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How to Raise a Man

Kim Kuhn

“The arts of housewifery should be regarded as professional to the woman who intends to become a wife,” reads the rust-colored, serif type. Among her duties are “regular and agreeable meals, a house managed with order and economy, and a skillful and affectionate nurse in time of sickness.”

This is just one of the helpful nuggets in Letters From a Father to His Son, a how-to-be-a-man-ual published in the late 18th century. Along with choosing a wife, chapter topics include strength of character, ornamental gardening, bigotry and cheap pleasures. This is what becoming a man looked like in 1793.

Two hundred and twenty years later, I'm at the American International Toy Fair in New York City, staring at the cutest little red velvet cakes decorated with rainbow sugar crystals. I'm totally buying the new Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven—now in a gender-neutral black and silver—for my 6-year-old son, Tanner.

This, my friends, is what becoming a man looks like in 2013.

My family's lineage sort of provides me a Ph.D. in this topic. My grandfather had two sons. My father had two sons. I have two sons. But much has changed since the days when my grandmother cooked all the meals, wrote all the checks. The gender roles and stereotypes we've long accepted have totally evaporated.

Men are the providers: Wrong. The majority of American women—53 percent—are the breadwinners in their households.

Men put work first: False. Sixty-six percent of women ages 18 to 34 rate a high-paying career as one of the top priorities in life, compared to 59 percent of young men.

Women are staying home with the kids: Try again. While still a small demographic, the stay-at-home dad population has risen exponentially over the past decade, from 81,000 in 2001 to 176,000 in 2011. Add to that the 53 percent of dads who say they would stay home if their spouse made enough money.

Girls are more empathetic and nurturing than boys: There is no scientific evidence to support the claim. Period. 

As a result, there is a new man taking shape in the 21st century. He's nurturing and supportive, not distant and stoic. He opens the door for a lady, and she's probably his boss. He owns a sauté pan and a camouflage diaper bag. Staying home with the kids while his wife works sounds like a good idea. How do you prepare your son to be that guy? Start by tossing the clichés (snips and snails and puppy dog tails) and discover what little boys are really made of.

The Biology of Boys

Lise Eliot has a daughter and two sons. While daughter Julia was into traditional girl activities (dolls, stuffed animals), she also played with Legos and her wooden train set, and collected worms during family vacations to the Pacific Northwest. Eliot's sons, Sam and Toby, were more excited about toy cars and trucks, but equally into Legos and stuffed animals. As an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University, Eliot often wondered just how Mars and Venus boys' and girls' brains really are. What she found is, there are hardly any differences in your infants, which she outlines in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

“At birth, you are wired for three things: sucking, swallowing and gag reflex,” says Eliot. “The boy-girl differences are not ‘hardwired,’ as many parents believe.” There are two important points of differentiation. First, boys are exposed to a high level of testosterone in the womb, which appears to cause their fidgetiness and rough-and-tumble nature. Second, for boys, the development of the frontal lobe—which controls attention and impulse control—continues into their mid-20s, several years later than for girls. These are two of the most defining factors of a boy's life—and potentially his future. The rest has a lot to do with you.

Smart Isn't a “Girl” Thing

Last year the University of Georgia and Columbia studied 5,800 students from kindergarten to fifth grade. The study looked at standardized test scores and the teachers' assessments of each student and found the assessments uniformly favored girls over boys, even when the test scores were similar. It appears social performance in the classroom—the boys' jittery rambunctiousness versus the girls' calm engagement—created a bias.

Historically speaking, though, boys had the advantage once school was out: Professional opportunities for them were more plentiful. But the days of gender barriers saving our sons are coming to an end. There's no question they have the smarts. Where they fall short is with self-control and interpersonal skills. The truth is boys are as adept at socializing as girls are. Before they're even walking, both genders have the same innate preference for dolls because “we are wired for social perception,” says Eliot. “We are attracted to faces, and you need faces—meaning people—to get attention.”

Mom, the Secret Weapon

Susan Stiffelman, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles, separated from her son's father when he was 10.

“His dad helped to inspire his love of sports,” says Stiffelman. “I think moms can be a secret weapon.”

The phrase used by experts is “relational model”: Mom is the first girl a boy will know, and she sets the tone for future interactions with the opposite sex. For Stiffelman, that meant making sure her son understood proper grooming and manners, kept his room neat, helped with chores, did laundry and learned how to cook. (Thanks again, Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven!)

“I wasn't raising a boy,” Stiffelman adds. “I was raising a man who hopefully would also become someone's future husband.”

Dad: Role (Model) of a Lifetime

“No one can raise a son like a committed father,” says Christopher Brown, executive vice president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Unfortunately, father absence is an American epidemic: One in three children is growing up in a home without their biological dad. (In 1960 that figure was one in ten.) A father's absence is connected to higher rates of health and emotional problems, drug use and criminal behavior.

While father-child quality time has tripled in the past four decades, it's still a small sliver of the pie: On average, dads spend one hour per day with their kids. “How can we expect a boy to grow into a man if he doesn't have that role model?” asks Brown. “It's difficult to be what you cannot see.”

Ronald Levant is a professor of psychology at the University of Akron and editor of the academic journal The Psychology of Men and Masculinity. He believes one of the greatest things a dad can do for his son is express emotions. “Fathers have a tendency to dial back on public displays of affection as their sons get older. They worry it makes them ‘weak.’ That's a mistake,” says Levant. “Physical expressions of love increase feelings of security and confidence.”

Stiffelman adds that Dad should help his son “identify what he's feeling and verbalize it. This will give him the skills to untangle everyday conflict, whether it's with a boss or a spouse.” Instead of open-ended questions (“those come off as therapist-y,” she says), start the conversation using your own observations (“I wonder if you're feeling upset about what happened”).

Chivalry in the “You Go, Girl” Era

Nerf has a line of pink dart guns. One of Lego's latest building sets is a beauty salon. YouTube highlights of 9-year-old football phenom Samantha Gordon went viral last year and landed her on a Wheaties box. We want young men to give up their seats to ladies as we tell them “a girl can do anything you can do.” Does old-fashioned chivalry make sense anymore?

“We need to teach boys that chivalrous behavior is an acknowledgment of difference—not inequality—between the sexes,” notes Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and family counselor and mom of two in New York City. Parents need to make clear that acts like opening a door or pulling out a chair “convey sentiments of politeness and civility, not a perception of weakness.” Adds Brown: “Chivalry and girls achieving great things are separate issues.”

How to Raise a Human Being

“I never thought that I was raising you and Aaron to be men,” my mom, Scarlett Bean, said to me recently. “A parent should recognize each child's individual gifts. We bought Aaron building blocks because that's what he loved. I'd like to think if we had a daughter who loved blocks, we would have done the same thing.”

Today my brother, Aaron, is a carpenter—and a model. Lise Eliot's daughter, Julie, beloved Lego fan, is in college studying architecture, a male-dominated field. They are two examples of the same truth: There are no gender-specific traits. Empathy and aggression, compassion and competitiveness, wrestling matches and playing kitchen: These live in us all.

One evening, as Tanner helps me mix a batch of Duncan Hines, he licks the whisk and dunks it back into the bowl. I tell him to use his manners. Pause. “One day I will help ladies cross the street,” he announces. “Would you let a lady help you cross the street?” I ask.

His eyes widened. “Yes!” Tanner replies. “We could look both ways together.”

What about the girls? Here are New Rules for Raising Girls

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