Curing toxic masculinity

Now that my kids are grown and gone, I have more time for regrets. It’s a hazard of the parenting business. I missed too many baseball games. I was too involved when I did go. I didn’t take them to the BWCA. I overprotected as is the want of my generation.

But none of my children went to prison, they married well, and — best of all — they didn’t turn out like the men about whom we’ve heard so much in recent weeks. From what I can tell via their social media, they’re as nauseated by the treatment of women as I, obviously, have been. This is a feature, not a bug, by the way.

If you’re looking for my parenting secret, you’re out of luck. I have no idea how this happened.

At the same time, you’re in luck because on Thursday on MPR News with Kerri Miller, Jana Shortal is hosting a discussion on changing hypermasculinity.

[Update: Here’s the audio of the show]

I know what you’re thinking. And so do all the marketers who help create the definition of what it means to be a man.

“Is how we talk to young boys about masculinity harmful to their emotional development?” Jana asks, and she’s invited the NewsCut audience to take part.

Her two guests — Andrew Reiner, who teaches at Towson University and has written an upcoming book about masculinity; and Ted Bunch a co-founder and Chief Development Officer of A Call to Men, which works to rework our vision of manhood — will discuss why they think the definition of masculinity needs to change. Also, they’ve both raised boys so we can all compare notes on our successes and failures.

Between now and then, I’m inviting a thoughtful discussion in the comments section below on your approach to raising your children not to be like the men in the news (and, no, we’re not entertaining a thread on the men in the news; we’ve done that plenty).

Don’t start writing until you watch Bunch’s presentation.

Make your observations thoughtful and considered, the kind you wouldn’t mind having read on the radio. Because that’s just what we’re going to do.

  • Bunch’s speech begins at 7:15 of the video.

    Edit: Bob moved the video start to start at the correct time

  • MrE85

    My father and I never spoke of such things. I tried to learn from his example how to be a man, imitating the qualities I thought were admirable, such as his stoic nature and his work ethic, and promising never to adopt his fierce temper. I’ve had some success, but the rest of the path I have had to learn on my own.

    • I have had that same experience. It helps when one has a good role model.

    • Jeff

      Same here, but I also learned how he respected my mother. In the end I think it’s basic decency and empathy.

    • A similar path I trod. My father emphasized doing good works, being a decent and honest person to others, and that the time to eat dessert is after eating dinner (i.e. “do your chores first; you’ll enjoy the reward that much more.”). All are life skills I’m still lacking at, when I compare myself to him as a role model.

    • Unfortunately, I cannot watch the video before commenting since it is not close-captioned. My experience was that my father set the example of how not to act. Fortunately, my grandfather on my mom’s side had same stoic nature and work ethic as your dad, so it was him along with my mom that were my role models.

  • Kassie

    “If you’re looking for my parenting secret, you’re out of luck. I have no idea how this happened.”– My guess is maybe your wife had something to do with it. From everything I’ve heard, she sounds like a pretty awesome woman. And maybe that’s it too, you treat your wife like she’s an awesome woman, so they learned respect for women by watching you.

    • Parenthood is often treated as this academic exercise. I’ve not met one yet though that just wasn’t holding on for dear life trying not to get thrown off the ride by the chaos of it all.

      • Gary Leatherman

        what the phrase? “Man plans and God laughs”?

        Watching parents must make milk come out her nose.

        • Rob

          It would be nice if women were in charge of the planning.

      • John

        That sounds about right.

      • >>I’ve not met one yet though that just wasn’t holding on for dear life trying not to get thrown off the ride by the chaos of it all.<<

        I've told my now grown children that very thing quite a few times and have apologized for times when I've been thrown from the ride.

  • Bridget L.

    I don’t have children of my own but I see the struggle my brother went through without a male figure growing up. I know my mother tried her best to help fill that void, but unfortunately for him it wasn’t enough. And it has been a struggle for him to figure out on his own what being a man meant and took cues from all sorts of sources. I think he is a good man but it has taken years to get to the point where I feel confident saying that. He was a jerk (that’s the nice way to say what I really want to say) and treated women like crap (see other parentheses) because he didn’t see value in them. Time and two daughters has changed that. And maybe listening to what his mom, sisters, female cousins and friends have gone through has made a difference too.

