Zach Gerdes and Dr. Ronald F. Levant describe some of
the hazards when men try to raise macho sons.
It’s not revolutionary to say that fathers influence their sons when it comes to what sons learn about “masculinity” and growing into men. However, we know much less about how fathers socialize their sons to become men and what outcomes this process can have on sons as adults. In our recent study, we worked in collaboration with the production team of the Broadway show, Kinky Boots, to examine just that.
In the musical Kinky Boots, audiences are shown how fathers’ expectations can influence son’s perceptions of their fathers’ support. And, fathers’ support for sons’ authentic selves, when it occurs, impacts the father-son relationship and the son’s well-being. Our research supports this in meaningful ways. By creating a new scale to assess fathers’ expectations of adult sons’ masculinity, we found that fathers’ expectations of their sons to be more “traditionally masculine” (such as being tough, dominant, or self-reliant) related to poorer reported parenting quality.
In addition, adult sons who viewed their fathers as having strict expectations for sons’ masculinity also reported less self-esteem and relationship satisfaction with a partner as adults. We don’t know for sure whether strict expectations from fathers caused this to happen directly, but we know they’re related.
This research tells us that it might not be a good thing for fathers to raise sons with the mindset of turning them into highly masculine men. In other studies, strict adherence to traditional notions of masculinity has been related to substance use, depression, stress, violence, aggression, health problems like high blood pressure, and other concerning things. This could mean that fathers who teach their sons to be highly masculine are also teaching them how to have worse health in the process.
If fathers teach their sons to be men in ways that may actually be harming them, something needs to change. However, many fathers and sons alike may face an almost impossible challenge: conform to what it means to be a “man” in this society or make choices that may be better for psychological health, relationships, and well-being. Fathers need to be able to teach their sons how to be healthy and manly at the same time – in ways that don’t make them choose between one or the other. Perhaps the most manly thing a son can do is to be himself!
In “Kinky Boots” the two lead actors are preoccupied with their struggles with their fathers’ expectations. Charlie was the scion of four generations of shoemakers. His father expected that he would take over the business, which Charlie did not want to do. Simon grew up as a man in small town near London. His father wanted him to be a prize fighter like himself, and taught his son to box at an early age. But Simon had other ideas, and was more interested in being a drag queen, taking the name Lola. Charlie’s and Lola’s paths crossed while Charlie was being accosted and Lola stepped in to defend him, breaking the heel of her boot in the process. Charlie, being a shoemaker, offered to fix it, and in the process they formed a collaboration to make boots for men in drag – kinky boots. Together they sang “Not My Father’s Son,” in which the following lines expressed the dilemma they shared: “It was never easy/To be his type of man/To breathe freely/Was not in his plan/And the best part of me/Is what he wouldn’t see.”
Thus Charlie and Lola supported each other to become their true selves despite their respective fathers’ expectations. In everyday life, we see fathers being men in non-traditional ways also: a dad showing his kids how to take up more housework, talking to his son about his feelings when he gets teased at school rather than showing him how to throw a mean right hook, or showing his children that sometimes strength means getting help when you need it rather than masking problems.
We all need to figure out how parents can teach their sons what it means to be a man and what it means to be healthy in ways that don’t contradict each other. The challenge continues for ways in which we can teach young boys and men how to have an authentic self-concept and healthy gender identity all in one.
Zachary Gerdes, M.A., teaches psychology at the University of Akron and conducts research on men and masculinities. He writes on men’s issues and presents on ways to prevent sexual assault, suicide, and substance abuse through healthy masculinity.
Ronald F. Levant, Ed.D., ABPP, is Professor of Psychology, The University of Akron, where he served as Dean of the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences. He also served as the 2005 President of APA, and as Editor of the Psychology of Men and Masculinity. Dr. Levant has authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited 16 books and over 200 peer-reviewed refereed journal articles and book chapters. His research focus is in the psychology of men and masculinity.