he understands how our culture presents masculinity is far different than what is best for him. I hope my husband and I teach him that “to be a man” is to be human, with heartache and jubilation, love and grief, and everything in between.

 

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

I Think I Might Have Tears

My little boy is seven years old, his name is Ben. He’s a great guy. In many ways he is all the things you’d expect a little boy to be, and in many ways he isn’t. I try to parent both of my children in ways that do not hold expectations nor limitations based on their gender. They are free to be their own person. The only expectation I hold for Ben is that he be himself and be the best Ben he can be. Society, though, has different expectations for our boys. I see a lot of stereotypes come his way about how a boy should act, think, feel.

We don’t give boys the space to think and feel very often. We tell them to toughen up, “man up”, don’t cry. And certainly, never show that you are scared or insecure.

That doesn’t work for my son.

Ben has social anxiety, which means he hates school, being on teams, and doesn’t like to be in big groups or do things in front of people. This makes life hard. Seemingly everyday regular things that all the other kids can do with normal effort, mine can’t. Joining a birthday party. Having fun playing a baseball game. Finishing first grade.

My kids freeze. They have panic attacks. They drop out of first grade in favor of homeschooling. They can walk up to a group of new kids at the park to make friends and start a game of play, but they cry over things that seem really little or insignificant and I don’t get it. I’m more like a Golden Retriever: everything’s a party and everyone is my best friend. Ben makes me pause, reframe, and see situations the way his little heart see them.

Swimming BoyLike today at the first day of swim lessons, when he was hiding in the boys’ locker room because he was overwhelmed. He was stressed by the number of parents watching and the first day of anything can be hard and scary. I found him pressed up against the wall, his small fists pressed into his eyes. I could tell by the way his tiny chest was heaving he was fighting tears.

“Hey Beeze. Can I do something for you? What are you feeling right now?” I ask him.

“I think I might have tears.” 

That’s what he says when he is trying to be brave and pull himself together. When he is trying to get on with it, suck it up, stuff his feelings down.

“Well, go ahead and have tears if it will help you feel better. Sometimes crying lets us get out our big feelings and helps us find our words.” He crumples into me after I say this to him, and he cries. I try hard not to.

In so many ways, I just want him to be “normal”. I want to say, “Buddy just get over it and get in the water. You know how to swim so what’s your deal?” But I don’t say those things.

I don’t want him to be one of those boys who grow into men who don’t know how to have feelings. Who are too scared to cry or reveal vulnerability. Who put so much effort into being “masculine” they cease being human. I want my son to know that everyone gets nervous or scared about all kinds of things. I want him to know that bravery is not the absence of fear, bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway.

I let him cry. And then I tell him we are walking out to the pool deck together. He is allowed to cry. He is not allowed to give up on himself.

We walked out of the boys’ locker room holding hands and we choose to sit against the wall near the shallow end. We sat off to the side, in front of dozens of people. He was the only child in the whole place acting like this. I made no apologies for it. It takes a lot of guts to be authentic in front of people. My guy does it like a champ.

While we sat I continued to see where he was at and what he was feeling. He said he’d take his turn doing the initial swim test once everyone left and it was just me and his teacher.

That was fine with me. Ben was acknowledging his limits and asking to do what he needed to do within the framework he needed to feel safe. Not bad for a seven year old. Some adults pay tens of thousands of dollars in therapy to learn how to do that.

We’ve worked really hard to get to this point, as just a few months ago he would have screamed and stormed off, or gotten angry and embarrassed and hit me. A lot of parents make excuses when their sons act that way. Boys will be boys, you know…..

Boys grow into men. As a parent it is my responsibility to raise my son into a man, not just sit back and watch him grow into one. Not to excuse away unacceptable behavior because of his gender. It is my responsibility to teach my son how to respect his body, which includes his heart and feelings. In teaching him how to respect himself I am teaching him how to respect others, another parental responsibility. He cannot, may not, absolutely not lash out in anger or violence when he has feelings that trouble him. We problem solve, compromise, and find a way to things the best way he can.

Boys get scared. And boys cry. Boys have feelings and boys feel pushed into things because their parents don’t want to be embarrassed or let down or have a kid who doesn’t fit in. Who doesn’t act like all the other boys.

The only expectation I have of my son is that he be Ben. Some days, doing so makes him the bravest boy in the room.

 

*Posted with Ben’s permission.*

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

That’s all he should have to be.

Sad boyBoys have feelings, too. This was the third morning in a row my first grade son has had strong emotions and anxiety about going to school. Each morning it has taken me thirty to sixty minutes to get him into his classroom. He is terrified of his Spring Sing concert next Thursday and for several weeks he has been in tears over this event. His teachers have been wonderful and understanding about it, and he and I are problem solving towards a solution that will help ease much of what he is feeling.

Yet I’m giving him the room he needs to have all the feels.

I’m not rushing him through it nor covering it up. I’m not apologizing to anyone for it. I’m not trying to mask it when we’re in the hallway and he is curled on my lap crying or buried into my chest begging to not have to go to school that day. I’m not asking him to ‘man up’, or telling him ‘boys don’t cry’. I’m not demanding he ‘toughen up’ or ‘act like a big boy’. I’m letting him be Ben. That’s all he can be. That’s all he should have to be.

I’m letting him feel fear.
I’m letting him feel uncertainty and doubt.
I’m letting him ask for help when he feels overwhelmed.
I’m asking him to tell me what he is feeling and experiencing.
I’m letting him cry, and cry in front of others.
I’m letting him set his limits that feel right for him.