  • Guante

    Bunch’s organization actually just released a cool statement pushing back against the idea that “toxic masculinity” is something that we can neatly separate from masculinity itself. Definitely worth a read, since a vital step in ending toxic masculinity is seeing it not just in others, but in ourselves too:

  • AL287

    When my son was nine months old, his father hit me in the face during an argument over a grocery list.

    I packed him up immediately and fled to my parents who lived in the same town.

    We were back together about a month later but only after my father had a long chat with him including a promise to hunt him down like a dog and take his head off with a double barrel shotgun if he ever did that to his little girl again.

    He was never physically violent towards me again.

    My ex’s mother used to come over from Europe every summer to visit. She didn’t speak English but we communicated with gestures and with my ex’s translating.

    One summer when he was at work, I decided to ask her through gestures if her husband had ever hit her. I was not surprised when she nodded her head “Yes.”

    It didn’t justify her son’s behavior but at least I could make sense of why it had occurred

    Most men who are physically abusive with their significant other have witnessed this abuse in their own homes.

    My ex’s power and control issues surfaced again after the tech stock crash in 2000 when many investor accounts suffered big losses. I tried to hold out until our son was out of high school but his increasingly unbalanced behavior made that impossible. I finally told him not to come home one day and we divorced just under a year later shortly after my son’s 17th birthday.

    I am thankful my son does not have any memory of that awful day. He tells me he has no patience for men who abuse women and I have never told him what happened that day more than thirty years ago.

    Ted Bunch’s A Call To Men is a powerful message to parents everywhere.

    Children learn what they live. If they live with bad examples as children they will become those bad examples as adults.

  • Spasmolytic

    I’d like to think it’s up to each individual male to define his own masculinity.

    • While true, they don’t grow up in a vacuum. As already stated upthread: “Children learn what they live. If they live with bad examples as children they will become those bad examples as adults.”

  • Guest

    “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” – Feminist

    There IS a difference between a single mom raising a boy and a couple raising a boy. Some communities have 70% out of wedlock births and it hasn’t turned out well.

    I would recommend actually having a father in a boy’s life to avoid “toxic masculinity”, movies don’t cut it.

    • Jerry

      What does Gloria Stienem’s quote have to do with this?

  • KariBemidji

    When my son was about 10 or 11, he was playing with his little LEGO guys on the floor. As I was walking by, I heard him say: “I will rape you.” After I was able unfreeze myself from my spot, I said, “Whoa buddy. What did you say? Do you know what that means?” Some of the boys were saying that on the playground during recess. He had no idea what it meant. We had the big sex talk a few months prior and we had a discussion about rape. The next day, I went in and talked to his teacher (a male, who was our district’s teacher of the year that year). He was mortified and had no idea. He talked to all of the boys in the 5th grade later that day.

    I don’t know who started it. I don’t how they knew to weaponize the word rape at such a young age. It’s one of those parenting moments and that’s not in the guidebook and you just hope the right words come out.

  • Neil

    I have a 6YO (son) and a 9YO (daughter) and I think about this a lot.

    I do think that leading by example is deeply important and I am lucky enough to have been raised right and to have married a strong, successful woman. But I also firmly believe that we have to TALK about things too and we spend a decent amount of time identifying our feelings and why something has made us upset (me included, though I’m probably not super consistent in that).

    Another thing we talk about a lot is that people get to control their own bodies and what happens to them. (I’d love to say that this is due to some brilliant insight, but really I was just. so. tired. of them hanging on me or standing on my feet all the time.) Anyway, we’re all just making this up as we go, but seems like a decent, age-appropriate way of talking about physical boundaries and no meaning no and such.

  • KG

    I think the days of passive role modeling are over. It’s not going to cut it any more. Parents need to define “consent” for their children right from the start.

    My husband and I are raising two girls and a boy. We talk about the importance of respecting other peoples’ bodies and feelings. We use the real terms for human anatomy. We push back against gender stereotypes that the kids absorb at school and from TV. We rejected all those onesies with sexist phrases like “Who needs a prince? I’ve got Daddy” for baby girls and “Gift to the ladies” for baby boys. We all play dress up. We all play with Legos. We all make art, build model rockets, cook, rock climb…

    I know we can build a more just, gender-equal society. But it’s going to take active parents and educators. We can’t just expect kids to pick up the right messages and reject the wrong ones through observation of us. It will take constant conversation.

