In late spring 2020, a message from an old high school friend showed up in contributor Jonathon Reed’s inbox. “Is there such a thing as positive masculinity?” he asked. “Or, should we drop it altogether?”
He was writing Reed, youth program manager at the British Columbia–based organization, Next Gen Men (NGM), in the wake of the horrific Nova Scotia attacks, the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. In April 2020, a man identified as a virulent misogynist, committed multiple shootings and set fires at 16 locations in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, killing 22. The rampage eclipsed the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal, the misogynist attack that led to the birth of a countrywide—now international—men’s antiviolence campaign, White Ribbon.
As Reed mulled over how to respond to his friend’s despairing question, he recalls thinking, “At the front of my mind were the countless acts of violence that had shaped and continue to shape our cultural beliefs about manhood. In moments like this, it’s easy to ground ourselves in what we’re against.” At Next Gen Men, Reed says, “we’re working to break the ongoing cycle of male-perpetrated violence that all too often makes headlines like the ones in Nova Scotia.” In the youth programs he coordinates, staff spend a lot of time facilitating conversations with boys and young men about ending gender-based violence and challenging toxic masculinity. Reed and his colleagues at NGM try to articulate, “What is it that we’re for? Is there such a thing as positive masculinity? And, if so, what does that actually look like?” Over the next few months he continued to ruminate on those questions. “It wasn’t until the summer that I came up with an answer,” he says, “and it took until the spring of 2021 for me to do something about it.”
In 2018, Australian masculinities researcher Prof. Michael Flood, and The Men’s Project, published a study on being a young man in Australia. It was called “The Man Box”, a term US writer-activist Paul Kivel coined in the 1980s to describe the constraints of conventional masculinity. “If the Man Box is sexist, toxic, ugly, and dangerous,” Flood and colleagues ask in the report, “then what should take its place?”
After my conversation with my high school friend, I couldn’t stop thinking about how best to answer that question. Eventually, I started writing down the qualities that society traditionally expects of masculinity, like strength and bravery. Since those characteristics continue to be part of a dominant model for boys as they grow into young men, I thought they were a worthwhile starting point.
For each of these qualities, I reflected on my values and experiences with masculinity, and gradually expanded them into more meaningful and nuanced versions of themselves. I decided on resilience instead of strength, for example, to affirm experiences like recovering from setbacks and choices, like asking for help.
In the end, the vision that I developed for positive masculinity within my own life—and for my work with the young people who are part of Next Gen Men—includes resilience, dependability, compassion and courage. It felt like a resonant challenge, an alternative to the toxic masculinity narrative that had initiated the conversation in the first place.
“We must offer some kind of alternative,” Flood wrote in “The Man Box”. “Boys and men cannot be what they cannot see.” This work upholds the positive masculinity framework proposed by US researchers Mark Kiselica and Matt Englar-Carlson, who identify, affirm, and build on male strengths, suggesting that a positive reframing of traditional masculine traits can help engage boys and men. By affirming their humanity rather than forcing them to buy into the rhetoric of toxic masculinity, advocates can more effectively promote both boys’ emotional wellbeing, and positive attitudes about healthy relationships and gender equality. Put more simply: meet boys where they’re at.
This is a core principle of Next Gen Men’s youth programming. We introduce a session on mental health by discussing why elite athletes hide vulnerability: LeBron James in the 2018 NBA Finals, for example—and that’s a deliberate strategy to provide an accessible entry point to a less familiar conversation.
It’s about connecting with boys at their level, and then raising the bar. Youth educators often say that boys will rise to the occasion. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that what they’re promoting is all about young men’s growth—and, if it’s a significant amount of growth, it’s actually transformation. That only happens in one place: within relationships.
Researchers like Carol Gilligan, Judy Chu, Michael Reichert, Peggy Orenstein, and Bruce Perry may address boys’ development through different research and perspectives, but they reach a single conclusion: the key to boys’ resisting the cultural machinery of toxic masculinity is being in relationships.
That’s how to build resilience. That’s how to develop compassion. Boys need to be affirmed and held in dependable, trusting relationships with parents and educators who know the waters they’re swimming in. And who keep them afloat when the waves get rough, and help them stay anchored to their full humanity when the riptides of violence (aka conventional manhood) threaten to sweep them away.
