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The Pressure to ‘Act Like a Man’ Starts in Preschool

Boys as young as three are more than happy to police the toy box and make sure that no little dude walks away with a Barbie

Throughout men’s lives, we receive the messaging that we should be stoic, strong protectors, though exactly how, when and why we come to this conclusion is up for debate.

For some answers on that count, Matthew Nielson, a postdoctoral research fellow in developmental psychology at the University of Michigan, has studied boys of all ages throughout his career — from preschoolers to college seniors. In his most recent study, published last year in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, Nielson investigated gender pressure felt by 480 sixth grade boys and girls in Arizona (including white, Latinx, Asian, Native American and Black students). The results of his work will surprise you — namely, boys who are trying to be typically masculine feel as much pressure in many ways as those who are gender non-conforming. In fact, the gender non-conforming kids often are much more confident in themselves. 

I recently spoke to Nielson about this finding as well as how boys as young as three happily (and all-too-naturally) serve as gender enforcers; why the most pressure boys feel to be masculine comes from within; and at what age the idea of being stereotypically male no longer matters.

No matter the age of boys you’ve studied, they all feel more pressure than girls to conform to gender roles. Why is that? 

Men simply have more to lose than girls if they don’t fall in line with “gender typicality,” which is a term developmental psychologists use to understand masculinity and femininity based on peer comparison. In a patriarchal society like the U.S., boys consistently show higher levels of pressure to be masculine than girls feel to be feminine, which is predicated on them having more power, and therefore, more to lose. Basically, if you’re not a traditionally masculine man, you’re afforded less power and privilege. 

I wasn’t very conforming growing up, for example. I had three older sisters, loved playing with My Little Ponies and got a lot of crap from cousins and friends at school about not following gender rules closely enough. So I know firsthand how patriarchy and power can be in play for boys as young as three years old. 

How might three-year-old boys feel pressure to conform to gender expectations? 

We published a paper on this topic in 2019 after observing preschool kids’ gender-enforcing behavior at recess — for example, calling out boys who play with Barbies and girls who want to play with trucks. We called them “gender enforcers,” but you can think of them as gender police or even gender bullies. It happened a lot, which isn’t surprising because this is an age when kids are starting to learn gender rules. These are a big deal in preschool in terms of what you should or shouldn’t do, and we found kids to be excited about enforcing rules on their classmates. Boys are more likely than girls to enforce the rules, and gender enforcers become more conforming over time, certainly by the time they reach middle school. 

Speaking of which, how did you study the sixth graders in your most recent paper? Were you observing them like the preschoolers? 

No, we used a questionnaire to first determine how gender-typical they felt and also how much pressure they felt to conform. We asked things like, “Do you feel like your appearance is similar to your male friends?,” “Do you feel like your behavior and interests are typical of your male friends?” and “How much do you like to do the same things as most boys?” 

Previous studies on gender typicality compared boys to boys and girls to girls, but you took a different approach. Why? 

While it’s certainly important to account for how boys feel in relation to other boys, we felt it was crucial to also understand how they felt in relation to girls. Because if you’re gender nonconforming, you’re likely teased a lot because you don’t fit in with other boys. At the same time, you may find a lot of support and community among girls, and therefore not feel as much pressure to “act like a man,” so to speak. And as it turned out, the pressure kids felt was very much related to how typical they felt. This was kind of a revolutionary finding because previous work implied that a child’s level of typicality was unrelated to pressure. We disproved this. 

Given that, would nonconforming boys and men be less likely to experience fragile masculinity if their manhood is threatened?

Exactly, which was another key finding. To determine this among boys, we characterized them in different groups: Boys who felt very similar to other boys and less similar to girls; boys who felt similar to both boys and girls; boys who felt more similar to girls and less similar to boys; and boys who didn’t feel similar to either gender. By far, it was the boys who felt similar to other boys and less similar to girls who had the most pressure to conform to gender expectations, as opposed to the boys who felt similar to girls, who felt much lower levels of pressure. That’s the kicker. 

