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How Men Can Raise Boys to Be Their Best, Most Authentic Selves

"The Big Book of Dares," written by Ted Bunch and Anna Marie Johnson Teague, offers a framework to help raise boys with a healthy sense of manhood.

Traditional notions of masculinity tend to trap boys, limiting their potential and preventing them from expressing their feelings, exploring different interests, and being their authentic selves — all of which can lead to unhealthy behaviors down the line. How can parents — and fathers in particular — help them break free of those constraints? Well, they can dare them to.

That’s the intent of The Book of Dares: 100 Ways For Boys to Be Kind, Bold, and Brave. Written by Ted Bunch and Anna-Marie Johnson Teague of the anti-violence organization A Call to Men, the book provides 100 challenges for boys in the form of dares that work to promote a healthy respect for women, different cultures, religions, interests, and themselves. Broken up into such dares as “Dare to ask a friend to teach you something,” “Dare to wear a female athlete’s jersey,” and “Dare to prove a stereotype wrong,” the book is a smart, accessible tool that parents can use to engage their sons and encourage everything from emotional literacy to healthy manhood.

Fatherly spoke to Bunch and Johnson Teague about daring boys to embrace healthy masculinity, what lessons fathers must be sure to model at home, why “toxic masculinity” is an unproductive term, and the importance of helping boys embrace their full range of emotions.

 

I think the idea of using the dare as the hook for this book is smart, as it takes something that is often seen as traditionally “macho” and spins it into a positive and progressive way to teach boys to express emotions, be more accepting, and just try things that are not often top-of-mind. 

Anna Marie: We spoke with thousands of boys around the world about the idea of dares. Unanimously they told us that dares were equally frightening and fascinating. It was impossible to know the outcome, and scary to imagine a bad one. They were worried about embarrassment and shame if they didn’t come through. they were attracted to the concept over and over. So, we definitely wanted to take something that came from the “man box” culture and turn it on its head. So, we put forth 100 positive challenges that all ladder up to promote healthy manhood, authenticity, and gender equity.

Ted: With dare culture, it’s a risk, isn’t it? One of the things that we encourage boys and men really to do is to take risk. It’s almost one of the ways that we prove that we’re —  and I’m putting this in quotes — “man enough”. That we’re masculine, that we’re meeting those rigid notions of manhood that men are teaching our boys  and that we’ve been taught as men from the generation above us.

So, we’ve turned us on his head where we look at it as positive challenges for our boys. That’s where it’s really been very intriguing for boys. And it’s been very well received. It really stems from that collective socialization of manhood. We wanted to use that to motivate and encourage boys.

One thing that is often lost when talking about manhood and “new masculinity” is that it’s often talked about as burning down all old masculine norms. And I think recasting those traditional masculine things, as you have done here with dares and risks — ‘masculine’ things — and using them to create strong, vulnerable, emotionally present boys who fight for equality, is really smart.

AM: We definitely don’t want to burn down the idea of manhood, right? I mean, all of our work at A Call to Men is about inviting men and boys into this conversation and not indicting their manhood. What we’re trying to do is just create space for men and boys to be more than tough, strong, aggressive, dominant. We want to create space for them to be all who they were created to be. We talk about authenticity and that’s really what we’re getting that. And that’s why we wanted to focus a third of the dares on authenticity.

I have a 12-year old son. His name is Jack. When he started school and was that 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-old age I began to see how, once boys were around their peers, how differences are considered as weaknesses when what we should really be doing is celebrating our kids and their uniqueness.

So, we wanted to write dares that are designed to help boys identify the things they might call out or pick on somebody for and praise them instead. And we know that this helps build their trust, deepen their friendships, and embrace and love themselves.

That’s an important goal.

T: As men, we’re missing out on so much because these ridged notions of manhood are putting us in the “Man Box”, a term that we coined at A Call to Men that illustrates a collective socialization. We’re putting the boys in a box, so we’re limiting them in so many ways.

There are wonderful things about being a man and wonderful things about being a boy, but there’s so much more that we could enjoy. That’s where rigid notions of manhood really harm us.

