Raising Boys Today: An Interview With Tony Porter

Catch author and activist, Tony Porter, CEO of 'A Call to Men' in conversation with ParentCircle! He opens up about raising boys, preventing violence against women and breaking the 'Man Box'!

By Deepthi Balasunder

Raising Boys Today: An Interview With Tony Porter
If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls? - Tony Porter

In a world where women are still being subjected to violence, abuse and crime, we sometimes wonder what we can do on our part to prevent these. We do not realise that the problem, lies at the root – what we teach our boys as they grow up.

Tony Porter has been striving to change society’s discrimination through his organisation, A Call to Men: The Next Generation of Manhood. Along with co-founder Ted Bunch, he continues to work towards their goal – ‘Help create a world where all men and boys are loving and respectful and all women and girls are valued and safe’. Read on to know what they think can prevent violence against women, what they call the ‘Man Box’, and how to raise boys in today's world. 

ParentCircle brings you this exclusive interview – In conversation with Tony Porter!

Why is sexual violence so prevalent against women throughout the world?

Men and boys who are socialized to view women and girls as property or objects, and as having lesser value than men – is what lays the foundation for violence and discrimination to persist at epidemic levels throughout the world. 

Does the prevalence of ‘toxic masculinity’ and violence against women, differ from country to country?

Anywhere we see patriarchy, we see toxic masculinity. But I want to clearly say that masculinity is not inherently toxic. In fact, that's one of the reasons we don't use the term toxic masculinity. We have an appreciation for the ways that it has kept the discussion alive in the news media and on podcasts like this one. Here's my issue – if we allow men to separate themselves by saying, “I’m not that bad – look at them – those guys are the ones with that ‘toxic’ behaviour,” we are missing the greatest potential for change. We men have work to do.

Men are socialized to view women as lesser value to them. This idea is taught to men – sometimes unconsciously – and reinforced by society. From using phrases like “you throw like a girl,” to discrepancy in wages, subtle hints on media and advertising, our culture reinforces a norm of male dominance every day, and everywhere you look. Collective socialization lays the foundation for all forms of violence and discrimination against women to persist because all men are socialized to share those values. A vast majority of men are not abusive. They do not sexually harass or assault women. Yet they are still silent about the violence, harassment and abuse that women, girls and other oppressed groups experience. That’s why I’m not willing to separate men into those categories. These men are not bad – they are just ignorant about these issues. These men are good. This creates an environment where men can say “That’s not me” and get a pass. It reinforces privilege. It allows men the option to stay quiet, to opt out of the conversation, or to distance themselves from the issue.

What can we do as a society to prevent such cases of violence?

To begin, we have to offer an invitation to men, not an indictment of manhood. We need to let men and boys know that their ideas about manhood, women and girls have been shaped by their collective socialization. The messages that the media and culture bombard us with, tell us that women are treated as objects and have lesser value than men. Our job is to raise our boys’ consciousness about their collective socialization, so that they can think critically about how they might be reinforcing or passing on these harmful beliefs.

What is collective socialization of manhood?

We know and understand that boys are being taught not to show fear or weakness, not to ask for help, not to cry or express emotion other than anger, to exhibit qualities associated with power, dominance and control, to be tough, to man up, and what not. That is the collective socialization of manhood.

By the time our boys are three years old, society is telling them not to cry, which is actually telling them not to feel. When they do things outside these traditional, hyper-masculine notions of manhood, they are punished, put down, ridiculed and bullied. We want to actively push back against that socialization and help our boys embrace and express their full selves and a wide range of emotion. That’s really the first step toward a healthy manhood. 

Can parents talk to their children about all this and how?

We can and we should – and it must start early. First, let your boys know that they can be friends with girls. Boys are taught to distance themselves from girls starting in their toddler years. Telling your boy “That doll isn’t for you – here, play with this truck.” is an example. From the aisles of our retail stores to after-school activities, society dictates what is ‘appropriate’ for boys, keeping them neatly tucked inside the ‘Man Box’.

We work a lot with middle and high school boys through our LIVERESPECT Curriculum. When we launched the curriculum, we did a pilot study where we found that only 19% of boys know what consent means. This explains the sexual assault crisis we see on college campuses and in the military. We tell our girls not to walk home alone and not to accept a drink from a stranger, but what do we tell our boys? We aren't having these conversations with boys with the same intention we have them with girls. And we need to.

Our boys are craving for these discussions. They are good boys. They want to make good choices. The messages they get in media and culture – especially around sexual relationships must be addressed. After just one lesson on consent, the numbers rose to 75 per cent. Post-curriculum, we found that 75 per cent of the boys understand what consent means. Understanding is the first step in putting it into practice.

Can you tell us about the ‘Man Box’?

