When I was 5 I wanted to be “saved,” when I was 10 I wanted to be a “teacher,” when I was 15 I wanted to be a “wife and mother.”  The roles were prescribed and I played along.  There was no intent to harm, but very traditional roles of masculinity and femininity existed and I fell into the patriarchy of religion (and education) perfectly.  I was a woman, wife, mother, and I cared for women and children.

Until that didn’t work anymore.

You see, I had it in my head that my entire value was determined by how well I played a particular female role.  But, by my early 30s, I wasn’t particularly good at that role exclusively. My desperation to let go of the shame of not being a “gentle and quiet spirit” grew.  I needed a broader definition, one that included worthy, changemaker, leader, and community-builder.  My journey of selfhood continued to evolve.

Even now, as our culture aches and groans with concerns for victims of sexual assault, violence, and sexual abuse and the all-too-frequent assault on women, I find myself still writhing against being ‘owned,’ ‘silenced,’ or ‘marginalized.’

I see the power imbalance in families all the time.  It hurts children.

Gender Definitions & Toxic Masculinity

Gender identity is a story we tell ourselves about masculinity and femininity. Based on the very provocative gender issues arising in western culture this week, I’d like to take a break from our blogging series to courageously consider how narrow gender roles, especially toxic masculinity affects our children, particularly the vulnerable.

You see toxic masculinity defines the role of men narrowly.  It is toxic because it is overpowering and blind to its own competitive and privileged nature.  It values only the handsome, strong, intelligent, and athletic.

Little boys are put down and mocked on the playground if they don’t fit the mould.  Big boys vie desperately for the attentions of a girl in competitive and degrading ways.  Little boys are guided to not explore the breadth of the human experience because somehow their fascination with the click-clack of high heels is sexualized even before they know they are a gender.

But, worst of all, a little boy’s emotions are not welcomed, valued, or worked through with acceptance.  In that case, all we get is anger.  The anger continues well beyond grade school.  It comes out in tyrannical outbursts that include shouting and lording over others.

How can we grow past the traditional and narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity?  What gives children permission to be themselves and explore lots along the way?  How can we give our children wings?

Photo by Alex J. Reyes on Unsplash

Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya on Unsplash

Photo by Amanda Belec on Unsplash

Impacts on Children

Our children are impacted by narrowly defined roles.  What about the boys who don’t fit the definition, don’t meet the mark, don’t make the club?  What about the more vulnerable among us?  Are they worthy?

In some ways, it is because of our age of accelerations (technology, globalization, and Mother Nature), that we must attend urgently to shifting the script of gender roles.  Because all children, including our boys, will need to have soft skills to thrive: empathy, emotional intelligence, and adaptability fueled by an ability to adjust to the futilities life continually throws at us.  We will need strong and capable women who lead, we will need tender and caregiving men who nurture, and we will need each individual to realize his or her extraordinary human potential.

As I try to communicate in my book, Learn Forward, change will always begin inside of us, the adults.  It happens on an inner journey.  Piece by piece I can deconstruct stifling conceptions of gender identities in my own heart.  We will graciously proceed, knowing each of us is doing the best we can.  We will do it for the sake of the children.

Ideas for Shifts

Let’s explore four recommended shifts from the Liturgists Podcast called “Man” recommended by my Pastor.  I offer them as a hopeful conversation starter for the adults in our community (in case you aren’t able to listen to all 1hr and 39min), here are some ideas for men:

  • Go from being a powerful protector to being a powerful advocate.  An advocate stands up for others without standing over them.
  • Move from leader to a partner.  Start in our homes and move into how we handle business.
  • Instead of only being strong, silent, and self-reliant, cultivate traits that include vulnerable, empathetic, and communal.
  • Move from a members-only highly defined masculinity to a broader description of what is masculine.  Only hyper-masculinity feels threatened because everything looks like a target to be owned, occupied, or conquered.

I hope in our little corner of the world, we will consider some of these shifts to how we define masculinity.

For the sake of the children,