For example, many boys are expected to be strong, aggressive, dominating, powerful, and athletic. To be providers, protectors, decision-makers, and leaders. Many of these qualities are wonderful, but what happens when boys fall short of those expectations? We punish and shame them. We say things like, ‘You’re not man enough’ or ‘Grow a pair.’ These teachings are reinforced in things that we say all the time. Like ‘Big boys don’t cry.’ ‘Man up,’ or ‘Stop acting like a girl,’ which is, of course, an insult to girls and degrading to girls as well.

These messages are not okay — that it’s just not safe even to show our emotions, or to be afraid. Vulnerability is a strength. And that’s one of the things that dares called out perfectly.

What are some of the dares that stand out to you the most?

T: “Dare to name three healthy emotions you felt today.” You’d be surprised how many boys and even grown men can’t do this. We found that when young people talk about something important, the adults in their lives are quick to offer opinions and solutions. I know that I’ve done that as a parent. I just want to solve the problem. And that’s one of the things that we do as men — Get to the bottom line and let me solve the problem and keep it moving. But that’s not always the best way to respond.

One of the best ways to respond is simply by asking, ‘How did that make you feel?’ It gives boys permission to articulate how they’re feeling, that feelings are allowed. It builds emotional intelligence and helps them solve problems in their lives. And as they grow, they become better communicators. And even when they go into the workforce, their professional lives improve as a result.

I love that.

T: I always really like Dare 16: “Dare to prove a stereotype wrong.” That’s a really great one. There’s another one: “Dare to wear a female professional athlete’s jersey,” to school or in your community, that I love as well.

AM: You know what’s crazy? When we talk to boys about that dare, it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could wear a female athlete’s jersey. They weren’t opposed to it at all. They just hadn’t had the thought. We haven’t given them permission or shown them the path to do that.

I also love “Dare to chip in for equal pay.” The dare is really great because it presents the scenario where a brother and a sister are asked to do the dishes for a week and they do the same work and they do a great job. But at the end of the week, the girl is paid $30 and the boy is paid $27. There’s so much unfairness that happens in that scenario. Our young people have a radar for what is fair, and they can immediately identify bias, and they are not going to let it fly. So, it’s a really simple, effective way to talk about what is a very complicated issue in our society.

More generally, what are some behaviors that you think men in particular need to model more often for their boys?

AM: I think we should definitely talk about the importance of modeling consent to kids, starting as toddlers. There’s so much to discuss there. And then gender roles in the household.

T:  Yes. We can model consent, meaning that we have boundaries with the kids. Sometimes at the playground, a four- or five-year-old boy will hit a girl on the playground and as parents — both the moms and the dads — will say things like ‘Oh he just likes her.’

No. That’s not an excuse. We have to teach boys to appropriately interact with girls and others because we don’t want any bullying going on either. We want our boys to value and respect girls because when they grow into young men who go from high school to college, we have high rates of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military — because they’ve never been taught boundaries, and they haven’t been taught to value girls.

Absolutely.

T: We also want fathers to be able to express the full range of emotions. And we need to allow our boys to cry. When we tell our boys to stop crying, you’re also telling them to stop feeling. Because again, that’s all part of that “Man Box” culture. It dominates and polices boys and demands that they obey its rules and punishes them if they fall short.

That socialization leads men vulnerable to depression, anxiety, suicide, high-risk behaviors like vaping, alcohol use. And it often puts them often in physical danger. Grown men, also. We live six years less than women. Suicide is about 3.5 times higher. Rates of anxiety and depression are higher, too.

Embracing your full length of emotions, being able to say, ‘I’m afraid’. Not always conforming to the pressure to be fearless and in control. These things are helpful to men.

Acceptance is a huge part of this book. What are some ways that parents can be more mindful of teaching boys to more accepting and more confident in being inclusive and celebrating differences?

AM: I think part of the problem is that we don’t allow any of our boys to be their authentic selves, right? We’re constantly telling them they have to live up to these rigid notions of manhood in this very limited way. And that that presents a framework where they’re not allowing anybody else to be their authentic selves, either.

That’s such an important point.

T: What parents can do is really model what we’re asking for and hoping for our boys to receive. Do as I do and as I say, right? That’s what we want.