A CALL TO MEN coined the term ‘The Man Box’ to illustrate the collective socialization of men. The Man Box identifies the limitations on what a man is supposed to be and what he believes. These expectations are taught to men – sometimes unconsciously – and reinforced by society. In the Man Box, men are supposed to be powerful and dominating, fearless and in control, strong and emotionless, and successful. In the Man Box, women are objects who are of lesser value than men. The teachings of the Man Box allow gender-based violence to persist. It perpetuates a heterosexist norm that devalues all those who don’t conform to a gender binary. People in the LGBQ and trans/GNC community demonstrate great courage when they reject the rules of the Man Box and embrace their authentic selves.

How can we help our boys to break the shackles of the ‘Man Box’?

We need to listen to our boys about who they say they are and allow them to be their authentic selves. We still live in a time when the Man Box dominates. Boys are discouraged from showing emotion by the time they are in school. We still push our boys beyond their feelings toward aggression and they see it reflected to them through video games, music, movies, and pornography. The teachings of the Man Box create a damaging cycle of harm — from insecurity and pain, shame to detachment and too often even violence. We know that understanding, practising, and promoting healthy manhood is the solution to prevent violence in our communities. Healthy manhood relieves men and boys of a lifetime of trying to measure up, of trying to be man enough, of endless performance and constant suppression of emotions. 

What change is required in the way parents raise their children – both girls and boys?

We have to get to a place where we understand that equity means everyone wins. The liberation of men is directly tied to the liberation of women. The rigid notions of the Man Box not only lay a foundation for violence and discrimination against women and girls, but they are literally killing men too. We’re socialized to perform a kind of solitary masculinity, and the lack of connection is killing us. Men die from suicide at a rate that is four times higher than women. The Man Box teaches us that we’re only ‘strong’ if we can handle everything on our own and that asking for help and sharing emotions are signs of weakness. That keeps us from going to the doctor for nagging physical issues, from getting help for mental health issues, and from asking for help at school and work. Healthy manhood is the solution which will allow us to show a wide range of emotions, allow us to ask for help and not always feel like we need to be in control. It also helps us value women and girls and care about them outside of sexual conquest. Healthy manhood paves the way for equity.

Any strategies that can help parents raise their boys the right way?

I’m often asked for age-appropriate strategies to help boys broaden their emotional experience. Here are some things that we suggest to other parents.

For toddlers and young children – Help them identify their emotions

Ask questions like: “Are you feeling sad? Are you disappointed? Did that make you happy?” Helping build their emotional vocabulary will serve as a foundation for their emotional intelligence and strengthen their ability to solve problems. Choose books that talk about feelings and emotions for them. The Feelings Book by Todd Parr and The Way I Feel by Janan Cain are great examples.

For young boys and pre-teens – Make emotions relatable

Share age-appropriate stories about your own experiences when you were hurt, disappointed, sad, joyful, nervous, etc., and how you dealt with those experiences. I have always found it helpful to have conversations in the car, or at a restaurant where there’s an opportunity to talk one on one, but also a bit of a distraction so that no one feels pressured.

For teenagers and young adults – Normalize emotions

Watch television shows or movies together that explore conflict and discuss the resolution. Ask questions about how they would handle similar situations. When they share something they are going through, ask how that makes them feel prior to offering any advice. Be intentional about seeking content in film, television, books, and other media that reflects a diverse mix of people and experiences.

How can dads be role models to their sons?

Dads can start by practicing healthy manhood and modeling it for the boys in their lives. Some good examples of this are:

  • Embracing and expressing a full range of emotion.
  • Not conforming to the pressure to always be fearless and in control.
  • Valuing a woman’s life, treating all people equally and promoting the betterment of humanity.
  • Not using language that denigrates women and girls.
  • Developing an interest in the experience of women and girls, outside of sexual conquest.

Do you think fathers have more responsibility when it comes to the socialization of boys than girls?

I don’t think they have more responsibility, but their influence is different. A boy responds differently when a man advocates for equality. He is saying to that boy, this is mine and your responsibility, too.

Many dads take pride in being hands-on, but the need of the hour is for dads to be hands-on emotionally. What do you think about this?

Absolutely! Embracing and promoting healthy manhood prevents all forms of violence and discrimination against all women and girls. It is also linked to improved physical health and emotional well-being for men. When boys are told not to cry or feel, there are lasting negative effects on their health and relationships. Research by the Harvard School of Public Health found that those who suppress their emotions are one-third more likely to die prematurely than people who regularly express what they are feeling. Issue of rage, anxiety, depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms can manifest. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate is four times higher in men than in women. We’ve got to make some changes – for the sake of humanity.

Raising Boys Today: An Interview With Tony Porter

According to you, what defines ‘manhood’?

You know, I don’t want to define manhood for anyone. I want them to have the freedom to define it for themselves.

A big thank you to Tony Porter, the man who has been changing the way society looks at women. In addressing this prevalent issue, he has also shown us how we can do our part to make this world better for the next generation, by raising our boys right. It starts early and we should. Let us strive for freedom and equity, like the way he says! 

About the author:

Written by Deepthi Balasunder on 26 February 2020. 

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