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Raising Boys With Healthy Attitudes Toward Women Starts Young: Experts

Having open and honest conversations about misogyny can go a long way.
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Given the growing prevalence of misogynistic attitudes and behaviours, many parents are likely wondering how they can help raise their sons to have healthy attitudes toward women.

The seeds of toxic masculinity are often planted in childhood, only to grow into a tangled web of misogynistic thoughts and behaviours as boys come of age. While there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to the development of toxic masculinity in young boys, experts agree that promoting emotional health — and fostering the belief that there is value in "feminine traits" — is extremely important in preventing extremism.

Providing guidance and discussion about what it means to be a man and how to respect all people, regardless of gender, is an important role for parents and caregivers. Giving boys the language to express their emotions in a safe space, and validating those feelings, helps prevent violent outbursts.

HuffPost Canada spoke with some leading experts to help parents navigate the delicate but vital terrain of raising boys to respect women.

Emotional health starts at a young age

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On his website on how to raise emotionally-healthy boys, psychologist Jaime Nisenbaum writes that a pattern of both hiding and feeling ashamed of their emotions decreases boys' ability to be empathetic.

The old adage of "boys don't cry" along with phrases such as "man up" can be especially damaging to young men who end up being told that it is not OK for them to express their feelings of sadness, anger and disappointment, said Rachel Giese, a Toronto journalist and author of Boys: What it Means To Become A Man.

"I think for a lot of young men who are struggling with some form of mental illness or delusions, or even rage and anger that are over the top, they don't have a lot of places to go to get help," Giese told HuffPost Canada.

Misogynistic attitudes have become mainstream

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Giese also cites the mainstream idea within North American culture that it's OK to hate women — whether that's a leader who boasts about sexually assaulting women, or incidents like Gamergate or the deadly attack in Toronto, she says there seems to be this message that it's acceptable for men to take out their anger and frustrations on women.

"[There are these] attitudes in society that say men deserve women's attention and energy and focus, and if they don't get it then men have every right to be angry about that," Giese said.

Giese said that using moments like the attack in Toronto can be an ideal means of speaking with boys and young men about topics such as feminism, sexism, and gender bias. Yet research shows these conversations aren't happening.

A national survey conducted by the Making Caring Common Project out of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education found that 76 per cent of respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others, and the majority of respondents had never had conversations with their parents about various forms of misogyny.

Bullying could be a predictor

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"It's very common for boys across many different cultures to develop misogynistic attitudes but it's not universal," Richard Weissbourd, psychologist and faculty director of the Make Caring Common Project, told HuffPost Canada, adding, "One way boys historically have come to feel power is by degrading women."

Weissbourd says the issue is a puzzle with many pieces. "One piece is that many boys are degrading girls because they are afraid of intimacy. Another piece I think is that boys are anxious and frightened of sexual contact, and so in reaction they develop a lot of bravado. I think another reason is that sometimes boys feel shame about their vulnerable feelings which can express itself as anger toward women," he said.

He notes that research has shown bullying and expressions of homophobia as predictors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Difficulties being intimate with girls and women and derogatory attitudes towards things that are feminine are other warning signs caregivers should be alert to. Expressions of vulnerability as being 'wimpy' or 'sissy' as well as other derogatory language are something to watch out for.

Open and honest conversation is key

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Both Giese and Weissbourd agree the best way to overcome these types of pervasive thoughts and attitudes is through open and honest conversation.

"It's important to talk to young men about why do they think young men are behaving in these ways, and what do they think about what it means to be a male and to be a boy," Giese said.

"The other [important factor] is to listen to boys to try to see them outside of the stereotypes, and to be careful in the ways in which we may be giving messages that it's not OK to be vulnerable, that it's not OK for them to ask for help, that it's not OK for them to cry."

Weissbourd says that at a very basic level, parents and teachers should be having conversations with boys about misogyny and respect.

"And not just the platitude 'be respectful,' that we often share with boys, but what does it really mean to be respectful and to be respectful to all women?"

Teach boys not to categorize women

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Part of the conversation about respect means not splitting girls and women into "good girls" and "bad girls," Weissbourd said, adding that this type of categorization is something that a lot of boys and young men do.

Weissbourd says that encouraging, modelling, and helping boys develop friendships with girls from a young age is an important aspect in creating healthy attitudes towards women and girls.

"I think that from a young age there's also a lot that parents can do to help boys feel more comfortable with intimacy and be more able to articulate and identify their feelings," he said.

"They can encourage deep friendship of many kinds and help boys develop the skills to be intimate and not lock them into a very narrow version of masculinity."

With the language and space to safely express their feelings and emotions, young boys can develop healthy coping mechanisms to prevent misogynistic feelings from bottling up and exploding.

There's no honour in degrading women, but there is in confronting those who do

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Weissbourd says that teaching them that there's no honour, courage, or bravery in degrading a girl or a woman is another starting point.

"There is honour and courage in learning how to have a really deep, reciprocal caring relationship with somebody else," he said, "And standing up to your friends when they degrade women or are misogynistic."

Giese reiterates the importance of emotional literacy for young boys.

"Developing a way to teach kids to talk about feelings that are not just angry and happy and sad, but to be able to help kids understand that they can have a more complicated and complex emotional terrain, is important to address kids emotional well-being in general."

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