I’m doing all this because, one, I’ve been through it with his big sister for years so I’m familiar with the terrain of anxiety. And two, because by giving my boy the space and the right to have feelings I am establishing a truth for him: He is a human being and he will have a range of feelings and emotions in life, and he has every right to them and to work through them.

If only all of our boys were given those same rights.

 

MAW Profile PicMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

The Mask You Live In Debuts at Sundance January 2015

mask you live in.2The Representation Project film will debut at Sundance Film Festival in January 2015.

“Compared to girls, research shows that boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives. The Mask You Live In asks: As a society, how are we failing our boys?”

“America’s narrow definition of masculinity is harming boys, men, and society at large.”

I’m very excited for this film and here’s why…..

Three years ago I made the decision to part from the norm of my large girl empowerment community and include boys in my work. It didn’t feel right to me to polish just one side of a coin, both sides needed attention. You aren’t pro-girl if you are also anti-boy. It doesn’t work that way.

I could see the boys behind the masks. Some of my fans and customers were very angry with me for making this decision, they strongly felt that girls had it so rough and boys were just fine with all their privilege and maleness. In a way, I understood how they felt betrayed by me. I also understood why they were so wrong.

The issues facing boys, while different from those facing girls, are no less important and no less impactful to our larger society.

At the time I made this change with my business my son was a preschooler and I saw how the world was rushing in on him, just as I had a few years prior with my daughter. I didn’t agree with the messages he was being taught by culture about his gender and how he should “be a man”. Just as I had been fighting for my daughter’s right not to be rushed through her girlhood, I understood I had to do the same for my son.

mask you live in

My son – and your son – do not need to be men……they need time and space to be a BOY. Allowing him the full human experience is what will grow him into a confident, intelligent, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, strong, moral, respectable and respectful man. All of this forced toughening up and performance of “being a man” makes boys and man nothing more than fragile and empty. We rob our boys of their humanity when we encourage this to define masculinity.

Our sons are under no obligation to be anything other than the human being they were born to be. That includes the freedom to feel and express uncertainty, vulnerability, fear, love, joy, silliness, and healthy outlets for anger.

Allowing boys the space to be full people is not only what is most fair to them, it improves things for girls. These boys then grow up to be better friends, peers throughout school, romantic partners, fathers/uncles/grandfathers, coworkers, and members of society. We need to decouple the idea that anger, aggression, and violence are inherent “male” qualities.

This mask we teach our boys to wear, needs to be no more.

 

From the Representation Project:

“With The Mask You Live In, we’re expanding the conversation to include how our culture is harming boys and men. Research shows boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives.

 

The Representation Project

Boys Who Play With Dolls

I have never and won’t ever understand why people discourage their sons from playing with dolls, playing house, or being tender and affectionate. So many of these sons grow up to be fathers, a role where “tender and affectionate” is part of the job description.

This evening I fell asleep with my daughter while snuggling her at bedtime and woke up to the sounds of my son choking on his vomit as he tried to call my name while he was getting sick. I jumped off the top bunk, reached for my son and cleared his throat in time for him to continue throwing up all over me as I picked him up and raced him towards the bathroom. We collided with my husband who had come running from the kitchen because he heard the commotion while he was doing dishes.

I stayed with our little boy while my husband went into the bedroom to start stripping the bedding and take everything down to the washing machine. He scrubbed the mattress and carried it outside to air out. He then sat holding our son while I, and I’ll spare you the details, did damage control to the pillow, bed sheet, and stuffed animals that were hit the worst. We made a new bed for our little guy on the couch and my husband sat on the floor and stroked our son’s hair and quietly sang to him while I went upstairs to change my clothes.

I’m hugely grateful that my husband doesn’t see family life as having a male and female side. He doesn’t see dishes, laundry, and sick kids as “mom’s territory”, he sees it as “our territory”. He isn’t afraid to sing to our son and tell him he loves him and that it is okay to be sad when you throw up, especially when you throw up all over your stuffed puppy.

If a little boy were doing all of this while playing some would worry he might think he is a girl or that he might grow up to be gay. I’d argue back that there is nothing to worry about, the little boy will grow up to be a terrific father someday, should he so choose.

And I don’t see terrific fathers as anything to be scared of, do you?

In our family, being a father and uncle is celebrated.

In our family, being a father and uncle is celebrated.

Ben's 1st Bottle

If you love when your husband does this, why not let your son play at doing this?

E&L 027

This is my brother, teaching my brand new son how to be a man.

Tio Meets Ben

In my family, men show their love. That is what my son will learn about being a man.

There is some really important learning that takes place during doll play, and since all kids’ brains need to learn the same things my recommendation is to make sure the play center in your home or preschool that offers dolls, baby items, play kitchen, etc is open to all children rather than one gender.

This concept may not go over immediately in all families, and to those who feel boys playing with dolls is unnatural I want you to think about this: Being a father, if he so chooses, is the most important thing he will ever do with his life. When you allow your son to play with dolls (which is essentially family role play) you are allowing him to role play the people he values and looks up to the most in the world. One of those people is you. YOU. 

When you watch him play this way you get to see yourself through your son’s eyes. You will see what it is you model for him. And what you learn from that is how you will teach him to be a man. Allow him the space to act that out and process it, whether he is being a daddy to a doll/stuffed animal or leaping off your swing set as a super hero. Let him understand there are many ways to be a boy and man, caring for others is just one of those ways.

My kids would be missing out on so much if their father wasn't interested in being a "dad".

My kids would be missing out on so much if their father wasn’t interested in being a “dad”.