Education, Feminism, Social Science

Training the Masculinity Out of Children

With the recent school shootings, the rise of Donald Trump, and the recent exposure of sexual assault in Hollywood and the wider media, articles about something called ‘toxic masculinity’ are doing the rounds once again. ‘Toxic masculinity,’ we are told, takes many forms in contemporary life and discourse. For example, in an (unfortunately serious) article for NBC, Marcie Bianco describes Elon Musk’s groundbreaking rocket launch as evidence of men’s patriarchal entitlement to conquer. (At the Clayman Institute for Gender Reseach, Bianco manages “the only university fellowship in the nation that aims to train students how to become feminist journalists.”)

More subtle but equally specious rhetoric, generally derived from the French postmodern tradition, analyzes the socialization of boys through an analytical prism of dominance or systems of power and knowledge. A recent article in the Washington Examiner reported that a kindergarten teacher named Karen Keller was preventing boys in her class from playing with Lego in an attempt to compensate for the invidious socialization that she believes determines gender roles. Her ‘Girls Only’ Lego classes were intended to combat the boys’ inclination to build, and the girls’ inclination to play with with dolls and crayons. “I always tell the boys, ‘You’re going to have a turn’ — and I’m like, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over’ in my head,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You’ll have a turn’ because I don’t want them to feel bad”—

Keller had originally tried to entice the girls by providing pink and purple Legos, “But it wasn’t enough.” So she requested a grant from her school to purchase Lego Education Community Starter Kits for three classrooms at the Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary school, where she has taught for seven years. She requested the grant without telling the school she would be denying boys access to the toys.

“I had to do the ‘girls only Lego club’ to boost it more,” Keller said. “Boys get ongoing practice and girls are shut out of those activities, which just kills me. Until girls get it into their system that building is cool, building is ‘what I want to do’ — I want to protect that.”

Keller’s experiment is based on quite a radical social constructivist view of human behavior, which holds that we are are born as indistinguishable ‘blank slates.’ That is to say, girls and boys, and women and men, are socialized into typical but arbitrary gendered preferences. These preferences are not natural, biological, or innate but socially constructed to benefit men and subordinate women. Obviously, if one believes that the tastes, aptitudes, preferences, and behaviors of boys and girls are purely socialized, or even that socialization can be completely uncoupled from biological sex, then it follows that any problems with male behaviour are going to be seen as a consequence of how men are socialized as children. By extension, according to the postmodern analysis favored by contemporary gender studies programs, differential outcomes between men and women in free societies are purely the result of dominance constructs and the unequal distribution of power. These enable one sex to oppress, dominate, and subjugate the other, and reduce women to submissive and passive pawns stripped of choice and agency.

In fact, as a construct in Western societies, ‘masculinity’ is simply a way to understand and talk about specific traits that are typically ‘hegemonic’ (i.e. dominant) in males but not in females. Classically, these traits include toughness, violence, aggression, endurance, bravery, and the suppression of emotions like fear and grief. As a natural extension of biological sex, this kind of hegemonic masculinity is mostly clearly observable in the different ways male and female children play and interact. Clearly, traits normally hegemonic in boys can be found in both sexes; not all girls play with dolls, and not all boys play with guns. But the distribution of these traits on average would lead us to expect that a lot more boys than girls will be interested in guns than dolls.

An archaic and inflexibly bio-determinist understanding of what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is both unscientific and damaging to those individuals who do not fit the standard model of their defined biological sex. It also makes little sense from a mental health perspective to insist upon a rigid and narrowly defined understanding of either gender. For example, we know that men actively negotiate their masculinity in more complex ways than the behavioural traits outlined above suggest. Men have been found to promote masculine traits like athleticism at the expense of other masculine social behaviours like alcohol consumption. Research also suggests1 that ‘metrosexual’ men can be understood as those engaging in a sophisticated dynamic of traditionally masculine characteristics, such as earning power, paired with traditionally more feminine concerns over appearance.

