A little sensitivity never hurt anyone

This week has been one that has pushed the topic of sensitivity back into the front of my brain.

Earlier this week was the “Spread to End the R Word”, which encourages people to end the use of the word “retard”, “retarded”, or “retardation” either in a pejorative or clinical way. As tends to happen when the topic of cultural sensitivity comes up in a public setting, the “free speech/hate political correctness” warriors come out in full force, endorsing their right to apparently remain ignorant, I guess? Because it’s incredibly difficult to stop or change the use of a word in your vocabulary.

But the last few days, people have been spreading around the video from the San Francisco Times about the documentary, The Mask You Live In, covering how as a society, the three worst words we can say to our boys is “Be a man.” If you care to check out the trailer, you can do so here. To some, this may just be another case of “political correctness” or, one of my favorite faux-gripes, the “wussification of America”. But it’s an incredibly important topic that parents should be discussing. First of all, I’m nearly 30 years old and if someone told me to “be a man”, I’m not sure what that entails besides having the required anatomy, so I can only imagine what that sounds like to a 4 year old, or an 8 year old, or a 16 year old. But it’s a phrase that is used so casually and one that is likely setting up our boys for failure.

Masculinity has always had a love-hate relationship with sensitivity. Boys aren’t meant to be sensitive, it’s not masculine. Crying, showing emotion, or displaying really any sort of “feminine” quality is anti-masculine. But we go about teaching our young boys to “be a man” without giving them any direction on what constitutes being a man–as if there’s any right way to be a man in the first place.

As the parent of a 4 year-old, he’s still early in life but it’s clear he understands that society casts gender roles. He’s made comments about things that “boys do” and “girls do” that aren’t simply physical in nature, and I think to some extent, a healthy knowledge about sociological differences is important. But how do we also let boys know that it’s okay to display their own forms of masculinity without it being questioned?

I can’t presume to change this or even recommend how to do it beyond displaying a little of that sensitivity myself as a dad. To not impose on him a predetermined path to “being a man” and instead, allowing him to grow into whatever man he decides to be, and supporting him along the way.

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