One of my proudest moments in 16 years of teaching happened during our first iGuy pilot program last January. At the end of the two-hour session, our facilitator Andrew asked the boys to share with the group something about themselves that their peers may not know.
When it came to his turn, one of the quieter boys in the class said “ Everyone thinks I’m all about sports but I really enjoy sewing too. “
Trying not to be obvious, Andrew and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes (seriously). It was in that moment that we knew we were on to something with iGuy. We also reflected after the session that if every pre-teen boy were this courageous, there would be little need for iGuy!
Thanks to gender stereotypes (the “Blue Box” and the “Pink Box”, as we refer to them at iGuy), boys are taught from day one how they should be and act in order to be a “real” guy. In addition to teaching them that they should love sports, list blue as a favorite colour and play with action figures, the Blue Box teaches boys that they should:
- be tough, strong and stoic,
- be into girls (because if not, they’re gay*),
- be stylish but not too stylish (because that means they’re gay),
- keep their emotions to themselves (because sharing them is girlie and gay),
- be self-reliant (asking for support indicates weakness), and
- solve conflict using violence, aggression and power.
The list goes on. Although the Blue Box is not all bad, it is incredibly limiting for boys in that it prevents them from being who they really are. As well, it reinforces a belief in hierarchy, which leads to bullying and other systems of oppression. Only when boys feel safe to stop listening to ideas about how they should be can they start being their true selves and embrace their Power Within…their iGuy. What is Power Within? It is one of three types of power boys need to understand in order to question and reject certain aspects of the Blue Box.
* Note that, according to the Blue Box, being gay means a person is like a girl. And being a girl is pretty much the worst thing to be. Interestingly, homophobia is really an extension of misogyny. If a person is gay, they are renouncing their manhood. To be feminine is inferior or even bad. Hmmmm…
3 Types of Power:
Power Over: taken from, imposes authority over someone else. The rules of the Blue Box reflect society’s Power Over boys. Bullying is a classic example of the consequences of Power Over.
Power With: reflects strength in numbers, an alliance to reach a common goal, earned through sense of trust and community. Welcoming and standing up for others who don’t fit into the Blue Box is Power With.
Power Within (Agency): an inherent feeling of self-worth, the ability to act with integrity, not reliant on external approval or reinforcement. The iGuy participant who wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable (revealing in front of his peers that he likes to sew, a hobby that certainly doesn’t fit into the Blue Box) showed immense Power Within in doing so because it was such a courageous act to openly admit a deviation from the Blue Box.
To have Power Within requires boys to be courageous, and courage means being vulnerable. (Sing it, Brené Brown!). The challenge is, if boys don’t like themselves, they can’t and won’t stand up for themselves or others. They also can’t and won’t ask for support. This vulnerability is what will allow boys to step outside the Blue Box and live “in technicolour” as we say in iGuy…to be who they really are and who they want to be.
So, how can parents teach these concepts to their sons?
- Talk to your son about the Blue Box (vs. the Pink Box) and the extent to which gender stereotypes dictate how we behave and who we are. Discuss how limiting it is to live inside the Blue Box. Which aspects of themselves fit into the Blue Box and which don’t? How does your son feel about this?
- Explain the three different types of power. Which type of power does the Blue Box encourage boys to have? Is this useful or healthy for boys? (No, it teaches boys to rely on Power Over. But Power Over doesn’t last). What type of power are girls, on the other hand, taught to value (Power With)?
- Give examples of what Power Within looks like, ie.:
- Doing an activity you enjoy regardless of what others think.
- Standing up for yourself or someone who is being bullied or harassed.
- Asking for help when you need it.
- Calling someone on using homophobic language.
- Resisting peer pressure to do something you know is wrong.
- Courageously expressing your vulnerability and emotions.
- Acting with integrity (your actions and words match your values and morals).
- Embracing your own style of clothing even if it’s not trendy.
- Look for examples of strong, courageous, vulnerable men in the media. Next time you are watching TV together, comment on whether male characters are showing vulnerability. Or are they slaves to the Blue Box? How is that working for them?
- Be a good role model. As a parent, do you express your emotions regularly in a healthy way or do you bottle them up and explode when the pressure gets to be too much? Dads, do you have any hobbies or interests that aren’t stereotypically masculine? Do you make comments that unintentionally reinforce the rules of the Blue Box (ie. “Toughen up! Be a man! Don’t be a wimp! Don’t cry! Real men do/don’t do that!”)? Don’t be too hard on yourselves, but be honest!
Without being too pessimistic, we definitely have our work cut out for us when it comes to helping boys break free of gender stereotypes and live their truth. But if we can, as a village, be courageous enough to have these conversations with our sons, to encourage them to think critically bout the Blue Box, then we are off to a good start. In a perfect world we would do this while at the same time examining the Pink Box and how the two intersect. After all, they require each other to even exist! A daunting task? Yes. Will it take a while? Yes. But what I know for sure is that living in technicolour is way more interesting and fun than living in black and white!