During my PhD, I studied soldiers specifically trained to kill people. However, I found that the masculinity displayed by these professional warriors to be more complex than expected. On the one hand, these men seem to possess the attributes of a hyper-masculine male: toughness, aggression, dominance, and suppression of fear. On the other, they accept the realities of being a soldier, which require the individual to be subservient, obedient, and almost totally dependent, which are traditionally not masculine traits. This is to say nothing of the well documented and complex displays of platonic love among soldiers in war, who one minute may be charging a gun nest to protect one another, and the next may be sharing intimate and detailed stories of loss, regret, and fear.

Masculinity is complex, and understanding it requires sophisticated discussions that shed light on those components of masculinity that are harmful and those that are benign or beneficial. Theories of ‘toxic masculinity’ operate on the assumption that, as the dominant sex, men have been socialized to take what is theirs by force. Social cues and cultural norms supposedly give men permission to commit violence and sexual assault, and ‘toxic masculinity’ is used to explain a variety of phenomena, from domestic abuse to aggressive imperialism and the pillaging of weak nations. Increasingly, the term is also used to describe a more symbolic kind of violence and aggression used to suppress or silence anyone who is not the ‘dominant voice’ in society.

The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and host to the popular Youtube channel The Factual Feminist, argues that an important distinction between toxic masculinity and masculinity is not being made, and that this negatively impacts the way we educate boys. Sommers contends that when we pathologize masculinity as a malevolent force to be extirpated, it is like saddling young boys with original sin. The result? Universities are setting up re-education programs for male students that hope to recondition  them to ‘unlearn’ the toxicity that teaches them to rape and be violent.

An additional cost to pathologizing masculinity itself – instead of attempting to mitigate the damage wrought by its ‘hyper-masculine’ excesses – is that we stigmatize anything understood to be remotely masculine. Competition, rough and tumble play, and traits such as stoicism all become objects of suspicion. Of course, some boys are hyper-masculine, or pathologically masculine. These individuals will bully, establish dominance by hurting the vulnerable, and display other antisocial behaviors that do not benefit modern societies committed to the rule of law. But when dealing with these behaviors, Sommers suggests, we have to remember that most boys display healthy masculinity. Enjoyment of physical sports and competition does not indicate that all other related behaviors are built for destruction and domination. On the contrary, these traits also can serve to build, protect, and defend. The soldiers I studied, for instance, displayed a desire to protect, to be part of a group that allowed to them to ‘test themselves,’ to uphold values, but also to fall in line, to do as they were told, and to follow the rules. The typical British Special Forces soldier, for example, is well disciplined, has a strict codes of ethics and conduct to which they strive to adhere. These men are not, for the most part, feral savages who do as they please.

There are obviously societal standards about what it means to be an authentic ‘man’ or ‘woman’ that are harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the individual. In a paper I recently co-authored (now in submission), we explored ways in which the ‘muscularization’ of magazine models and Hollywood actors might influence men’s self-perceptions and self-esteem. Likewise, numerous studies exist exploring the unrealistic standards set for women by magazines and the media in general. In these ways, society clearly plays some role in how we perceive masculinity and femininity. But understanding these influences requires nuance, care, and moderation. At its most extreme, the idea that all men are socialized by a vaguely conceived ‘patriarchy’ into regressive attitudes about rape or killing, is at best misguided, and at worst damaging to how we educate boys to become men. If you think you can or should train masculinity out of little boys using gender-neutral Lego classes, then I have a bridge to sell you.


Dr. Elio Martino is a provisional psychologist, writer and podcaster, with a PhD investigating killing in combat. You can follow him on Twitter @SpartanMindPsy


1 Visser, R., & McDonnell, E. (2013). “Man points”: Masculine Capital and Young Men’s Health. Health Psychology, 32, 5-14.


  1. TarsTarkas says

    When SJWs talk about ‘toxic masculinity’ they really mean ‘white toxic masculinity’, which when convenient includes assimilated Asians, Hispanics, and Blacks. SJW’s never ever include the true toxic males produced by hard-line Islam and inner-city thug culture because they them to be only a reaction to the domineering patriarchial culture of Europe and North America. In fact they go out of their way to excuse the mysogynistic uber-violence of Islam and gang culture, even when they experience it themselves.

