Destructive Phrases We Use With Boys

Adherence to traditional masculine ideals can harm boys and men, resulting in increased behavior problems, academic issues, imprisonment rates, and even likelihood of violent death. Therefore, it’s vitally important to be mindful of the phrases we throw around that encourage traditional masculinity Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom made this case strongly in her film The Mask You Live In, zeroing in on two particularly troublesome phrases: “man up” and “be a man.” Related phrases that are often used with boys include “boys don’t cry,” “you throw/run/hit like a girl,” and “don’t be a sissy/pussy.”  Even when we’re not using this exact language, all too often our behavior conveys the same message: males are supposed to act a certain way.

How Phrases About Masculinity Harm Boys

Phrases like “be a man” and “boys don’t cry” harm our sons in a variety of ways:

1. They call up traditional masculine stereotypes.

The American Psychological Association’s recent Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men take issue with any language or approach that activates, encourages and/or bolsters traditional masculine values, noting an array of research findings that demonstrate the dangers of doing so.

2. They are too ambiguous to be instructive.

Helpful feedback is specific and clear, indicating exactly what needs to be changed, why the change is requested, and how the change can be made. “Man up” and related phrases require the boy to rely on vague understanding of “optimal male behavior” to figure out how to make change - and they certainly don’t tell why it’s needed!

3. They employ shame as an intended motivator.

Turning to shaming as a feedback strategy not only fails to motivate people to change, it has long-lasting implications. Research conducted by Brené Brown, Ph.D., indicates that shame rests on a message of “you are not enough.” In other words, shaming calls into question the value of the individuals themselves. In contrast, guilt focuses on a behavior (“you did something wrong”) rather than on the person (“you are wrong”), resulting in a more proactive response (e.g., atoning for the mistake) and the ability to bounce back quickly from the wrongdoing. 

4. They encourage repression of emotions.

Gendered phrases allow no space for exploring the experience of the individual who was failing to “be a man.” Why was the child crying, sitting out from an athletic event, or otherwise acting in a way that elicited this phrase? If we instead meet the child where they’re at, allow them to express what they’re feeling, and help them strategize about how to work through the emotions, we teach them emotional resilience and demonstrate the power of vulnerability. Telling them to “man up” instead teaches them to detach from their feelings, power through, and disconnect from the people around them. These very behaviors are the core damage caused by traditional masculinity, so we’re not only failing to address the issue when we say “be a man,” we’re actually making their future responses to pain far more problematic.   

Language also normalizes problematic behavior

While a lot of our gendered language is intended to tell boys what not to do, we also have a common cultural phrase that allows unhealthy choices:  “boys will be boys.”  As the mother of a preschool boy, I can attest that strangers say that phrase to me at least weekly, if not more often. I recognize that they’re saying it as a way of empathizing, but what they’re condoning are my son’s, shall we say, “less-than-stellar” behavior: when he’s acting too energetically for the setting, is behaving aggressively or destructively, and/or is talking back. In all of those instances, my role as a parent is to set limits, enforce reasonable consequences, and then, once he’s calm, debrief with him about his feelings and why his choices weren’t optimal. Instead, strangers intervene and encourage me to let him be because, you know, boys will be boys.  Disturbingly, no interventions arose as I was raising my daughter through this exact same stage of impulsivity and aggression! As a result, we socialize our girls to behave in socially appropriate, respectful ways while allowing our boys, by and large, to infringe on others’ mental and physical space. Is it any wonder why rates of aggression are so much higher among boys than girls, and rates of incarceration for violent crime so different? We could point to testosterone levels as the culprit, but the research simply doesn’t bear out the degree of disparity. Instead, we’re socializing our kids on what is and is not okay through the behavior arising from a simple phrase:  “boys will be boys.”   

What We Can Do

All in all, the language we use not only impacts how boys think about themselves, it also changes the way we act toward our sons. Therefore, our first job is to try to become aware how much we believe the phrases. This can be challenging because many of our beliefs are implicit, meaning that we’re unable or unwilling to state them, yet they still impact our behavior. You can start by noting how often you go along with the “boys will be boys” philosophy, letting boys wrestle with their friends while intervening when girls around you get physical, and/or how often you encourage boys to “toughen up” without exploring their feelings while making space and time to emotionally debrief with girls.  Once we’re aware that we hold some harmful beliefs – which we all do to some extent, just by virtue of being raised in this society – we can then work to catch ourselves when we’re about to act in accordance with gender stereotypes. We won’t get it right every time, but stopping ourselves does become more natural with time and attention. It’s certainly a difficult change to make, but well worth it, not only for the sake of the well-being of boys, but also for the girls who are impacted daily by boys’ choices.   

Continue exploring

  • The words we use can impact girls’ confidence, ability to think and reason, and goals for their futures. See our article on raising confident girls by watching what we say.
  • Some of us were raised by parents who never showed their vulnerability because they equated it with weakness, but the latest research shows that it can strengthen parent-child relationships. See our article on the power of being vulnerable as a parent.
Back to blog