It really surprises people because we often assume that very gender non-conforming kids — many of whom go on to become transgender — feel the highest levels of pressure because they’re getting the most crap from peers. But in fact, they tend to be much more confident about their gender. A transgender or non-conforming kid is probably gonna say, “Nah, I don’t believe in your gender roles, and I can be whatever I want.” They cast aside expectations about cultural gender norms, because that’s very much their life’s work. Whereas, for a football dude, it’s really important for him to be typical because he’s invested in the system and feels pressure to maintain an appearance. 

So the trans boy actually feels less pressure to conform to gender roles than boys who identify as stereotypically masculine?

Well, it’s nuanced. Boys we studied who felt similar to other boys tended to also feel the highest levels of pressure. But boys who were really typical, really masculine, didn’t feel much pressure at all, either. 

In a separate project last year, I interviewed 30 male college students about whether they resist or conform to masculine pressure. It was difficult to talk to very typical guys about this because they hadn’t ever needed to think about the issue because they always fit the norm easily, but guys who got crap for falling short had thought a lot about gender norms, which is why gay men like myself often become gender scholars. We’re the ones who never really fit into the system, so we’ve had a lot of time to think about it. Whereas the football playing dude doesn’t really care, and is more likely to become a tech bro or a car mechanic or something. He’s never going to think about masculinity again. 

For example, I interviewed a popular, very typical high school football player who described a homophobic, misogynistic environment with a football coach saying things like, “Don’t throw like a girl,” or “Don’t run like a fag or a pussy.” Well, he could care less about that because there was no doubt about his masculinity. I asked what would happen if he quit the football team and joined the cheerleading or flag team, and he was like, “I’d lose all my friends.” That’s pretty intense to be living in a rigid enough environment that you’d lose all your friends if you started non-conforming. But he didn’t want to join the cheerleaders, so it didn’t matter. That’s why a very misogynistic, homophobic environment didn’t negatively affect him at all.

What role did parents, teachers and other authority figures play into boys understanding of their gender roles? 

Surprisingly, among the sixth grade boys, we found the harshest, most intense pressure to conform came from within. But people aren’t born with intrinsically high levels of gender pressure, so it becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. It obviously came from an outside source at some point, when they internalized it wasn’t cool to be girly. Once they had that in their brain, the pressure to live up to it came almost exclusively from within. We call this “internalization,” where messages you’ve received become so ingrained in your own thought patterns and processes that it starts to feel like you just know it. You’ve heard for so long that boys shouldn’t play with Barbies that it’s almost like you invented the rule, which makes it even more powerful and harder to ignore. 

I recently spoke to Adam Stanaland, whom you know, about why some men act violently when their masculinity is challenged. He found this phenomenon to be strongest between men ages of 18 and 29, slightly milder for those between 30 and 37 and essentially nonexistent for those over 38. Along those lines, how did the pressure experienced by your sixth grade subjects compare to high schoolers? 

Adam’s findings are very similar to mine. In sixth grade, boys who felt more gender typical felt higher levels of pressure, but it decreased over time as they got more comfortable with themselves and became more accepting of their gender nonconformity. Their peers also stopped caring more. But in terms of aggression, when you consider the types of men who stormed the Capitol and January 6th, my research suggests that those men were likely feeling the highest levels of pressure to be masculine. That’s an important nugget to the story — that pressure to seem masculine may, in fact, motivate some of the most outlandish behavior we saw at the Capitol. 

What’s the primary takeaway here? 

We worry about gender non-conforming kids because they clearly experience high levels of anxiety, depression and suicide, and by no means should we stop focusing on them. But what we’ve learned from our studies is that the football player is also being negatively affected because they’re feeling the highest levels of pressure. And pressure is also linked to anxiety, depression and suicide. 

So I expect interventions will be similarly important to preserve the mental health of both gender non-conforming kids and traditionally typical, hyper-masculine boys. That’s why I’m excited to work with Adam on fleshing this out more. Because we think the older you get, the easier it is to leave this pressure behind, but we’re not entirely sure of that, either. That football player I mentioned, for example, is living in a high-pressure environment, but it didn’t seem to be affecting him. I’d like to talk to him again in 10 years, though, to see if there really were no negative effects to knowing that if he stepped a toe out of line of what’s expected from his gender that all of his friends would drop him. 

That’s a lot of pressure for guys to carry around, even if it’s buried deep within them. I suspect it will present in one form or another at some point, but how? That’s what future research needs to determine, because men’s long-term mental health is at stake. 

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