    • tony says

      Yes, and the worst of the worst are Swedish males. They are so bad some have called for filling Sweden with ISIS fighters to drive out the patriarchal male. Meanwhile, Trudeau called the returning ISIS fighters “a powerful voice for Canada”, and these are people who risked their lives and killed for a state that would enslave and rape girls. They of course murdered men, but those men were not radical Islamists, so they must have been patriarchal white males.

    • kn83 says

      This comment deserves 100 likes. SJWs never make any serious attempt to address the “toxic masculinity” of say, Hip-hop culture for example.

    • What they really mean is they are projecting their own toxic femininity upon men. I used to wonder how feminists so often got things entirely backwards, until I learned about projection.

      Suddenly feminism… still doesn’t make sense, but can be understood for what it is. A hate cult of projection.

    • robin says

      I’ve never seen, read or heard an SJW lionize Islamic or ghetto masculinity or even dismiss the problems with them. Ironically the fear of seeming ‘racist’ keeps those discussions hushed or siloed among Islamic or non-white feminists. Attacking white men is safe and more ‘profound’ since white men have the most privilege.

  2. Gregory T. Bogosian says

    You over looked an important point. In the studies that link masculine norms with anti-social behavior, they re-define any masculine norms that turn out to correlate with pro-social behavior. So, using that research to prove that masculinity is bad is circular. Here is the quote that illustrates what I am talking about “Second, we have found over many years of
    usage that the original definitions of some of the
    male role norms were not very clear or adequately
    conceptualized, in particular the Self
    Reliance and Achievement/Status norms. Both
    of these tapped socially desirable behavior for
    both men and women. Hence, we reconceptualized
    the new Self Reliance norm as a more
    extreme form of Self Reliance. We also distilled
    what seemed to be the traditionally masculine
    aspects of achieving high status—namely dominance.
    Hence, we substituted a Dominance
    subscale for the Achievement/Status subscale.
    Third, because the Non-Traditional Attitudes
    subscale often had low internal reliability and
    because it was composed of negatively worded
    items that recent research has suggested tap
    method effects (DiStefano & Motl, 2006), we
    decided to drop this subscale entirely and focus
    the MRNI–R exclusively on traditional male
    role norms.”
    From “Evaluation of the Factor Structure and Construct Validity of Scores
    on the Male Role Norms Inventory—Revised (MRNI–R)” by Ronald F. Levant, Thomas J. Rankin,
    and Christine M. Williams. Nadia T. Hasan, and K. Bryant Smalley. Page 27.

  3. Mark Turpin says

    One of the funnier aspects of this dilemma is that men are so stupid about masculinity, most would rather die than complain about what is now so ubiquitous in the culture as to be almost invisible.—Unless women with some muscle get energetic, I think we’ve already lost this one. What’s sadder is how much dimension and nuance masculinity has already lost in the last century—or at least, so it seems so to me—we’re losing on both ends of the spectrum, hardness and softness. When you see those guys holding hands in 19th century photographs, try to imagine that they aren’t gay. Having been a construction worker most of my life, I have the opinion that men are different, in a good way, when they aren’t around women all day. There is hierarchy, but they don’t struggle against it as much—they’re happier just working and fitting in. Thanks for the fine article. Look forward to the book.

  4. Laura Thuijls says

    Will ‘toxic femininity’ ever be popularised? Cause that shit is super harmful to women.

    • Aux says

      That goes without saying and I’m not sure which group has any incentive to talk about it. So hopefully we can just keep it that way.

      • robin says

        Karen Straughan has quite a bit to say about toxic feminity

    • Johan says

      Indeed. It’s most prominent trait would be to bitch about men and masculinity. Well, as long as they are talking about us I guess we’re winning…

  5. Chester Draws says

    I gave my daughters lots of Lego when they were little and showed them how to make buildings like I enjoyed as a boy.

    They just played “school” with them. No buildings, no rockets, no spaceships.

    There was even a cannon they ignored. No boy would ignore a cannon!

