Editor’s letter: Raising boys… where’s the manual?

There’s a story I want to tell you that’s stayed with me. It was a Twitter thread that went viral a couple of years ago from a woman who worked at an American theme park, as a clown who paints kids’ faces. A little boy, four, asks to have a butterfly. As the clown sets to work, the boy’s mother interjects and demands that her son be painted with ‘something for boys’. A terse debate begins between the mother and the clown, until the mother ropes in her husband: ‘Do you want your son to have a butterfly on his face?’ Both parents demand a skull and crossbones instead. ‘I know it’s just facepaint,’ says the clown. ‘But that’s my point. Why are these parents shaming their boy over facepaint?’

Her point is, seemingly silly little moments like these are actually the origins of what we now label as ‘toxic masculinity’. The conditioning of impressionable young minds – to feel shame about expressing a love of delicate beautiful things like butterflies, and to feel obliged to only like ‘tough’ things such as skulls, crossbones and guns – starts early. The anecdote really had an effect on me. It’s a big part of the reason I wanted to talk to the mothers we are featuring here. I firmly believe it’s the hardest period in our lifetime in which to try to raise healthy and happy boys. 

Of course, as the mother of an only daughter, I am no expert. But, in my experience at least, raising a 21st-century girl definitely comes with more of a manual. I am well schooled on making sure I compliment my daughter for far more than her pretty face and encouraging her to be whatever she wants to be. But I’m way down her list of role models these days. Her world is full of ‘girl power’ icons from Taylor Swift to Lizzo to Jameela Jamil, who fly flags for equality and self-confidence. We’re currently working so hard to overcompensate for centuries of sexism that there’s a frenzy of positivity aimed at young girls; everything from empowered slogan T-shirts, to the re-imagining of Dr Who, to the bigger issues of the #MeToo movement and the rejection of obsessive diet culture. But I wonder if we’re leaving our young men to drift. Girls are getting better at finding their voice and using it, while boys are suffering their own unique mental health challenges, and still finding it shameful to admit vulnerability. 

I’m grateful to the mothers and sons we have spoken to in this issue, for opening up the conversation about how to raise happy, healthy children, a responsibility that has so many repercussions for our children and everyone around them. It’s a fascinating topic that will always spark debate, but also one where we’re all constantly looking for the guidance and shared experiences of others. I hope you will enjoy it and the rest of this packed issue.

Editor’s picks

A few things I’m coveting this week

glasses Just add pink bubbles. Glasses, £22 for two, oliverbonas.com

washi tapeTo elevate my brown paper gift-wrap. Biodegradable washi tape,£1, andkeep.com

zara bag So cute, and definitely not just for Christmas. Bag, £15.99, zara.com