"Watch me man up like nobody else; I'm gonna man up all over myself."
That line, from the song "Man Up" in hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, is meant to be somewhat satirical. But the messaging rings true even without hilarious musical accompaniment and choreography. The truth is, much of the language we commonly use to speak with boys about their behavior inherently pushes them to adhere to gendered, hyper-masculine stereotypes (e.g., domineering, heterosexual, aggressive). Common phrases like "man up," "be a man" and "suck it up" are all part of this rhetorical tradition. What we usually want to communicate with these phrases is that our boys should learn to be independent, responsible, honorable and capable. These are all qualities essential to becoming a respectable adult man, but they are poorly communicated with chauvinistic, ambiguous phrases like "grow a pair" that send dubious messages about binary gender characteristics and what defines being a man.
In changing our language, the goal is not, as critics of progressive masculinity tend to suggest, to teach our boys to be more feminine, but to teach them to be themselves, on their own terms. In speaking to our boys (and to each other), we should strive to be more accurate, more clear and more inclusive with our language. Following are some phrases our boys could benefit from hearing more often:
We tend to encourage boys and men to "suck it up" when they experience something upsetting. Internalizing distressing emotions works for some men, but prevents others from overcoming them properly. Our boys should feel comfortable figuring out the most effective way for them to communicate and with asking for help when they need it.
Tears are a natural part of intense emotional responses, but for men, they have long been shunned as a sign of weakness. Despite this cultural stereotype, science shows that crying helps regulate emotional stress and is widely considered a healthy outlet. Additionally, it is an effective way to self-soothe and to communicate distress, which means crying is healthy, it communicates clearly and works it independently — all masculine qualities. Boys not only do, but will cry, and they should feel that it is acceptable.
We have, for good reason, been hearing a lot about rape recently, with some debating the merits over controversial terms like "gray rape" or attempting to insist that victims and survivors are partially responsible for their assaults. As many Millennials get closer to having children, we have an important opportunity to teach the next generation about the clear lines of consent and the difference between persistence and harassment. (This is not to suggest that all men are born rapists, of course, but with epidemic levels of both male and female sexual assault survivors, we are clearly failing in our efforts to make these lessons clear enough.)
Boys may not know or be totally comfortable with their sexual orientation until later in life, and they shouldn't feel boxed in by conventional expectations while they figure it out. Beyond the obvious and more extreme examples of homophobic rhetoric and slurs, we should strive to replace phrases like "When you're married one day, your wife might..." with "If you get married one day, your partner might..."
A few years ago, the Economist's language blog attempted to brainstorm a less gendered alternative to the phrase "man up." The blog settled on the alternative "brave up," which has a pretty nice ring to it, actually. After all, the blog claims, "man up" is really supposed to invoke being "tough, upstanding and responsible" — all gender-neutral qualities better illustrated and suited to a similarly neutral (not to mention evocative) adjective. Since the phrase hasn't caught on in the mainstream, you have the chance to start using it before it becomes cool.
Teaching responsibility is obviously not a novel idea, but we can expand its meaning into the context of our boys' masculinity as well. Responsibility implies honest ownership — of thoughts, emotional responses, actions and words. As they get older, boys should feel comfortable owning their unique masculinity, whether that means being stoic, gregarious, serious or goofy. Consider how, for example, such a diverse group of high-profile men such as Clint Eastwood, Will Smith, Russell Crowe and Bill Murray are all considered masculine for these different reasons.
Self-confidence is so important, whoever that inner self turns out to be.
The problem is, simply saying "be confident" is incomplete and sort of pointless — we all want to be more confident. But encouraging boys to be themselves will foster their ability to be confident, no matter what their body type, interests or sexuality ends up being. Make clear to boys that their identity is theirs and need not be instructed by what they see around them, on TV or even by you.
Or by preachy masculinity columnists on Mic.