    My money would be on the woman giving the girls the Lego not even knowing how to play like a boy. You build and then you smash down. If you don’t build to extremes and then break it, then you’re just letting the girls play as girls with a boy’s toy. You’re not actually challenging anything at all.

    • This is actually a very similar story to mine. I give my daughters Lego as well, and they love it. They request Lego sets even. As a proud Lego enthusiast myself, and with very fond memories of it as a child, I oblige. They get their sets, and they have me help them build the set under the instructions. They then play with it, taking the sets apart piece by piece overtime, and don’t even bother to rebuild them or create something new. It’s not that they are incapable, but they just don’t want to bother. This is not meant to dig on my girls, but it’s just how the different sexes are wired. No doubt some girls get just as adventurous with Lego as I was at their age (if not more), but it is by no means a norm. And no amount of encouragement or cheering on is going to get my girls to reconstruct those sets, and that’s ok. Each girl has something they are good at and something to be proud of. One thing for sure, I definitely know my parent’s pain of the bricks hidden under blankets and in carpet.

    • ccscientist says

      I for sure knew that the fate of the model airplanes I build was to fill them with firecrackers and blow them up.
      Girls (mine for example) will build things with legos, like a whole town. But a boy will build a car and zoom zoom it all over the place, or build a fighter jet and fight with it. The lady in the story is evil.

  6. Marko Novak says

    Those on the political left like to conflate things into false equivalencies. Since the equivalencies they draw are academically dishonest, I have to ask myself… are they stupid… or are they liars?

    Free speech falls under the umbrella of “hate speech”.
    Illegal immigration becomes simply “immigration”
    Gun rights? No, no, no… “gun violence”
    And of course all masculinity is encompassed under “toxic masculinity”.

    They’d better hope that they are liars, because it’s much worse for them if they’re just stupid.

  7. Earl Kralik says

    Chester – I had a similar experience with my daughter and Lego. Her favourite thing to do was build a simple house and decorate it with furniture and flowers and such, and use it for imaginative social play. When I was a boy, I built spaceships and smashed them against the wall. Nobody told me to do this, it just seemed fun.

    I bought her a large toy fire truck when she expressed interest in one. She would place her favorite figurines and stuffies on it and slowly push it around, imagining that the toy characters were on a sightseeing trip. My brother and I would race toys like firetrucks down the driveway at maximum speed and involve them in destructive scenarios.

    Any parent knows that these preferences in play style come early and strong. There’s no time for “social construction” to have anywhere near that kind of influence on a child.

  8. brian jackson says

    If you believe this,

    The typical British Special Forces soldier, for example, is well disciplined, has a strict codes of ethics and conduct to which they strive to adhere.
    Read this,

    Training men to kill is surely the very definition of toxic masculinity. Why do the legions of feminist SJWs remain silent on this particular elephant in the room? Patriotism? Moral cowardice?

    • Daniel PV says

      Why is it “toxic”? We need an operational military, with soldiers that kill enemies of the state on command, or kill those trying to harm our country and citizens. Surely toxic behaviour would be criminality, bullying, cruelty, violence in the civilian world etc etc.?

      • brian jackson says

        Thanks for your reply. Perhaps you have a point about the necessity of standing armies for defence purposes. Unfortunately nowadays in the case of the USA/UK, defence is not their remit as there is no significant external military threat to the populations of either country. These armies and their terrorist proxies are being used to trample on the sovreignty of other nations. Public support for these invasions is garnered by allowing or facilitating terrorist atrocities on home soil.
        Irish history has taught us exactly how Britain’s ‘Special Forces’ operate. The IRA was infiltrated at the highest level by Mi5 spies. Elements within the British state knew well in advance of the bombing campaigns on the UK mainland and indeed colluded to plan and execute them. Their agents were later protected by conducting show trials and locking up the innocent instead. See Birmingham 6, Guildford 4. It’s just rinse and repeat, substitute IRA for ISIS.
        Why would a countries military intelligence services order or facilitate attacks on it’s own soil? Many reasons, the foremost being simple political expedience. Nothing galvanizes a population behind a corrupt / incompetent regime like the threat of a common enemy.

