Raise boys better: How parents can break gender stereotypes for a better future

Lim (second from left) and Tan (third from left) have monthly family sessions with their son Tyler and daughter Tiffany when they air their thoughts and feelings. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

SOCIAL media may not be the best place to learn about family dynamics, but the presence of popular hashtags like #MarriedSingleMum and #NoDustySons are shining light on the unequal physical and mental load in managing a family.

#MarriedSingleMum accompanies videos about a mother trying to juggle household tasks and kids, with no one to help her. Meanwhile, teacher and mother Payal Desai popularised #NoDustySons in videos where she teaches her son cleaning and manners, even skincare, with the hope that he grows up to be involved and compassionate.

Both hashtags talk about the same predicament; that even though we’re living in the 21st century, traditional roles still persist. Over the decades, women have gone out to work to improve their family’s finances, while it seems that (at least from these videos), some men have not leaned into family life, resulting in their spouses having to carry the double burden of being a full-time worker and mother to their children.

Soon says some young parents advocate an egalitarian approach to raising children. — RAYNETTE SOONSoon says some young parents advocate an egalitarian approach to raising children. — RAYNETTE SOON

Licensed counsellor Raynette Soon says traditionally, it is true that boys and girls are expected to be brought up differently.

“There are Chinese sayings that go, ‘A man bleeds, but does not shed tears’ and ‘Raise girls rich, raise boys poor’, suggesting that boys should be nurtured to exhibit emotional resilience and economic independence, often by suppressing emotional expression.”

Similarly, Soon says, Indian culture refers to girls as “paraya dhan” (someone else’s fortune), indirectly emphasising that boys are responsible for caring for their ageing parents.

“These cultural proverbs underscore the enduring influence of traditional gender roles, shaping the expectations placed upon boys and girls within their respective societies,” she says.

Clinical psychologist Arman Imran Ashok agrees.

“However, these gender roles are not specific to traditional Asian cultures. Even in Western countries, where practices are more modern, so to speak, patriarchy persists. It’s a global issue,” he says.

“Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and the narrative surrounding it is a fine example of how we can talk about patriarchy, pointing out why such imbalance is detrimental to society and yet the practice still continues.”

In the United States, Arman says, women could only vote in 1920.

“So I think we still have a long way to go before we reach a point where society has this equity,” he adds.

Social media, friendships and identities are some of the issues teenage boys need to navigate. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The StarSocial media, friendships and identities are some of the issues teenage boys need to navigate. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Changing landscape

While traditional upbringing persists, a growing number of young Asian parents are challenging these ingrained cultural norms, particularly concerning gender roles. For example, boys are also taught to do house chores and girls are encouraged to play sports and develop physical strength.

“These parents advocate an egalitarian approach to raising children, emphasising that there is no inherent difference in how boys and girls should be raised. Instead, they prioritise autonomy and individuality in their children’s upbringing. For instance, both boys and girls are encouraged to play sports, dabble in music or art activities,” Soon says.

She adds that even in moments when parents may unintentionally reinforce cultural expectations, like choosing certain colours or activities for boys and girls, some parents make deliberate efforts to provide their children with choices beyond societal norms, shifting the narrative of raising children beyond perceived gender roles.

Zuraihah Abdul Rahman, 46, a senior legal counsel in a local bank says she trained her sons, Muhammad Kalif, 18, and Ali Imran, 12, to help with house chores since they were toddlers.

“Initially, they picked up toys after playing and cleaned up spills on the floor. As they grew older, these chores expanded to include cleaning their room and toilet, doing the laundry and cooking their favourite food.

“My husband and I want to nurture a mindset of helping so they can be independent and contribute to house chores. During the early stages of training, sometimes we pay them as a form of reward, but eventually that stopped, at which time they knew those tasks were already their responsibilities,” she says.

Arman says how children perceive gender roles depends on the household they are brought up in.

“If their parents have similar expectations on their sons and daughters, like doing household chores, cooking, looking after pets and managing the house, then the kids will continue with those habits into adulthood.”

But he says as children grow up and have their own circle of friends, they might see that imbalance because not all families adopt the same approach in kids’ upbringing.

“I think parents should have open conversations about this cultural imbalance with their children, especially their sons. Boys should know that in many instances, women don’t have that same advantage as men. This will make boys aware of the landscape and make small changes to help make the world more equitable for everyone,” he says.

Arman takes female athletes as an example.

“Sometimes, they are criticised for their event outfits. Male athletes don’t get that kind of intense scrutiny,” he says.

Zuraihah (left) and her husband Syahril Mohd (third from left) train their boys Muhammad Kalif and Ali Imran to do house chores since there were toddlers. — ZURAIHAH ABDUL RAHMANZuraihah (left) and her husband Syahril Mohd (third from left) train their boys Muhammad Kalif and Ali Imran to do house chores since there were toddlers. — ZURAIHAH ABDUL RAHMAN

Emotional expression and mental health

There is a notable distinction when it comes to emotional expression among boys and girls. Societal norms may still dictate that excessive crying in boys is perceived as “too girlish”, but a lack of tears in girls is seldom labelled as “too boyish”.

Soon says this implicit discrepancy may pose potential long-term effects on mental health for both genders, who could be subject to mental health issues but with a manifestation that is different from what’s reflected by statistics.

“For instance, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), females are more prone to major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, while males exhibit a higher prevalence of addiction. Despite both raised with the freedom of expression, male emotional vulnerability needs to be translated into concealed forms of expression, while females are permitted to express emotional vulnerability more openly as it is,” she says.

Mother of two Samantha Lim, 40, says she encourages emotional expression for both her son Tyler Tan Louie, 14, and daughter Tiffany Tan Jianee, 12. When she and her husband Donovan Tan, 40, got married, she says, they adhered to the traditional norms of emphasising toughness among boys because that was how they were brought up.

