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Stephanie Ruhle thought her kids didn't see traditional gender roles at home — she was wrong

"I didn’t realize I fall straight into the stereotypes I worked so hard to avoid."
Image: Stephanie Ruhle tackles masculinity on her new podcast.
Stephanie Ruhle tackles masculinity on her new podcast.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

This is Modern Ruhles, a podcast from Stephanie Ruhle that features compelling conversations for culturally complicated times. Listen to podcast, read the stories and share your own thoughts here.

On the latest installment of "Modern Ruhles" Stephanie Ruhle gets real with former NFL star and actor Terry Crews, child sex abuse survivor and advocate Shaun Dougherty and musician Quest Love. The topic? Masculinity. While all three guests offer varying perspectives on manhood, they do agree on one thing: their earliest experiences related to the topic — whether it was observing a male role model, or suffering a childhood trauma — deeply influenced how they saw masculinity for years to follow.

Ruhle herself, as the mother of two sons and a daughter, has her own perspective on what the word means. The podcast host says raising boys in today’s world, where “toxic masculinity” has become a household term, has both challenged and broadened her idea of what a man should — and can — be. I sat down with her to learn more.

What is the earliest example you have of your sons realizing their masculinity, or trying to understand it?

SR: My oldest, Harrison, was in the second grade. He was having a hard time in school — specifically with his reading. His brother, Reese, was in kindergarten and was already finishing the books his brother was bringing home. Prior to this, they were equals who got along well, never comparing themselves to one another. It wasn’t until Harrison felt his younger brother might surpass him that his “alpha male” emerged. He became combative toward his brother and committed to his sport in a way he hadn’t before, because that’s where he felt most powerful. I even saw Reese withdraw from his relationship with his brother a little bit, too. It was the first clear example of my son feeling threatened and not turning to me to cry or ask for help, but actually flexing his own muscles to ward off what he saw as a threat to his power and masculinity.

Do you parent your two sons differently — and if so, how? Do you parent them differently from your daughter?

SR: I do parent each of my sons differently, and I definitely parent them differently from my daughter, Drew. I know that I give Drew extra support: I push her harder when it comes to confidence and believing in herself, because I’m overcompensating for the current status quo. I don’t do it in the same way for my boys because I assume they’re already set up for success. But that’s not true — and it’s also not fair to them. They don’t know anything about the gender pay gap. They just see a bunch of t-shirts that say “the future is female” and hear a whole lot of talk about girl power. They haven’t yet been affected by society or expectations related to their gender, and so they shouldn’t be treated as such. I try to remind myself of this often, and parent them with the same love and encouragement, but with the knowledge they’ll all use it in different ways.

Your sons are also very different. Tell me more about that.

SR: Harrison, my oldest, is more laid back and easy going. He’s very athletic. He’s not so into school, but is totally obsessed with sailing. It is his passion. Reese is three years younger. His interests run more of a range: he plays sports, participates in theater and dance, and loves school and science. I knew they were different when Reese explained why he didn’t love the competition of participating in sports: he feels sad for the losing team when he wins, and feels sad when he, himself, loses. How cute is that?

I remember visiting a bunch of co-ed schools for Reese when he was entering kindergarten. We’d walk the gorgeous campuses, admiring the perfectly groomed fields and collegiate-looking libraries. I’ll never forget when the tour guides approached the athletic facilities and said “that’s where the boys play lacrosse,” and paused in front of the auditorium and identified the stage where the girls sing in the chorus. I knew that would not work for my son, who loved all of those activities — and did not yet assign them to any specific or traditional gender role. The irony of it all is that he is thriving at an all-boys school, where his fellow male students take art and phys ed. Masculinity doesn’t have a singular definition, and I think it’s made all the difference for him.

There are so many critical nonverbal cues that may appear to have nothing to do with gender, but send a very different message than the one intended. I didn’t realize I fall straight into the stereotypes I worked so hard to avoid.

Stephanie Ruhle

Explain the gender roles at play in your house. How do you think your kids see masculinity versus femininity?

SR: I love this question because I recently learned that my perception is not as close to reality as I originally thought. I did not grow up in an equal opportunity environment: my mom and I would drop my dad off at the train station every day and watch him go into the city for work, while we turned right back around and went home. Fast forward, and my husband and I both work full time jobs. I mistakenly thought that this might be a signal to my children that gender roles don’t exist — both men and women can contribute to the household; there doesn’t have to be one sole breadwinner.

Not the case: my kids think my husband has all the money, my husband has all the control, and they think he makes all of the decisions. When I pushed my kids to understand why, I learned it was my own fault. I never carry any money. I never drive our car. I don’t carry house keys. There are so many critical nonverbal cues that may appear to have nothing to do with gender, but send a very different message than the one intended. I didn’t realize I fall straight into the stereotypes I worked so hard to avoid.

You talk a lot about the issue of toxic masculinity in the podcast. How do you think we get rid of it?

SR: I don’t think the answer is getting rid of the masculinity. It’s eradicating the toxic part. A lot of the topics, games, and stereotypes that fall under classic masculinity are okay. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a boy being super into sports, or cars, or whatever it may be. A lot of my own adolescent experience gravitated around pep rallies and cheering for the buff football players. It never made me feel less than my male counterparts.

Those who fall into the alpha male category now feel demonized. But I don’t think they have to. We don’t need to take anything away from anyone’s understanding of masculinity. We just need to make room for that word to mean more than the traditional definition. That way, everyone can be smarter and better.

What is your hope for your sons as they grow into young men?

SR: I want the same thing for all of my kids: for their confidence to come from within — not from any external measure or expectation. Gender roles revolve around how others see us: Am I tough enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I making enough money? The answers to those questions shouldn’t come from others, it should come from ourselves. I can’t control if my kids are getting bullied. I can’t control if they have a bad teacher, or a mean boss. But I know that at different points in their lives, they’re going to have all three. So instead of saying “let’s change how the world operates,” let’s change how we see ourselves instead.

Julie Brown is an anchor producer for MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle.

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