How Justin Baldoni Is Raising His Kids to Challenge Gender Norms
June 11, 2021
Justin Baldoni is not afraid to bare it all—and we’re not talking about his shirtless scenes as Rafel in the hit TV series Jane The Virgin. He has feelings, and he’s all about embracing that. The actor, director and social activist is on a mission to change the way society thinks of masculinity. He’s encouraging men to dig deep and be vulnerable in his new book, Man Enough. We connected with the dad of two over Zoom to talk about his journey, which accomplishment he’s most proud of and the parenting approach he’s taking with his own kids.
The Bump: Tell us a bit about your family and how you were raised.
Justin Baldoni: If I could have selected two people to be my parents, I would go back in time and choose them. I don’t think a lot of people can say that. My parents are amazing.
I was raised in the Baha’i faith with two very open and spiritual people. My mom was Jewish and and she became a Baha’i. My dad was Catholic and became a Baha’i. I was raised believing that all human beings are noble and worthy and that all religions are one fundamentally. I was raised to believe in the true equality of women and men and that I should be a defender of all victims of oppression and social justice. That’s a pretty rare thing.I was raised very much in a patriarchal family, believe it or not. Even though we believe in the equality of women, we still struggle with what that actually looks like in practice. My dad always kept the finances to himself—he felt like he had to shoulder that burden. And while my mom may have wanted to know about these things, she was raised in a family where it was normal for the man to be the provider and the woman, the caretaker. So they both assumed those roles. While my dad was emotional, he wasn’t vulnerable. I believe there is a difference between being vulnerable and being emotional—you can cry in a movie, but can you come to me and cry? Those are two different things. My dad always reminded me how much he loved me. I learned that was because his dad never did. So some things improve, but some things stay the same.
TB: How did you embark on this journey of self-discovery, the crux of your book?
As a boy I became very aware of the difference between who the world was telling me that I should be to be accepted and valued as a man, and who I felt like I was. I was a boy that wanted to jump off things and punch and hit and run around and kick a soccer ball. But I was also a boy that was very sensitive and very emotional. There isn’t room for both of those things when you’re raised as a boy in our country.
It starts early: No girls allowed, girls have cooties. And then it turns into “bros before hoes” and “guy code” and all of these types of things that are reinforced to us in our culture. Even down to girls being seen as synonymous with weakness. These are the things I wasn’t immune to, and that my parents didn’t have the tools to talk to me about because they didn’t even know they were happening.
There are a lot of campaigns out there saying girls can do anything, a girl can be both a mom and a badass executive. I want a campaign that says a boy can be an athlete and he can also be empathetic and compassionate.
One day I realized, none of it made sense. I kept trying to play this role that I wasn’t, so I decided just to be me. I got to thinking, who in the hell am I? I don’t even know who I am. I’ve been all these different types of men in my life, based on who I’m around or what I’m trying to achieve. That’s the thing about patriarchy—it’s built on power and the illusion of domination and that I have to be a certain way to have that power. As men we try on all these different masks and roles and outfits to try to get to a place where we have that power. And when we get it, we hold on to that power with everything we can, which is why I think we view masculinity as something that can be taken away. That’s not how we view femininity. It’s not something that can be earned, yet masculinity has to be earned. Femininity can’t really be taken away, but masculinity can be. You can build on your femininity with masculine qualities. But when it comes to masculinity, you have to take parts of it away to make room for feminine qualities. It’s so backwards.
TB: Once you made this realization, what was the conversation like with your parents? That’s a lot to unpack.
JB: Well, it’s been a journey. I didn’t just wake up one day and have the vocabulary to talk about it. I think when you become a parent, and when you start to look at the way you were raised and you’re making your own choices about parenting, you try to keep what worked and shed what didn’t. In some ways, you have compassion for your parents, and in other ways you build resentment you didn’t even know you had. You realize a lot of the stuff you unpack when you’re on this journey continues into adulthood. If you have your parents still alive and you’re close to them like me, you realize that the parent-child relationship is still intact, yet there are some parts that aren’t serving you anymore. You have to rebuild relationships and set new boundaries. It’s a process.
So I did a radical thing about five years ago: I took my parents to a four-day therapy retreat in the mountains in Utah. And since then, I’ve been really just working on how we all start opening up and talking about the things that are uncomfortable. It’s all about opening that door to be vulnerable and to talk about the things that nobody wants to talk about, because that’s what growth is, right? I often use the gym analogy. We men love to go to the gym to grow our muscles, to tear down the fibers and put more weight on the bench press. As The Rock says, “be the hardest worker in the room.” But we oftentimes don’t apply that same level of toughness to the work we need to do in our hearts and with each other.
TB: It sounds like you’ve really done the work and brought your family along for the ride. Do you think you’ve arrived, so to speak?
JB: The best thing about the work is that you never arrive. I wrote my book as a student, not as a teacher. This work is an exploration, and I will always be exploring and unpacking because you can’t unlearn 37 years of socialization overnight. There’s a tremendous amount of work that I still have to do and I will be doing, which is really the purpose of life.
TB: How are you using your new knowledge with regard to raising your son and daughter?
