Biases About Gender and Masculinity and Adolescent Boys’ Dreams, Wishes, and Fears


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March 30, 2023

Why is BTC focusing on Fathers* and the Men* in Children’s Lives in its May 2023 virtual National Forum?

(*cis and transgender)

Here’s one reason why. Too often, fathers and the men in children’s lives are marginalized in early education, healthcare, home visiting, and social services. Fathers need to see men working in these fields in order to feel welcome. Children in these settings need to know that their fathers feel that way. They need fathers and men in their lives to know that men are nurturers, and that when men are harmed, they hurt too.

When systems of care constrain men to stereotypes that deny the strengths that grow out of their vulnerabilities, what message are the boys in these systems being sent about how they will grow and who they will become? Our friend, Jenn Hoos Rothberg, executive director of Einhorn Collaborative, recently shared her reflections on the harms that many boys are experiencing, and how expanding our understanding of who a man can be can help. And join us at BTC’s 2023 virtual National Forum to meet some of the fathers* and men* in children’s lives who are doing just that.

An excerpt from Jenn’s letter:

Jenn Hoos Rothberg headshot
Jenn Hoos Rothberg

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago, my husband Jon and I attended a screening of “Close,” the Oscar-nominated film directed by Lukas Dhont based on the research of Dr. Niobe Way, New York University professor of Applied Psychology and founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (PACH). According to Niobe’s research, friendships between boys during their early childhood years were more like “something out of Love Story than Lord of the Flies.” Yet in late adolescence, boys pick up implicit and explicit messages from our culture telling them to hide vulnerability, care, and affection for and from other boys to maintain their masculinity. These pervasive stereotypes often shift their beliefs, choices, and behaviors, making boys go against their wants and needs. Listening to [Niobe’s account of] the hopes, dreams, wishes, and fears of these young adolescent boys made me realize my biases about gender and masculinity.

Lukas Dhont, a 31-year-old award-winning Belgian filmmaker, similarly encountered Niobe’s work by reading Deep Secrets. Through his craft, Dohnt beautifully translated Niobe’s social science scholarship into a fictionalized friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi. As parents of a now nearly 10-year-old boy, we watched the film with affection and trepidation. The first half left us in awe at the beautiful and intimate depictions of Léo and Rémi’s companionship, and the second half jolted us back to reality when their friendship fractured.

On our way home, Jon and I reflected on the ease and joy early in the film when the boys hung out together, portrayed with the kind of love and support we all long for in our relationships. And then, as the boys entered middle school, we reflected on the ways seemingly invisible yet ubiquitous social cues tragically disrupted their deep friendship.

The assumption of sexuality when none existed made it difficult for Léo and Rémi to showcase their affection for one another and maintain their connection. The messages they received from peers and adults were loud and clear: their friendship was taboo for boys, and they must hide their authentic selves from others, and ultimately, each other.   

“We live in this society that tells young men that there are things we validate more than tenderness and vulnerability,” Dhont said in an interview with USA Today. “We teach young men to stop caring for authentic connections and (be) more distant with emotions. It’s an incredibly brutal thing.” 

This is where “Close” holds up a mirror to society. According to AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, American men are experiencing a “friendship recession,” wherein one in five say they have no close relationships, and only 21% say they received emotional support from a friend within the past week. For women, these rates are half as bad. The loneliness epidemic is certainly real across our society, but it is much more pronounced among men. 

Over the past few weeks, Jon and I have returned time and again to our conversations after watching “Close.” As parents often do, we talk about our hopes and dreams for our son and the kind of world we would like him to grow up in. We are much more intentional in our support of his friendships with other boys and the ways he authentically shows love in these relationships. And we are enrolling other adults in his life to protect his instinct to care for others and his very human yearning for connection. It’s time we reframe the meaning of “boys will be boys” and honor their deep emotional needs for relationships of all types. Because at the end of the day, relationships are the foundation of a meaningful life.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg
Executive Director
Einhorn Collaborative

To find out how Einhorn Collaborative supports emotional connection between parents and their children and other caring adults in their lives, click here.

To learn more about BTC’s 2023 National Forum: All About Fathers* and the Men* in Children’s Lives, click here.

When systems of care constrain men to stereotypes that deny the strengths that grow out of their vulnerabilities, what message are the boys in these systems being sent about how they will grow and who they will become?

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