Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. Read more about the project here.
For decades, if not much of human history, men have preferred having sons over daughters. The preference for sons in Asia has resulted in some 80 million girls being “aborted, neglected or directly killed,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but the bias against daughters existed in the 20th century U.S., too.
More than two-thirds of American men have reported a preference for sons since the 1940s, the 2004 NBER study found, with women showing only a slight preference for daughters. Couples with daughters were less likely to marry and more likely to divorce, and fathers are more likely to walk out on daughters than sons, according to U.S. census data from 1940 to 2000.
But the trend now seems to be reversing as Americans become increasingly worried about the “crisis of masculinity” — the psychological toll men suffer as they struggle to meet expectations in their personal and professional lives. Parents are increasingly wary of having sons; now, many prefer to have daughters.
Adoptive parents are more likely to take in girls, partially because they worry that boys are more likely to develop dysfunctional social behaviors. White Americans who use preimplantation genetic diagnosis, an in vitro fertilization technology that allows you to select the sex of a baby, opt for girls 70 percent of the time.
Andrew Reiner, a Towson University English professor, writes in the New York Times that he was “terrified” when he learned, five years ago, that he was having a son. He wanted to raise his son to love academics, express himself openly and shy away from sports and video cultures that instill “aggressive male reflexes.” Reiner hoped his son would defy traditional expectations of masculinity, but was worried that he would be bullied for it.
“All of the dread and loathing I’d always felt about the limiting script of traditional masculine norms came flooding back. I was faced with one of my biggest fears about parenthood: having a son.”
There are several possible explanations for men’s historic preference for sons. Having a son ensured the family name would live on for at least one more generation. For centuries, sons represented a chance to increase familial wealth, whereas daughters were economic liabilities — they had relatively little earning potential, and in many cases would need to have a dowry to be married. And dads have typically related more to their sons. Some may have worried about bringing a woman into a world that was biased against them in virtually every way.
But many of those reasons now seem like remnants of a bygone era. There’s less cultural emphasis on retaining the family name. Girls tend to outperform boys at school, and women outnumber men in college. The pay gap still exists, but it’s closing, and some reports claim young women actually earn higher salaries on average than men. And with society placing more importance on emotional intelligence, boys seem less equipped for success than ever.
It’s hard to claim society is hostile toward boys without coming off like a men’s rights activist, but many now consider it harder to raise boys amid our rapidly shifting perceptions of manhood.
The difference between the men’s rights movement — which claims a conspiracy at the hands of man-hating feminists — and people like Reiner, whose concerns about raising sons are rooted in feminist ideology, is that the latter doesn’t place the blame on some kind of institutionalized misandry. Rather, the problems facing young boys are products of our social and cultural conceptions of manhood — the so-called toxic masculinity that punishes boys for being vulnerable, nerdy, artistic, thoughtful and expressive.
“Of course we should empower our daughters, because gross inequality still exists,” Reiner writes. “And, despite the callous, increasingly callow, pushback, we should empower boys — with the same emotional literacy skill set and expansive worldview we teach our daughters.”
One example is the University of Houston football program (of all places), where head coach Tom Herman has defied the sport’s macho culture and instilled a tender coaching style that involves kissing players and coaches and frequently reminding them how much he loves them.
The sense of camaraderie he’s created has translated to tremendous success on the field, turning the Houston team from a perennial mid-level contender to high-powered offensive juggernaut. Herman has tapped into his players’ intrinsic desire to be part of “connected communities,” says New York University psychology professor Niobe Way. Boys and men don’t really care about competition and independence; what they truly desire is an emotional connection to one another.
The problem is they’re often socialized to neglect that feeling, which is enough for any parent to be concerned about.
Because when boys and men hide their emotions, it inhibits their ability for interpersonal connections, says Indiana University psychology professor Joel Wong. And that ultimately prevents men achieving their full human potential.
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He has no kids (that he knows of).
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Originally published at melmagazine.com