JB: This might be controversial, but I think that boys are drawn to certain things and girls are drawn to certain things. And I say that because I have two lab-tested children. I tried to get my daughter to wear blue and I’ve tried to get my son to wear pink and play with dolls. And it didn’t work—and I started early. They showed me who they were and now it’s my job as a parent to then allow them to be who they are.
TB: I fully agree. In our house our motto is “raise boys and girls the same way.” What’s your approach?
JB: I love that you’re raising boys and girls the same. I’m actually doing something a little bit different, and I wasn’t conscious of it really until a few months ago. I’m building a preemptive foundation that the world is going to try and unteach them. What I mean by that is that the world is going to tell my daughter to fit in the box. It’s going to tell her what a girl and a woman should be—the world’s going to train her to be polite and be pretty and be thoughtful, and to be quiet when someone’s speaking and to care about how she looks. And the world’s going to tell my son that he has to be impenetrable, that he’s got to be fearless and take physical risks. It’s going to tell him that it’s not okay for him to cry when he’s hurt and that he should keep his joy inside. The world is going to tell him that women are less and that he’s stronger.
So because I know this is what the world is going to do to them, I’m trying to instill the opposing virtues to try and balance them out. It’s an experiment in real time, and who knows if it will work. For example, I’m teaching my daughter to take physical risks, to take up space and that it’s okay to be loud sometimes. She was born liking pink—and that’s okay. But she’s also a damn good athlete.
Every night we say mantras, like “I’m brave, I’m strong and powerful.” When it comes to her, I always lead with the more “masucline” words. “I’m a leader, I’m relisant.” I want her to have these qualities despite the world telling her she shouldn’t. And for my son, I’m focusing on the qualities the world tells him it’s not okay to have: empathy, compassion, sensitivity. So at night, I start with more feminine words for him. “I am patient, I’m loving, I’m kind.”
I also try to teach him the vocabulary for his emotions. If he feels something and starts to cry, we validate those feelings—we don’t do that with our daughter. We just allow her to feel it. But with my son, we point out those emotions and praise him for expressing them. The world is going to tell my daughter it’s okay to cry, but not my son.
At the end of the day my goal is to raise good humans. The only way I think we can do that is if we actively teach them the things the world is going to tell them they can’t be. And then they get to decide what qualities they want to have. My son may decide on his own that he’s not an emotional person. But I can tell you, in the first four years of his life he’s extremely sensitive and feels a lot. I want to remind him that is a good thing before the world tells him otherwise.
TB: I’m hoping this generation of parents is putting these concepts of emotion at the forefront of parenting so that maybe, just maybe, we can change the next generation. We are all about modeling feelings—and all the feelings.
JB: I think it’s just calling it out. I think that girls are often given the vocabulary and boys aren’t. If you ask a girl how she feels, oftentimes, she can tell you, but boys have no idea. It’s about validating it and naming it. As boys we’re taught the only thing that it’s okay to feel is anger. Once you open that up, you realize anger is really just unexpressed pain. But we skip that part—that’s where we go wrong.
I don’t understand why this way of parenting is so politicized. You don’t teach your kids emotions and feelings to coddle them. You teach them to help them. When the world hurts them, they can use these emotional learnings to name what they’re feeling so they don’t hurt someone else. You can’t prevent your kids from getting hurt, but you can give them the tools to know how to react and how to handle that hurt.
TB: You’ve worn a lot of hats: actor, director, filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and now author. What are you most proud of?
JB: I’m really proud of my book, I’m proud of the films that I’ve made, I’m proud of the work my company is doing. I’m proud of a lot of things. But this weekend I put my phone away and just spent time with my kids. I was exhausted by Sunday, but my son held onto me a little bit differently and when I put him to bed that night, I felt closer to him. Oftentimes men feel like they have to make this trade between our careers and our family life. And we trade in because we’re told that we have to provide, protect, and take care of our families, we often do that at the expense of deep, connected relationships with our children. The level of pride I felt at the end of the weekend, and my connection with my children and my wife, was equal to or greater than the pride of releasing my book into the world. What I’m learning is that all of these accomplishments and all these things that we do, even if they are of service for our careers, if you aren’t putting that same work into the family, then it’s going to leave you feeling empty. You’re going to try and replace that feeling with another accomplishment, which is only going to make the distance between you and your family greater and leave you feeling sad and more lonely. That’s not something we often consider. I oftentimes say it could all go away, and I’ll be okay, because I have my family. Once you have that base, everything else is icing. And if the cake is rich enough, you can only eat so much icing anyway.
Justin Baldoni’s book Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity (2021) is both a personal investigation into the current state of masculinity and a meditation on how to be human in the 21st century. Fearlessly personal, conversational and candid, Baldoni has followed up his wildly popular TED Talk “ Why I’m Done Trying to Be Man Enough” (viewed over 8 million times in 26 languages) with a book that explores and uncovers the unwritten rules and messages of masculinity, while inviting the reader into his heart as he wrestles with these complex topics in real time. Drawing from his own experience traversing the winding road of growing up male in America—the struggle to be confident enough, smart enough, sexy enough and successful enough—Baldoni’s ultimate goal is to share the connection and joy that can be found for anyone who identifies as male on the journey away from “enough.” A journey instead to a masculinity that is undefined, complex, sensitive, open and rooted in the connection between the head and the heart.