While researching my book about the crisis of resiliency facing boys and men, I sometimes watched online commercials. These advertisements that pitch razors, shampoo and soap aimed at the under-40 market offered clearer, more immediate context about contemporary masculine identity than many of the sources I pored over. Sometimes, I would ask my 9-year-old son to view them with me to get his thoughts.
After watching a few of these commercials, I noticed a disparity: Fathers wore tutus and danced with their daughters, polished their fingernails and showered them with hugs and kisses during graduations. Meanwhile, fathers raced Go-Karts or playfully arm-wrestled their sons and occasionally hugged — but didn’t kiss — them. My son observed: “Why aren’t those daddies giving boys the same love they’re giving girls?”
For all of the progress we’re making in the conversation about what masculine identity should look like in such commercials, as well as in the larger conversation about masculinity, there’s still a glaring blind spot. Boys today are more anxious, depressed and suicidal than any previous generation. They are also desperately struggling to find their way toward adulthood.
The widely perceived gaps in depression and anxiety between boys and girls are closing, as researchers realize that the scales previously used account for the ways that women typically experience these forms of mental illness. What’s more, far more males of all ages are less likely to seek help and treatment than are women.
Two essential tools that many fathers use with their daughters, compassion and nurturing, would greatly benefit sons. Yet they’re still being withheld from boys — at great cost.
It’s refreshing and encouraging to see commercials where real fathers style their daughters’ hair in “Dad-dos,” as do three NFL players in a Pantene commercial, or to observe a father (even a fictitious one) sleeping next to his wife and young daughter in a Dove Men+Care commercial. What’s missing from these advertisements, though, are fathers meeting their sons’ deeper emotional needs, too. Aside from a few shots of fathers hugging sons, missing are the displays of affection that encourage boys to also develop and expand their human potential.
Perhaps the most touching and powerful example of fathers modeling the support boys need occurs in a controversial Gillette commercial. In one scene a father pulls apart two brawling young boys at a cookout while other fathers passively stand by. In another scene a father saves an older boy, a stranger, from being attacked by a small mob of bullies, all while his young son beams with pride. Positive as these scenes are, they reveal a stark, stagnating truth: We’re still stuck teaching fathers to react to violence, rather than encouraging a proactive, nurturing form of parenting that ultimately would prevent such toxic behavior. Most parenting research has focused on mothers because historically, they have been the primary caregivers and nurturers. But as more fathers share or single-handedly take on this responsibility, we need to examine their influence.
One study examined the way that fathers interact with their young children, published in the in Journal of Behavioral Neuroscience, found that fathers sang more to their 1- and 2-year-old daughters but not sons; they used more analytical language and words related to sadness with daughters; and their brains showed a more positive neural response to their daughters’ happy facial expressions, whereas their brains responded favorably to their sons’ neutral facial expressions. The words fathers used most often with sons encouraged competition and dominance. What’s more, these fathers responded far more often to their young daughters when they cried at night than they did their sons.
All of this squares with a 2018 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family which found that “despite changing expectations for fathers, hegemonic masculine norms continue to shape fathers’ behavior.”
Decades of research show that boys who grow up in environments where emotional literacy is withheld struggle later in life to succeed in school, in the workplace and in relationships, ranging from friendships to marriages. Not surprisingly, they lack empathy. They also score lower in overall life satisfaction. And there are reams of studies that speak to the predilection for violence in boys and men who were deprived of emotional nurturing and, in turn, empathy as young boys. It’s an insidious legacy with profound ripple effects well into adulthood — for them and for the rest of us.
So why are we so deeply resistant to showing the same nurturing impulse to sons as we show daughters?
Part of the reason lies in the frail fabric of masculine identity many of us still cling to: Masculinity is proven through opposition to anything perceived as feminine. The other reason is that many fathers — mothers, too — resist showing their sons more compassion and nurturing because they fear raising ‘incompetent’ men: lacking in toughness, resilience, independence. An acupuncturist I interviewed told me that her 30-something husband was “relieved” they had daughters. He told his wife, “‘I’m glad we don’t have a boy. It’d be too exhausting, always having to come down harder on a son to make sure I’m raising him ‘right.’”
But this old script no longer resonates with a growing number of boys who embrace emodiversity — the burgeoning belief that integrating all emotions, both positive and negative, leads to greater mental and physiological health. To greater resilience.
This was what the 2018 report “The State of Gender Equality for U.S. Adolescents” discovered. Many of the 10- to 19-year-old boys surveyed observed that society pressures boys to define their masculine identity through physical strength, toughness and the willingness to “punch someone if provoked,” as well as to make sexual comments and jokes about girls. But 49 percent of these respondents wanted to trade all of that for permission to learn about the “right to feel any way you want and it doesn’t matter what people think.”
Unfortunately, self awareness alone doesn’t lead to commercial-perfect endings. A recent college graduate I interviewed for my book, Taylor, knows about this. He tried talking to his father about his severe depression during high school which led to suicidal thoughts. But his father, who preached a masculinity where “showing emotion other than anger was weakness,” rebuffed this conversation when Taylor finally screwed up the courage to broach it, Taylor told me. He spent his college career searching for male role models who validated his need to “find purpose in all of my feelings, even the negative ones.” Once he found some of these men, his depression lifted.
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard for boys,” Taylor told me. Then he raised a rhetorical question that should frame every commercial aimed at healthy masculinity: “Why can’t fathers just give sons what we need?”
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a study finding published in the in Journal of Behavioral Neuroscience. The study, which surveyed 69 fathers of 1- and 2-year-olds, found that fathers of daughters sang to them more than fathers of sons sang to their boys, not that the fathers of sons didn’t sing at all. This version has been corrected.
Andrew Reiner teaches The Changing Face of Masculinity at Towson University, and his forthcoming book, Better Boys, Better Men is published by HarperOne.