  • Christa Otteson

    As a mother of two young girls, I struggle with the parenting of boys in our extended family. Aggressive, violent behavior on the part of boys is seen as biologically inevitable by many members of our extended family. Hitting, kicking, pushing, throwing is more or less accepted as ‘boy’ behavior. I struggle with how to respond to this when I see my daughters being regularly attacked physically as a part of ‘play.’ How do I respond to this on behalf of my daughters when the boys’ parents and grandparents feel this is more or less normal behavior? I see this with all the parents of boys in my familial circle -even those who are otherwise progressive and feminist in their political views. Help!

    • Jerry

      It’s important for boys to realise that rough housing is natural for some boys (and girls), it’s not ok to play rough with those who would rather not, regardless of gender. It all comes down to learning to respect others wishes.

    • crystals

      I’d be REAL interested to know what Connie’s definition of a “Strong Woman” is, because I honestly am curious what traits she’s thinking would fall in the middle of a Strong Woman and Toxic Masculinity Venn diagram.

      • Becca

        I’d imagine she’s probably talking about things like being obsessively career focused, not talking about or openly displaying her emotions, competitiveness in place of cooperation, lacking in visible empathy. remorselessness, etc..

  • Julie

    I teach in a public middle school. I watch thirteen and fourteen year old boys posture every day. It is exhausting to see them disparage each other on a regular basis. I would say the majority of these young people communicate in insults. I am constantly telling them this is not funny or the proper way to communicate with friends. They say they are just joking around.

    Unfortunately, our country elected a bully and a misogynist. He has made it acceptable to act in this way. I am constantly telling students, both male and female, that we all need to treat each other with respect and dignity. Until our society makes this unacceptable, i’m afraid things won’t change.

    • Mike Worcester

      // I am constantly telling them this is not funny or the proper way to
      communicate with friends. They say they are just joking around.

      My elementary school-teacher mother would often ask them “Do you talk like that at home?” It saddened, but did not totally surprise her, that the bulk of them answered affirmatively.

    • AL287

      Where I was raised, children NEVER called a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle by their first name. You had to put a handle on it. It was Uncle Jim or Aunt Julie, Mom, Dad or Grandma or Grandpa.

      You didn’t call adult acquaintances by their first name either.

      You also answered every adult with “Yes, sir.” or “Yes, ma’am.” and that included teachers, policemen, or any other person in a position of authority.

      My grandmother taught me if you teach a child manners, discipline will follow.

      I am a substitute teacher and I find far too many students at all grade levels have not mastered polite behavior including “please”, “May I” and “Thank you.” Those that have are more often than not the higher achieving students in the class.

      I no longer teach middle school classes because of the disrespectful way I am treated by students who think it is their opportunity to goof off and push the limits.

      Keep calling your students on their rude behavior. If they mistreat your substitute, have a consequence for that behavior and carry through with it.


      All you can do is hope that it sinks in.

  • Bill Dobbs

    Want to remind you of the Twin Cities Men’s Center ( an organization that has been working for 40 years to help men with emotions, identity, and personal growth, with support groups on gender identity and classes on Anger Management

  • Charles

    There is an international program called “Essential Peacemaking, Women & Men” that focus on this issue. One thing that always comes up in the after workshop comments is that, around the world one of the primary issues for all women is the concept of personal safety, and one of the main things that comes up from men is the idea, “I understand that you were mistreated by one or more men in your life, but I’m not that guy.” so, How do we get these two together?

  • KMB

    Just caught some of the discussion so maybe I missed it earlier in the hour. Did anyone define “positive masculinity”? I heard talk of “toxic masculinity”. This is certainly a problem and is well highlighted by the #meto movement. So in the spirit of defining what want to be moving toward, how do we define positive masculinity?

    I actually tried to define it to kick off discussion, but failed. My set of characteristics were pretty universal. I’d expect and hope to develop them in my daughters as much as in my son. While on one level this was what I would hope we’d all be striving for (i.e., unbiased expectations of our children unrelated to sexual identity), I think its simplistic. Boys are different than girls, which are frankly different than gay or lesbian children. The initial building blocks seem different (to some degree). While any and all children may have and strive for any attribute, what is “naturally” present (initially) often seems different. How do we recognize, celebrate and encourage positive development?

    Anyways, this really is an important subject and I’d really value other’s insights.

  • Guest

    See the movie To Sir, with Love