Note: This article contains references to suicide and mass shootings. If it’s better for you to avoid those topics right now, check out one of our other articles.
I was on a walk last weekend and stopped to chat with a neighbor. She asked what we were giving my 17-month-old son for Christmas this year, and I told her that a miniature cutting board and toddler-friendly chopper made the list.
“A kitchen set? For a boy?” she asked. I could tell what she was thinking by the way her eyebrows shot up. Since I know her well enough to joke with her, I jumped in before she could.
“Domestic skills are important for boys too, Marnie!” I chided her, smiling.
She laughed, and we talked about how “rules” about kids’ toys have changed since her children were young. She conceded that maybe it would have been good to let her now-adult boy play with similar toys when he was young, since he still doesn’t do any cooking or cleaning for himself.
While my neighbor meant well and was receptive to seeing things differently, her response reminded me of a mindset I saw a lot during my time as a teacher. While girls were “allowed” a wide range of emotions, interests, hobbies, and personality traits, boys didn’t have that same freedom. I heard it in hallways, in parent conferences, and even in my own classrooms: echoes of toxic masculinity.
What Is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic masculinity refers to a narrow view of masculinity that suggests boys ought to suppress emotions and embrace aggression as a way to solve problems. In toxic masculinity, certain traits, interests, and emotions are “OK” for boys to have, while others are considered weak or feminine.
What Toxic Masculinity Looks Like in the Classroom
- In preschool and kindergarten, young boys might be discouraged from playing with dolls or using kitchen/cleaning sets in imaginative play.
- Boys who are nurturing, polite, or shy by nature might be considered weak or feminine or need to “toughen up.”
- Adults might use phrases like “boys will be boys” or “you know how boys are” to downplay the seriousness of fights, bullying, and disrespect toward female teachers.
- Many teachers are reporting that their middle and high school boys are under the spell of influencers like Andrew Tate, who openly promotes misogyny and sexual violence. A seventh grade teacher said the boys in his class call women and girls “holes” and any boy who defends or is kind to girls a “simp.”
- Middle school boys might feel pressured to limit their elective choices to sports or woodshop instead of things like dance or family sciences.
- Teenage boys might resort to violence or aggression when their masculinity is threatened.
- Some parents fear that kindness, empathy, and other SEL skills are threatening masculinity.
What Toxic Masculinity Is Not
- The suggestion that all masculinity is toxic. Healthy masculinity, by contrast, is a masculinity that doesn’t limit what kinds of emotions, interests, skills, or relationships boys can have.
- An attempt to “erase gender” or “an attack on manhood.” Boys can still play with trucks, knock down their own LEGO towers, act out with dinosaurs, and play tackle football. But they can also cuddle a doll, learn how to knit, be in tune with and in control of their emotions, and help out with cooking and chores. There’s no “one way” to be a man.
- An inherent trait in boys.
- A problem for all boys.
- A problem that only boys perpetuate.
Why It’s a Problem Beyond the Classroom
Predictably, the problem of toxic masculinity doesn’t disappear after 12th grade. It’s easy to imagine how a version of masculinity that suppresses emotion and equates vulnerability with weakness might play a role in the fact that 80% of people who die by suicide are men. Or that 98% of mass shooters are men.
Critics might say that these statistics have nothing to do with toxic masculinity and simply reflect the way men are by nature—more aggressive and less in touch with their feelings.
But are men violent and out of control by nature? Or is that what happens when we tell them they can’t be anything else?
How To Counteract Toxic Masculinity in Your Classroom
It’s important that teachers of all grades and content areas are on high alert for the ways toxic masculinity shows up in schools. Here are just a few of the ways we can help all our students embrace and uphold a healthier version of masculinity.
Be crystal-clear about boundaries and consent.
Teachers need to have zero tolerance for students who don’t respect other students’ physical boundaries, whether they are playfully stealing a hat or snapping a bra strap.
Don’t police students’ cultures or home values.
Many families uphold traditional gender roles and views on masculinity, and it’s not our job to evaluate or change the parenting of our students. We can only help shape what happens in our environment. If a student responds to redirection by saying that behavior is accepted at home, say, “In our classroom, we don’t make fun of boys for choosing pink” or “One of our norms is to keep your hands to yourself no matter how frustrated you are.”
Validate students’ feelings and experiences.
If we’re going to help boys feel comfortable talking about feelings, we have to create judgment-free opportunities for them to do so. Model empathy and kindness by walking through emotional situations with students out loud.
“How do you think that made them feel?”
“How did it make you feel?”
“Thanks for telling me that made you sad. It’s brave to share hard feelings.”
“All feelings are valid, but not all decisions are. It’s OK that you felt angry. It’s not OK for you to hurt someone else when you’re angry.”
Do not let harmful speech or ideas go unchallenged.
Sometimes the best example you can set is by demonstrating what you won’t put up with. Be kind but firm. Use your best teacher judgment to decide whether to call out (addressing lower-stakes situations out loud in a group) or call in (have a private conversation with a student right then or later on).
“What? You’re reading American Royals? That’s for girls!”
“Wait, wait, wait. Guys can totally read American Royals! Would you say girls can’t read Percy Jackson?”
“You cried? Are you a girl?”
“Hey, Levi—meet me in the hall real quick. We need to chat.”
The good news is that unlike a lot of society’s ills that we expect teachers to solve, addressing toxic masculinity is not an additional burden for teachers to carry. It doesn’t demand their time, their money, or additional paperwork. It just asks them to be on the lookout for ways we can protect our boys, and in doing so, protect all our students.