Stop telling boys to ‘grow a pair’

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

“Be a man.”

“Grow a pair.”

“Man up.”

Countless sayings like these have been directed toward boys and men for decades. They seem harmless at first — little more than informal colloquialisms encouraging the receiver to be tough. However, such sayings can have damaging consequences when they are used to disregard emotions and when the language implies a link between gender and toughness.

Socializing males to view emotional expression as a negative or an innately female trait begins at a young age. It’s not difficult to see the discrepancies between traditional female and male child rearing. When a little girl falls and scrapes her knee, a guardian might flock to her side, dry her tears and comfort her. On the contrary, when a little boy falls and scrapes his knee, a guardian might nudge him on the shoulder, tell him to rub some dirt on it and encourage him to toughen up.

Such conditioning can convince boys that suppressing one’s emotions is an integral part of being male. This notion’s implications reach beyond male development. The message that emotional expression is both negative and feminine places not only emotional stoicism over emotional expression, but also ranks the male sex over the female sex because it presumes that this “feminine trait” is undesirable.

The ability to communicate one’s feelings is a crucial element in nearly every interaction and relationship. Such conditioning can result in an inability to express thoughts and emotions in relationships and ultimately leave both parties misunderstood and dissatisfied.

The inability to express one’s feelings can leave individuals with a self-perception of inadequacy or loneliness, which can have far more severe consequences. According to a study conducted by Paul Galdas at the University of Leeds, suicidal men who are struggling with emotional issues are far more likely to avoid help or delay seeking help than men who are considering suicide for other reasons. Another study, conducted by Dr. Justin Denney of Washington State University, showed that men without emotional support systems are more likely to commit suicide.

Men feel uncomfortable feeling emotions, emasculated by being affected by these emotions and humiliated to seek help. It’s understandable that a feeling of such helplessness might drive an individual to seek a negative end to their emotions when the only positive solutions are viewed undesirably.

As stated above, cultivating toughness in young people is not a bad practice. A study conducted by Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth showed one of the foremost factors in predicting a young student’s success was toughness or “grit,” as she calls it. Pushing through adversity and overcoming challenges, emotional, physical or otherwise, is a crucial skill in an often unforgiving and competitive world.

However, there are ways to both instill resilience in young males, while also allowing them to feel and process their emotions in a healthy way — an ability that will offer lifelong benefits like professional communication skills and deeper emotional intelligence.