        • “Training men to kill is surely the very definition of toxic masculinity.” Sorry Brian, but it is easily discernible from your statement that you have “Never been there, done that”.
          From the “Been there, done that” perspective, there is nothing toxic about it, and in this world of fascism, it is unfortunately imperative that this training is necessary.
          I have not killed any innocent people yet, don’t plan on it, and millions of fellow ex-soldiers like myself have lead exemplary lives.
          “Unfortunately nowadays in the case of the USA/UK, defence is not their remit as there is no significant external military threat to the populations of either country. These armies and their terrorist proxies are being used to trample on the sovreignty of other nations.” I won’t dispute those statements.

          • brian jackson says

            Hi Chad, thanks for your reply. That’s the interesting thing. There are apparently a lot of well meaning, honourable individuals like yourself within the military who know the extent and the true cost of corrupt US foreign policy. Teaching young people to kill may indeed be a tragic necessity in certain circumstances. However, the US military is not fighting fascism or terrorism or communism or any other ‘ism. They are fighting to prop up a crumbling empire built on theft, extortion, mass murder and counterfeiting. We are way off topic here but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  9. MLS says

    What frustrates me is things like –

    “Keller had originally tried to entice the girls by providing pink and purple Legos”

    This teacher, who is so convinced girls deserve an equal shot, everyone is a blank slate, we just have to construct the “right” social environment (stack the odds), because the dreaded “toxic masculinity”… is “achieving” her goals by shoving girls and boys further into their assigned boxes.

    Pink Legos? I’m sorry, but kids who like engineering toys (Legos, K’Nex, etc) don’t CARE what color the toys are. They just want to build. If girls want to build houses and play family, that’s equally valid to boys building rocket ships and smashing them into walls. The Lego houses a girl builds as a child may contribute to her becoming a structural engineer, or an architect. (BTW, one son LOVES to build the sets and treats them as models to display – do not disturb his model; the other two boys liked to build, deconstruct, and redesign. My girls typically build neighborhoods or cities or tools – they needed an X to do this imaginary thing, so they’d build X.)

    My home was full of engineering toys when the kids were little. Blocks, Legos, K’Nex. All freeform; rarely sets. We also had a wooden play kitchen, a dress up box, books, etc. Want to know what we didn’t have? Toys that were socially assigned a gender by color (pink/blue). You’re bored? Go play.

    Pink Legos? (gag)

  10. It’s not all that complex at all. Just let go of your “soldiers love to kill” mentality. Those with the most to lose are usually the last to gamble.

    The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. Douglas MacArthur

    Any soldier worth his salt should be antiwar. And still there are things worth fighting for.
    Norman Schwarzkopf

  11. Caligula says

    “Karen Keller was preventing boys in her class from playing with Lego in an attempt to compensate for the invidious socialization that she believes determines gender roles.”

    And she could also equalize the average height of men and women by cutting off men’s feet (that’s surely easier than getting women to grow taller). Except men wouldn’t let her do that, because they’re adults and thus capable of defending themselves.

    An “educator” deliberately denying resources to half her students is teaching something, but probably not what she thinks she’s teaching. She is teaching that the world is not always fair, and sometimes there is evil in it.

    Perhaps when the boys figure out this lesson they’ll find ways to compensate for what they were denied. And possibly also develop a righteous anger at someone who’d deny them resources merely for being as nature made them.

    • harrync says

      Like your “cut off their feet” hypothetical. Next, they need to figure out how to induce red-green color blindness into girls, so they have an equal percentage of color blind girls and boys. Unless, of course, there is some study showing that this type of color blindness is learned by boys, and not genetic.

  12. David J says

    That Keller initially tried to interest the girls with pink and purple Lego bricks, surely speaks volumes.

    Also, a pedantic point: shouldn’t it be “different outcomes”, not “differential outcomes”?

