PORTLAND — With the help of Maine Boys to Men, the new Parent University at the Portland Public Schools is set to tackle how to raise boys to be emotionally healthy in a world where gender stereotypes still often hold sway.

The special event, entitled “Negotiating Masculinity,” will begin at 11 a.m.  Saturday, March 31, at Ocean Avenue Elementary School.

During the first part of the session, participants will watch the movie, “The Mask You Live In,” which follows a set of boys and young men as they try to stay true to themselves while facing America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

Participants will then take “a deep dive into issues currently facing young people … (including) how our current culture of toxic masculinity creates a system of gender-based violence,” a Parent U press release says.

“Some of the issues we will address in the training are gender identity, sexuality, consent, bystander intervention, and how to interrupt gender-based violence,” the release adds.

“This training is the first step in beginning a process of self-discovery and self-reflection necessary to challenge sexism and ultimately stand up as leaders to end gender bias, harassment, abuse and violence.”

The mission of Maine Boys to Men, founded in 1998, is to help “boys reach their potential to become emotionally healthy, respectful, non-violent men,” according to the organization’s website.

The Parent U session is open to any member of the community interested in these issues and will include a light meal and childcare. Interpretation is available upon request. See parentu.portlandschools.org for more information.

The Parent U session will be facilitated by Heidi Randall, program director at Maine Boys to Men, and Ryan Tardiff, a program specialist and facilitator of the organization’s Middle School Reducing Sexism and Violence Program.

Randall said the underlying goal of Saturday’s session is to “explore how adults can partner with youth to create safer and stronger communities” for everyone by “exploring ways that societal pressures (and) narrow definitions of gender (can) lead to a culture of self-harm, disrespect, harassment and violence.”

She said the Parent U session is essential because “extreme gender stereotypes are harmful (and) don’t allow people to fully express themselves and their emotions. Breaking down gender stereotypes allows everyone to be their best selves.”

Randall said it’s not just fathers that can play a crucial role in the development of boys, but teachers, coaches and other adult mentors can also have a significant impact. This is especially true in helping boys to “develop identity (and) self-esteem and navigate peer relationships,” she said.

Learning how to be respectful in peer-to-peer relationships is especially relevant because studies show that “young men who hold stereotypical gender role (beliefs) are more likely to engage in acts of violence toward others, (and engage in) self-harm and suicide, substance abuse, delinquency … and unsafe sexual practices,” Randall said.

She added it’s an ongoing and often difficult problem to tackle because “research show(s) that severe gender pressures … often (leave boys) feeling isolated (and) unable to focus on school or work,” along with other aspects of their lives.

“Our society has a set of ideas about how we expect men and women to dress, behave, and present themselves,” Randall said. “For example, men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold.”

But, she said, these widely accepted ideas can and must be combated because “stereotypes about gender can cause unequal and unfair treatment (and) exaggerated gender stereotypes can (also) make relationships between people (more) difficult.”

Randall said gender stereotyping also goes way beyond expected personality traits and can impact on how people think they’re supposed to behave at home and at work and even how they’re supposed to look.

Even in 2018, she said, “you see gender stereotypes all around you. You might also have seen or experienced sexism, or discrimination based on gender” yourself.

The ultimate goal of the Parent U session, Randall said, is to set adults on the road to helping teach their children that all people should “feel equal and valued.”

The idea, she added, is for adults to be “a living example (and) a role model” and work to “create a safe space for people to express themselves and their true qualities regardless of what society’s gender stereotypes and expectations are.”

“Boys are bombarded by narrow, confusing, and often destructive messages about masculinity beginning at very early ages,” Randall said. “(But) we believe it’s not the boys, but rather the culture in which they live and grow, that is in need of repair.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Maine Boys to Men works to combat gender stereotypes through a variety of programs and events, like this outdoor yoga session. Maine Boys to Men is also facilitating an upcoming workshop on “Negotiating Masculinity,” through the new Parent University at the Portland Public Schools.

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