To begin with, it’s helpful to bear in mind that there’s really no such thing as “a typical boy.” To an important degree, that’s just a culturally influenced myth. The fact of the matter is that it’s a good thing for boys to be different. Indeed, there are almost as many different ways of being a healthy male as there are boys and men in the world. The next time you feel worried about your son spending time drawing, remember that most of the world’s greatest and most renowned artists, musicians, and poets have been men – men with names like Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Shelley, and Keats.
Along with these historical figures, we can consider any number of examples drawn from contemporary culture to help us realize that men are not all alike. On the one hand, we have the well-known icons of stereotypical machismo: guys like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Chuck Norris. On the other hand, there are the thoughtful, brainy, creative, and artistic types: Bill Gates, for instance, or Yo Yo Ma, or Paul McCartney. The second group clearly presents a dramatic contrast with the first, yet no one would seriously question the masculinity of either. As we’ve already mentioned, there’s more than one way to be a man.
When it comes to the practical challenges of guiding and molding well-adjusted boys in the modern world, we’d suggest that it’s not so much what boys do that matters as how they go about doing it. Almost anything can be undertaken in either a distinctly masculine or feminine way. Here again a couple of real-life examples can be illustrative. Think of Mikhail Baryshnikov and his stature in the world of classical ballet, or Emeril Lagasse and his unique take on gourmet cooking. Even “gathering flowers,” an activity your son enjoys, can be pursued in a masculine manner, as evidenced by the contributions of John Bartram, the “Father of American Botany.” These men, each in his own way, exemplify the idea that, whatever the task at hand, a man demonstrates his manhood by approaching it with resolve and determination.
To state the same idea in more general terms, men tend to be assertive. Wherever they are, and whatever they may be doing, they typically step up and take the lead. They are problem-solvers (and in certain situations this is the same thing as being a creative artist). They are inclined to see what needs to be done when it needs to be done, and they do it without hesitation. What’s more – and this is the central point – they understand that it’s entirely possible to do all of these things in a gentle and sensitive way. That’s why a true man is always a gentleman. He respects, protects, and serves those who are smaller and weaker than himself. A real man knows how to restrain his masculine power and energy and keep his strength under control. For a more complete discussion of these and other healthy masculine traits, see our Family Q&A “Helping a Teen Boy Become a Man.”
Where your gentle and sensitive son is concerned, then, the real issue you’re facing is not how to “toughen him up,” but rather how to build into him masculine qualities that are consistent with his character and true to his nature. It can be an unfortunate mistake for dads to try and force a boy to master and excel in activities that lie outside his giftings and interests. The key isn’t so much the “what,” but rather that the father and son spend time connecting on something the son enjoys. It’s especially important for Dad and other significant men in your son’s life to be involved in this process. They need to encourage him every chance they get. They can do this by acknowledging his special talents and abilities and expressing genuine appreciation for the person he is becoming. That kind of affirmation from the adult male community will make all the difference in the course of his development.
Remember the counsel of Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Boys can’t be pressed into a mold. Every child has his or her particular “bent.” The wise parent is the one who knows how to nurture a boy’s special inborn inclinations so that he can grow into the unique man God intended him to be. Like so many other aspects of parenting, this is an art rather than a science.
Before closing, we need to acknowledge that one vital aspect of your question remains unanswered. If there’s nothing problematic about gentleness, sensitivity, drawing pictures, and gathering flowers, at what point should parents become concerned that their boy might not be developing as a healthy male? We’d respond that it’s important to keep an eye out for persistent extremes. In his book A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi says that there are five tell-tale signs of gender non-conformity to watch for:
- When a boy rigidly insists that he is a girl and holds fast to this idea over an extended period of time.
- When a boy shows a strong, inflexible, and persistent unwavering preference for playmates of the opposite sex.
- When a boy consistently and inflexibly assumes cross-sexual roles in make-believe play.
- When a boy displays an intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex.
- When a boy persistently or habitually engages in cross dressing, especially after the age of three.
For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, see our Family Q&A “Concerns About A Boy Developing Healthy Masculine Traits.”
If you’d like to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to contact Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.
How to Help Your Child Feel Valuable: Dr. John Trent suggests ways for parents to affirm children who experience self-doubt.
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Your Child’s Personality