As parents, we really need to stretch ourselves, so we need to learn more about different people. We need to learn about different experiences that folks who don’t look like us have had and how we impact those people as well, whether it’s gender or race or any other thing that identifies people. So, as parents, we really need to do that. It’s a great opportunity for us to do our own self-development and show our children that we struggle with these things, too.

Neither of you have mentioned the term “toxic masculinity.” Do you think the term is counter-productive, as it often gets men on the defensive instead of engaging them in a conversation?

Ted: I’m glad you brought this because toxic masculinity is not a term that we use at A Call to Men. And you won’t see it in the Book of Dares, either. We don’t believe that masculinity is toxic. We would call those behaviors that some see as toxic, as “unhealthy behaviors” that are just not helpful.

When we start saying toxic masculinity, it’s like saying bad guys and good guys and that ‘those guys are toxic and I’m not toxic’. And where do we really draw the line there? Because all men in our society have been taught certain things in this collective socialization. Now, it doesn’t mean you act out on those things. But you’ve been taught those things, right? We’ve been taught that, for instance, women and girls have less value than men. We’ve been taught that some women are the property of men. And we’ve been taught that women and girls are objects — in particular, sexual objects. So, most men would say that a toxic thing would be a man sexually assaulting a woman. But how many of those men would say they haven’t looked at a woman and sexually objectified her and she’s felt uncomfortable about that? Now, he may not call that toxic. She might.

So we don’t like to distinguish toxic from not toxic. We look at the collective. It’s not about indicting men; it’s about guiding men. And it’s also not about calling them out, but about calling them in. And we don’t feel like toxic masculinity calls men in. It’s a misunderstood term where people who do hear it automatically put up their defenses. I think the average guy out there is not receiving that word well. So, we don’t use it. We don’t really like it.

AM: I would add to that map two quick things. One is when we identify people as toxic. If you point and say, ‘Oh, that guy sexually assaulted someone, he’s toxic. I’m nothing like him,’ that allows the majority of men an out to the conversation. They can say ‘I don’t have to be involved, I’m nothing like that guy.’

In reality, all men have the potential to make a positive change in this area. So that is really central to the work of A Call to Men. And also, you will never hear us point out as Ted said, ‘Hey, that guy. It’s all about that guy. That guy is the one with the problem.’ Because that guy does what he does in the presence of so many a lot of the time.

T: Let’s look at domestic violence and sexual assault as an example. The violence that’s done toward women. Most violence against women is committed by men, but most men are not violent. But we are silent about those that are. And that’s as much of the problem as the behavior is. That silence is all of us saying, ‘Oh, I’m not that bad or I’m not like that and we don’t want that.’ We want the silence to be broken by saying ‘We’re all swimming in this water together and we need to make this change.’

I really do think The Book of Dares is a great tool to help with that change.

AM: It’s very fun and accessible for boys. But it also does a lot of heavy lifting. It encourages their authenticity, it helps them develop empathy, it talks about healthy masculinity and healthy relationships. And the dares help support boys’ social-emotional learning.

I think parents of boys really struggle being confronted all the time with terms like toxic masculinity and male privilege. And for parents like me, white privilege. Headlines are dominated by stories about men behaving badly. We want to validate and acknowledge that being a boy is a wonderful thing, but we just have to be intentional to make every boy’s lived experience the best it can be. And we’ve got to use tools like this to do that.

Healthy manhood is the antidote for some of the most destructive problems in our society. Domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, gun violence, school shooting. It’s all tied together and healthy manhood of the solution.

T: I want to add one thing especially for the fathers: we’re not taught how to communicate from an early age as girls and women often are. We’re just taught to kind of shut it down. So, to really have conversations with our boys we have to develop that muscle so that when we ask them how you’re doing and they say, ‘Okay,’ we don’t just accept that. That’s what we do as men, isn’t it? Our world can be falling down around us and somebody will ask, ‘How you doing?’ And we’ll say, ‘Well, I’m good’

But no, we’re not good.  We need to lean into it a little bit more with our boys and go a little bit further. So, I just want to encourage men to do that. Not to accept that ‘I’m fine’ as an answer, but to lean in a little bit more.

 

You can buy The Book of Dares: 100 Ways For Boys to Be Kind, Bold, and Brave here.