Raising Better Boys: Why We Need to, Ways We Can
How is #metoo playing out on your social media? I saw a lot of cisgender women and transgender people—and a few cis men—sharing their experiences of assault and harassment, and some noting the fact that they’d had such experiences without going into detail. Some people posted lists of things men can do to reduce the assault and harassment women, femmes and gender-non-conforming people experience.
What did you see from men? I saw men shocked, men unable or unwilling to accept the prevalence of these abusive behaviors; some occupied with their own emotions; a few apparently trying to apologize to all women, or making excuses for #notallmen. Most of what I saw from men in my feed was...silence. Which, however it was intended, is the same silence that lets our sexist culture propagate; the same silence that allows gendered abusive behaviors to continue.
We need to raise better boys. We all need to raise better children, but specifically: those of us with boys are raising the adults most likely to be privileged by sex and gender over others. We need men who will shut down sexist conversations, who will expose powerful people harming others, who won’t label the concerns of women and gender and sexual minorities as special interests. Men who won’t grab the feminist mantle and use it to disguise their continuing abuse of vulnerable people. If we are doing our best, our best isn’t working.
These are some of the tools I’ve come up with, or come across, while raising my own children—who, to be fair, are still young. My goal now is a strong foundation of respect, consent and emotional awareness that we can build upon as my cute toddler ages to a school-age child, a tween, and a young adult.
Early Consent Concepts
Many parents today grew up with the phrase “no means no” specifically applied to not continuing an activity someone’s declined. It’s an essential point, but we can give children a deeper understanding by introducing the habit of checking before initiating and periodically re-checking to make sure they want to continue an activity (such as tickling) as an early forerunner of affirmative consent. Even for infants and young toddlers, essential acts they’re resisting, like a diaper change or medical exam, can be explained in a soothing way as an extension of the adult’s responsibility to care for them. It frequently doesn’t actually calm the child; I’ve tested this empirically. I still think it’s a good practice, for them and for us.
Boundaries require both limit-setting and respect of those limits, so asking that children learn to respect the personal boundaries of others requires that others also model respecting theirs. Relatives may expect hugs, kisses or other affectionate touch, but parents can expect respectful behavior and comportment while still acknowledging boundaries—perhaps suggesting a high-five, a wave, or verbal engagement as alternatives. One certainly hopes adult visitors have the equanimity to withstand a child’s whims.
Respect for a boundary also means not attempting to wheedling or manipulate someone into changing a decision they’ve already made. This point has vast implications in adulthood.
A stunning amount of sexualized violence against people in gender and sexual minority groups (including lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender and gender non-conforming people) is rooted in others interpreting their gender presentation, or their very existence, as a transgression of acceptable roles. Teach children about different family arrangements, different ways of becoming a family, and different ways people exist in the world. Some libraries have drag queen story hours, which can be tremendous fun. Allow children to negotiate how much they want to engage with concepts of masculinity and femininity; presentation like clothes, hair and makeup; activities and identities. Violent attitudes against gender and sexual minorities and women are frequently internalized, so children who can accept themselves will be better-equipped to respect and celebrate difference in others.
Feelings and Awareness
An awareness of one’s own emotions and ability to handle them is foundational for both awareness of others’ emotions and for caring enough about those emotions that we modify our actions. For the age groups in my house, this involves a lot of asking questions about emotional states; identifying emotions; and isolating contributors to those states (hunger typically is a big contributor around here). I emphasize that while humans don’t directly control our emotional states, we do control how we respond to them, both with our thoughts and with our bodies. We have a calm-down song to sing when someone is feeling upset, and we give people space when they need it. The confluence of these mechanisms has led to me singing a toddler the calm-down song because he’s upset I said he couldn’t head-butt me in the crotch. It has led to a toddler screaming “MAMA SING CALM-DOWN SONG!” It’s a process.
When I’m on top of things, I’ll ask my children to interpret how people or characters are feeling based on posture and facial expression—this was essential before the now-toddler was verbal. “Look at your brother’s face,” I’d tell my older child. “Listen to the noises he’s making. He doesn’t have the words to say he’s all done. You still have to listen to what he is telling you.” I’ve also discussed intent in physical and verbal interactions, mostly regarding good intentions don’t mitigate physical or emotional harm, and the need to pay attention to your words and actions and the impact they have on others.
But I think the best thing I’ve accidentally invented is teaching my children that their emotional discomfort with difficult topics is less important than other people’s autonomy and lived experiences. I tell them this directly, and I tell them uncomfortable history and current events at an age-appropriate level. For most white American liberals, this is piercingly relevant to an understanding of both racism and sexism.
Leading by Example
Most parents I queried said they hoped their children would learn by the example their parents lived; I think almost all parents would say that. Consider, though, that a couple generations of white American liberals have been “leading by example” and teaching their children to be “colorblind”, and the situation of racial politics in the US is currently more acrimonious than it’s been for decades. As parents, we do need to teach by example—but not only by example.
Our lived examples need direct statements to illuminate the principles we want to pass on, and our children also need the knowledge to navigate situations we hope they’ll never experience—and in which they’ll never see us acting as examples. Few parents will end up modeling how to guard and care for someone so inebriated they can’t consent, and fewer still would be (or want to be!) in a situation to point out ambiguous or coerced consent.
From a broader angle, not all of those raising children have romantic relationships—or healthy romantic relationships—that children can use as models. Music, film and literature often use conflict and dysfunction in relationships to as plot devices; our children need to be able to distinguish these tropes from goals, and we cannot expect them to make the distinction without guidance. Children who see their adults wrestling with issues, working at frustrating things, and having difficult conversations will be better equipped to regard such tasks as part of responsible adulthood. We can reinforce these examples by stating those points directly, too. In some jurisdictions, consent education and healthy relationships are now standard parts of sex-ed curricula, but states vary extremely in their requirements. Even young people fortunate enough to receive this classroom instruction can benefit from reiteration by their most trusted adults.
Those of us raised as women frequently learn about self-defense and ways to reduce our individual risk of experiencing assault, but this addresses only a small sliver of the issue. People don’t “get raped”; another person assaults them (frequently, someone known and trusted). So many violations begin with a lack of communication—someone willing to ignore signals, or someone willing to interpret silence or acquiescence as consent. Our youths need to know both self-defense against assault and how to avoid perpetrating it.
I think we need to lead by example in a different way: having the hard conversations early, and often: the hard conversations about who matters, how to treat them like they matter, and what to do when you mess up. American liberals are overwhelmingly in favor of scientifically accurate education about human reproduction. Our children also deserve accurate language to discuss consent, feelings, self-control, power dynamics and relationships. They deserve the tools to be better adults, and we need to provide them.