In high school, I spent countless hours babysitting younger kids. It was my primary source of spending-money and more importantly an experience that helped me grow immensely as a person. Kids are full of contagious enthusiasm that makes it hard to be anything but happy when you’re around them. I cherished the chance to be a part of helping the next generation grow up as confident, caring people who knew they were loved. The two boys I babysat most regularly— Zach and Vincent—are two of the people I miss the most now that I’m at college and my parents have moved to a new city six hours away from my hometown.
Because babysitting was such a positive experience for me, I always found the pushback I sometimes got about it odd. In short, people felt free to offer negative comments grounded in the pervasive idea that men are not supposed to care for children. These comments were usually easy to brush off, like when the instructor in the Red Cross babysitter training I took in 7th grade repeatedly noted with unease that I was the only male in the class.
But sometimes the pushback was harder to forget. I remember a time during my sophomore year of high school that stands out in particular. I was leaving AP European History class with one of my close friends, and he asked my plans for the weekend. I told him I would be spending both Friday and Saturday night babysitting Zach and Vincent. This was a common weekend activity for me, so he reacted not with surprise but with exasperation. He said something to the extent of “come on, you need to get a man’s job” and offered that he could probably get his uncle to hire me as part of his lawn mowing business. I politely declined, but left the conversation confused. I figured he knew something about being a man that I didn’t. But I didn’t understand why I would want to mow lawns instead of care for kids I knew well. More importantly, I didn’t understand that the conversation my friend and I had just had was incredibly political.
Our society does not view childcare as a man’s responsibility because our society does not value emotional intelligence, vulnerability and sensitivity as masculine traits. Caring for a child—keeping them safe and happy—requires an abundance of emotional attention. The pushback I encountered to my babysitting was actually reflective of a broader societal discomfort with sensitive men who respect their own feelings and the feelings of others.
The idea of sensitive men has been in the media a lot lately, perhaps mostly thanks to a great article in TIME titled “How to Raise a Sweet Son in an Era of Angry Men.” I am grateful to have grown up around a strong, caring mom and older sister along with a dad who valued me as a complete person. Everyday life with my family challenged toxic gender stereotypes, particularly related to masculinity. My family encouraged me to express my emotions and view them not as personal faults but as assets. I’m only beginning to realize how incredibly impactful, and subversive of the patriarchy, that was.
I do not think that masculinity is inherently toxic, but a quick look at recent headlines reveals how much pain mainstream conceptions of masculinity create in our world. At alarming rates, men shoot crowds of people, rape their dates, abuse their partners, attack LGBTQ people and stand in the way of meaningful progress toward racial, gender and economic equity. These issues are all complex, but emotionally illiterate men who build toxic relationships with the people around them are a recurring theme. Our world is hurting, and men are to blame for a lot of it.
To fix these issues, we must shift societal conceptions of masculinity. We need men who know how to express emotions in non-violent ways. We need men who are comfortable expressing emotions beyond anger. We need men who know how to interact with people of all genders professionally and platonically. We need men who put community before self. Sensitive men, working collaboratively alongside people of all genders, will help build the equitable and inclusive communities we desire. As men, we need to think about how we can utilize our own capacity for caring and nurturing to disrupt the very system that privileges us. As people of all genders, we owe it to ourselves and each other to consider what masculinity means to us and whether our conception of it is in line with the broader values we hold.
For what it’s worth, I actually think the Bowdoin community does a pretty good job of valuing sensitive men. This is seen most especially in the emotionally close male friendships on Bowdoin’s campus. As silly as the way we talk about them may seem, the “bromances” that are so common at Bowdoin defy broader societal expectations that tell men they aren’t supposed to express platonic love for each other. Late night conversations with my roommates have driven this point home for me as we make ourselves vulnerable talking openly about our evolving values and the trials and triumphs of college life. But we can still do better. We all need to think critically about how our words and actions—in a variety of contexts from hook-ups to career goals to class discussions and more—foster or hinder a culture of sensitive men.
In the end, I do realize that this piece doesn’t offer many answers. I don’t have them. But my nearly four years at Bowdoin have challenged me to think deeply about how I can help reduce the amount of suffering in our shared world. I believe that raising, fostering and valuing sensitive men is a critical part of that. So, I’ll keep hugging my friends and telling them I love them. And I’ll challenge them when I think they’re promoting a toxic masculinity. I’m grateful they do it back.