Soon after, 12-year-old Milan (not his real name) joined Next Gen Men’s youth program; I could tell that the space already meant a lot to him. In our intake interview, he watched me more carefully than any young person I had ever met. Once he joined the group, he showed a keen interest in discussions about mental health and wellbeing. Out of sessions, he asked me questions that seemed to say, “I’m interested in who you are as a person, and it would mean a lot if you were interested in me, too.”
As our conversations deepened, I learned that Milan had been selfharming since he was about ten. He had a significant amount of trauma, guilt, and sadness that he hadn’t come to terms with, and he was struggling to maintain his sense of being capable of withstanding significant challenges in his life. At age 12, he didn’t know who he was becoming, and he didn’t believe that he mattered.
After his third suicide attempt, he was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit. At first, he was furious that he was still alive at all. He was exhausted and sick of hanging on, and upset that he couldn’t just let go. The hospital referred him, for an indefinite amount of time, to an inpatient mental health program. As the days went by, Milan started engaging with one of the volunteers and participating in group therapy. He began to explore his feelings more deeply—and carefully—than he had before. It was there that he started journaling.
I only know this because he shared some of his writing with me. Some of his thoughts were angry. Some were unkind. But there was one entry that I will never forget. “I will become defined by love,” he wrote to himself. “I will cherish myself for exactly who I am.”
I had never heard a 12-year-old use the word “cherish” before, least of all this particular young preteen employing such hopeful and positive language towards himself. It was powerful. It got me wondering if it would be possible to translate characteristics of positive masculinity into affirmations that could directly impact the feelings and identities of boys and young men. It was time to do something; but what?
There is something unmistakable about the impact an adult role model can have reflecting a boy’s strengths back to him, helping him build his capacity to see himself not just as a unique and worthwhile individual, but as a capable and committed leader in ending gender-based violence around him.
In contrast to the “boys will be boys” narrative that ignores the depth, complexity, and social nuance of boys’ behaviors, a tool focused on boys’ strengths could help them imagine alternatives to the status quo that has led to so much harm.
As I circled closer to what that tool could be—how I would express the idea taking form in my mind—I came across this passage from Australian writer Clementine Ford’s 2018 book, Boys Will Be Boys:
“Boys will be sensitive. Boys will be soft. Boys will be kind. Boys will be gentle. Boys will respect girls. Boys will be accountable for their actions. Boys will be expressive. Boys will be loving. Boys will be nurturing. Boys will be different from everything the world has so far told them they have to be in order to be a man.”
That was my “aha!” moment. After that, the pieces began to fit together. I shared with staff at Next Gen Men what I was thinking about: creating a deck of affirmation cards. Over the next few weeks, my coworker Adrian Leckie and I further developed the idea. We recognized how useful affirmations cards could be for parents and educators to uphold and enhance the best parts of boys.
The ideas began to tumble out; they came fast and were wide ranging. We started brainstorming qualities that would support adolescents to connect to themselves and others, engage positively with the world around them, and uphold authenticity in their self-expression. For each characteristic of positive masculinity we identified, we wrote an affirmation that we thought would speak to boys’ experiences with masculinity, and provide aspiration for boys growing into young men. Even before we had finished, we could tell we had created something that had the potential to be transformative in the lives of young people.
I never told him, but there was a particular card that I wrote with Milan in mind. By that point, he had successfully navigated his way through the inpatient mental health system and was home, doing his best to connect with a therapist and continue the hard work on himself that he had started at the hospital.
As I write this, Milan is in seventh grade at a new school and has connected with a couple of new friends. Things haven’t been easy; they won’t be for a while. But that’s kind of the point. “I am capable,” the card reads. “I have the capacity to withstand adversity and accomplish anything I put my mind to. I have the tools I need.”
Jonathon Reed is Next Gen Men’s youth program manager. A longtime advocate for LGBTQ+ youth with years of experience working with boys to expand definitions of masculinity, he created the podcast, Breaking the Boy Code, centered on the inner lives of boys. He can be reachedat: jonathon@ nextgenmen.ca.