  13. Alexander says

    An additional point to consider: do men consciously and/or subconsciously adapt their behaviours or even personality (their expression of masculinity, if you will) to correspond to what they perceive women in their society desire? While I presume this would be very difficult to prove, I strongly suspect that it is the case. Certainly it seems a likely outcome of Darwinian sexual selection dynamics in which twice the number of our ancestors were women than men.

    • Kurt says

      Re: “do men consciously and/or subconsciously adapt their behaviours or even personality (their expression of masculinity, if you will) to correspond to what they perceive women in their society desire? ”

      Yes. And no matter what the SJW, feminist scolds tell us, even SJW, feminist scold women don’t desire as partners the nutered men they seek to produce.

    • They may respond to how they PERCEIVE women in their society desire. That does not mean that women actually desire it,

  14. Fran says

    I have a problem with the term ‘toxic masculinity’. Men and women tend to express mental distress in different ways, and both are capable of expressing distress destructively. For every person who expresses their distress in a way that attracts public attention, there are many males and females who injure those weaker than themselves in substantial, but less obvious ways. Conflating behaviours that injure both self and others with masculinity and femininity confuses the real issues: some individuals are destructive members of society, whether their actions are spectacular or not.

    • Sebastian says

      What kills me about the “toxic masculinity” angle is that those focused on destructive tendencies never turn the gaze upon themselves. How many stories do they need to read about women who stalk their husbands/boyfriends, break in to their homes, destroy their homes, threaten them with knives, throw things at them, or even accuse them of rape before they realize that destructive behaviors are not the sole purview of one sex?

  15. ccscientist says

    Masculinity has as a consequence a desire to build. Men feel compelled to build things in a way women do not. Men have engineered our entire world, with roads, bridges, buildings, dams, canals, harbors, cities, machines. An interesting study found that in a primitive society after a successful hunt oxtocin was released which caused the successful hunter to feel generous, especially to the helpless like children. This is totally missed by this focus on toxic masculinity. Men with a family are constantly engaged in fixing and maintaining their home, looking out for the welfare of everyone there. This is also masculinity. Women seem to take for granted that the husband will fix things but never ask where this ability and urge comes from, and the answer is testosterone. Men will do things like plant trees that they will never enjoy because they are looking out for the interests of future generations.
    One of the consequences of trying to get rid of masculinity is that the above good aspects go out the window too, and you get boy-men who still play video games at age 30.

    The idea that all of the traits distinguishing men from women are socialized is insane. No one can agree on anything else cultural, yet all over the world they agree on how to raise kids to be men or women in a very precise way? Parents try to raise their kids to follow their religion and political party but fail. The always try to raise them to stay out of jail, but often fail. Parents fail at so many of their goals for child-raising but are 100% successful at instilling maleness or femaleness into their kids? Really? And where did the template come from?

  16. Emmanuel says

    The different behaviors of women and men have evolved as complements to enhance survival of our species. Imagine a clan of all ages sitting around a fire is suddenly set upon by a lion. The children of the clan are the most vulnerable, also the most genetically evolved, and the ones whose survival matters most. A two pronged defense where the women gather the children and remove them to a safer location while the men, temporarily disregarding their own peril, advance on the lion to kill it or chase it away. The women, in addition to protecting the children are also the only ones able to feed the infants. These divergent behaviors evolved over millennia and have made us the most successful species on the planet. We should embrace this behavioral and role diversity for in erasing we will obliterate ourselves.

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  19. michael joseph Heavey says

    the system wants drones robot will do, too late for male female wars,

  20. Jared Stuart says

    I can remember playing with Legos when I was younger. At one time my sister helped me to build a huge Lego house. When it was done, we showed it to our it our parents, but all the excitement came when I sat it on the floor, jumped on it and began taking it apart. My sister on the other hand started crying and ran to our mother complaining that I destroyed our Lego house. To me, the best part about making a Lego object was making it and tearing it down, but for my sister it was different. The purpose of Legos is for you to build and then smash down. Doing this enhances Problem solving skills, Creativity, Coordination, Ability to follow directions and Social skills (when building with others). Girls are different, they prefer to build a Lego object and have tea parties with it and for this reason, they need a different kind of Lego.

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