“It changed when Tyler was 13. We realised that as he went into adolescence, he needed space to express himself and we needed to offer him a place where he could feel comfortable to speak without the fear of being judged,” Lim says.

“We also encourage him to express his emotions and have monthly meetings when we air out our thoughts and feelings, so we can understand one another better. I think central to our family is mutual respect. In these meetings, there’s no hierarchy; everyone is equal. We want to foster a space for discussion without fear of punishment or scolding,” Tan says.

Lim says on top of emotional expression, she also teaches her children life skills like housework and cooking.

“My husband sets a positive example for them because he is very hands-on with housework,” Lim says.

Zuraihah says it’s important for parents to be supportive and to always encourage their children, even though parents might think the kids’ ideas are “crazy”.

“Our first son has a creative mind and loves music, art, drawings and also sports. He once asked me about knitting (which I knew nothing about). But instead of undermining his query, I bought him knitting sets and he learned from YouTube,” she adds.

“It’s good to remind ourselves as parents to never ever belittle our kids’ interest and always encourage them, be part of the process and enjoy the journey,” she says.

Zuraihah says her youngest son is into sciences, politics, history and cooking.

“Never compare the kids as they are different persons with different personalities. Celebrate their own interests.”

Lim says instead of enforcing stereotypes, she and her husband focus on treating each child as a unique individual.

“We nurture their strengths and encourage them to pursue their interests. For example, when my daughter expressed interest in joining basketball, we fully supported her decision. We also always encourage both our children to try new things.”

Arman says talking to boys about gender disparity helps them understand the society's set-up. — ARMAN IMRAN ASHOKArman says talking to boys about gender disparity helps them understand the society's set-up. — ARMAN IMRAN ASHOK

Managing emotions

Soon says while boys are often associated with higher incidences of delinquency and risk-taking behaviour, this perception may stem from the overt nature of their actions, making them more easily detectable.

“While both boys and girls may engage in bullying, boys tend to display physical aggression, whereas girls may employ subtler forms such as social exclusion, which is just as lethal. When experiencing mental health issues, males typically externalise their emotions, leading to anger management problems or substance abuse, while females tend to internalise, expressing emotions like sadness and anxiety,” she says.

Arman says there are a lot of factors that push boys into delinquency and risk-taking behaviours.

“Genetic differences and different brain structure between boys and girls play a role. The hormone testosterone plays a role and their environment has an impact on that too. There are no clear-cut factors but generally 50% is biological while 50% is environment but this can tilt according to their personalities and other factors,” he says.

Soon adds that biologically, infant boys exhibit higher arousal levels, less inhibitory control and slower language development; all of which contribute to their behaviour.

“Parental responses may further inhibit boys’ emotional expression, such as limited emotional vocabulary or shorter discussions about emotions. Societal expectations also play a role, with boys encouraged to externalise emotions like anger to protect their families, while girls are expected to maintain familial relationships by internalising emotions like sadness, fear and guilt,” she says.

“This process is not linear but rather overlapping, emphasising the importance of parents moving beyond gender norms in raising children,” she says.

Lim says she regularly spends one-on-one time with her son.

“I bring up the topic of emotions when I notice he’s upset but hasn’t expressed it. It’s not a one-time thing; this is something ongoing. I wait for the right moment to talk about his feelings, ensuring he feels safe to express himself.

“Emotions are vital in influencing how we behave and make decisions. I make sure to let him know that showing emotions isn’t a weakness; it helps us understand ourselves better. I urge him to talk openly about his feelings when he’s upset, to figure out why, find ways to make things better, and avoid similar situations in the future,” she says.

With regards to her children’s emotional expression, Zuraihah says she plays it by ear and is flexible depending on the situation.

“Know when and what to ask, but give them some space if they are not in the mood to talk. Allow them to cry it all out to express their feelings.

“My husband and I always have a date day with each one of them. This way, our kids are more open with their emotions because they trust us not just as parents, but also as a friend whom they can rely on and open up about any issues,” she adds.

Ways to build the build with a teenage boy. — The StarGraphicsWays to build the build with a teenage boy. — The StarGraphics

‘Boys will be boys’

Soon says while the statement “boys will be boys” is often considered problematic – perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes and excusing inappropriate behaviour such as being rough and noisy – the toxicity can vary depending on how it is used and the accompanying messages by parents.

“For example, parents may reinforce unfair cultural expectations by mentioning this phrase, yet the impact on a child depends on the context in which the statement is made and the alternative messaging that comes with it. If you say ‘boys will be boys, but we will still love you for who you are’ (which separates behaviour from identity) or ‘boys will be boys, but we can learn to speak gently too’ (which emphasises autonomy and the choice to learn), then it can significantly alter the effect,” she says.

“By giving such sentiments a positive and empowering slant, parents can help mitigate the negative impact of this potentially toxic statement, even as they carry their own history of cultural expectations into parenthood,” Soon says.

Zuraihah adds that it’s important to allow kids to make mistakes.

“No one learns about responsibility overnight, and the most important thing is guidance from parents. Focus on their efforts, not result. Avoid threats as they would turn off the idea of promoting responsibility. Most importantly, be a role model because kids learn by example. Teach them to apologise and give compliments when necessary,” she says.

Gender roles have been imbued in society for centuries and changes take time, Arman says. Mothers, for example, are still expected to handle communications with their kids’ teachers, even when she also has a full-time job. Women are also expected to know how to cook and manage the house on top of working.

“That said, women should also be given the choice to be a stay-at-home mum if that works for their families,” he says.

“Patriarchy can be obvious, and it can also be subtle; but the more we realise these unhealthy unwritten rules, the more we can change them so the future is equitable for all,” Arman concludes.

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