Slogans proclaiming “Strong is the new pretty” and “The future is female” cover the T-shirts and notebooks I buy my daughters. Toy stores are brimming with books about “little feminists.” There is no doubt that, after far too long, American girls are empowered to embrace the characteristics stereotypically reserved for boys: strength, power, assertiveness.
But the corollary has not happened for our sons. When boys exhibit qualities stereotypically reserved for girls—sensitivity, care, compassion—they are often undervalued or, worse, mocked. Boys who show emotion other than strength could face ridicule. It’s past time that we all learn to embrace, and even celebrate, these so-called “feminine” attributes.
This isn’t just theoretical for me; it’s personal. As a mom of three—two girls and one boy—I encounter countless examples of strong females in books, movies, and games (and in this household), but often fail to find examples that celebrate sensitivity and emotional maturity in males.
My young son is about as sensitive as kids come. When his friends were playing a violent game in the playground, he didn’t feel comfortable with it. He asked them to play grocery store with him instead, but it was no match for the aggressive alternative and, as a result, he felt left out. The game became a go-to with his classmates; he began to feel so excluded, he developed an eye twitch. A physical manifestation of his sensitivity. He is able to articulate his feelings, so he will tell me at the end of the day how other kids’ actions made him feel happy, but also sad or left out. If we are watching a show, he always wants to know why kids are alone without their parents, as he did when we recently saw the Nutcracker. And if my husband and I have to reprimand him, he will cover his ears and beg, “Please stop saying my name. Everyone stop saying my name!”
This attention to emotions makes me proud to be his mom, and I want to encourage him to nurture the side of himself that is sensitive. But, like other parents with sensitive boys, I lack the tools to do so. All of the picture books about sensitive boys are about how to overcome their sensitivity, not how to celebrate it. Failing to find archetypes in books and popular media that reflect my son, I rely on my own imagination to craft stories for him.
Our society’s tendency to overlook—if not openly deride—boys’ sensitivity leads to real-world consequences. Only 58 percent of Americans think business leaders must be compassionate and empathetic. That can translate to callous business practices (see: lack of paid leave) or work environments that promote employees with “masculine” skills and overlook those who exhibit qualities like good communication, flexibility, and compassion that are commonly associated with women. This leads to a skewed understanding of what our office cultures should look like. Americans still believe that to be successful you have to act like a Roy.
To be clear, I’m not saying all is peachy for young girls; we still need more women represented at all levels of government and in boardrooms around the country. But girls are allowed to display a full range of emotions. We lack the narratives for sensitive young boys that are critical to moving society’s thinking forward on this issue. Just as much as we need more women in positions of leadership, we have to normalize men in roles considered traditionally female, like teachers, nurses, and executive assistants.
How can we start to change this outdated mindset? As is usual with kids, it starts in our homes. Praise our sons when they show empathy for others, and let them experience their feelings, instead of telling them to toughen up. Have conversations with our sons that encourage them to express themselves, rather than hide their emotions.
Of course, change has to happen outside the home too. We still function in a society that applauds male attributes no matter the gender. It’s far past time to flip the narrative and start applauding feminine attributes. Hollywood, book publishing, gaming—these industries should highlight boys as main characters whose strength is not in their ability to lift a heavy weight or run a long distance, but rather in their compassion for their peers and their willingness to talk openly about their emotions. Although a flawed character, the presence of a sensitive male lead in Dear Evan Hansen is a great start.
Until these changes happen, I’ll keep reassuring my son that his sensitivity is not a weakness; in fact, it’s his strength.
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Emily Tisch Sussman is the Founder and Host of “She Pivots,” the podcast in partnership with Marie Claire about women, their stories, and how their pivot became their success. She is a contributing editor to Maire Claire and the guest host of the Marie Claire Instagram Live series “Getting Down to Business.”
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