This teenage boy wants to help your teen be vulnerable and fight toxic masculinity

KIRO Newsradio, Features reporter

“I feel like, from a very young age, boys are kind of told that they shouldn’t really talk about their feelings,” said 15-year-old Zach Gottlieb. “They should just sort of man up or toughen up.”

Seattle psychotherapist on how to cope with ‘season of toxic positivity’

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, on the first day his school moved to remote learning, Gottlieb’s grandfather died. He didn’t grow up with a father and his grandfather was like a dad to him, so he was surprised when some people in his life responded to his grief by telling him to “be strong.”

“When he passed away, people were saying, ‘Oh, just toughen up, get past it, you’ll be fine.’ I feel like that told me I should just get past the feeling and I couldn’t really feel upset,” Gottlieb said. “I kind of had to toughen up, no emotion, just get through it. It’s not really accepted as much for boys, as much as it is for girls, that they can talk about their feelings.”

“Somehow, in our culture, strength is associated with not talking about our feelings. I actually disagree; I feel like it’s a lot more strong and brave to talk about your feelings and be vulnerable,” he added.

Which is why he started Talk With Zach, an Instagram and TikTok page focused on quashing toxic masculinity and helping teenagers with common issues, like anxiety and breakups.

“I have an anonymous form in my Instagram bio where teens can submit questions and then I’ll answer them in short videos,” Gottlieb said. “I’m trying to be a place where teens can come, ask questions, get answers, and learn how to be vulnerable.”

Sometimes he interviews adult experts, but he thinks speaking with other teenagers about coming out to their family or dealing with pandemic isolation is most effective.

“When adults are talking to teens, sometimes it can feel like you’re not in my shoes, you don’t actually experience this,” Gottlieb said. “Adults should definitely be talking to teens, but it can help to hear it from another teen.”

Zach has a leg up on the topic. He’s the son Lori Gottlieb, a famous psychotherapist and best-selling author. If you’re a parent looking for advice on how to similarly raise a son, one excellent reference is the book “How To Raise a Feminist Son” by Seattle University journalism professor and mother Sonora Jha.

“I had my own deeply internalized ideas about masculinity,” Jha said. “Even though I was a feminist, I was still part of that idea of, like, ‘Oh, he must be athletic!'”

But when her son was around 4 years old, Jha had an epiphany. Her son was at his first swimming lesson in Singapore, where it is common to simply throw a child into the swimming pool.

“When my son’s head surfaced from under the water, he looked frightened and so disappointed and so confused about why his mom would do that to him,” she shared. “In that moment, something broke for me and I felt like, no, I need to let him be tender, and sweet, and afraid if he has to be afraid, sad if he has to be sad. I had to snap out of my own learned sense of what masculinity should look like and how strong a boy needs to be.”

“So I jumped into the water and I held him, and that’s been my attitude since then, that I’m going to respond to the gentleness in him, the spectrum of human emotions that he can express, and fight for each of those emotions,” Jha said.

Jha’s book offers parents guidance on how to raise an emotionally intelligent son.

“Teaching them to apologize is one of the central things of raising a feminist boy,” she said.

Then there are the harder conversations.

“One thing I did was maybe a little controversial; I did tell him about my Me Too instances, at an age-appropriate time when he was 14 or 15. I said, hey, just so you know, there is sexual assault that happens and I just want you to be aware that a lot of men think it’s OK and you don’t need to ask the woman for consent, or that you have to be aggressive, and it’s not OK. It does harm and it has hurt me.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.” Follow Rachel Belle on Instagram!