I have been torn about whether or not to write this piece. I have wanted to pen this many times before but thought that so much of my earlier work spoke to this already. It felt redundant. It would sound naive of me to say that it never occurred to me that I would have to write something so explicit, but it isn’t naivete. It has simply been a profound (and deliberate) unwillingness to consider how bad things have been and how all of us have played some role in perpetuating this behavior. So with that said, this is my attempt to provide clear and simple tips for raising sons.
With my husband, we are raising two children: a son and a daughter. There are no double standards (especially sexual ones) in our home. The rules apply to everyone. It was the same rule in the house that I grew up in and I only had a sister. Sexuality was something that we were supposed to be empowered by, not ashamed of. We were told (in particular by our father), that we were entitled to make our own decisions about having sex, but only if they were OURS - not actions given passively or unenthusiastically at the behest of others.
When people write that we have to raise boys differently (seemingly ad infinitum these days), I say: I am doing this. Everyone I know has been doing this. And while my peers and I aren’t always aligned on political perspectives (shocking as that may seem), there is no one I know who is raising their son to become a predatory asshole. But admittedly, I guess that makes me lucky. So if you feel like you have fallen behind or haven’t been actively raising sons in this manner, there’s no time like the present. I promise. Better to start now than to become intellectually paralyzed by the parental/caregiver challenges we face. The stakes are too high.
First, and most important, a statement: If you want to change the culture that has allowed men (primarily) to get away with bad (um, criminal) behavior and a culture that suggests to boys that the only way to be a man is to emulate this behavior, we need to take a deep look at the messages that we have given our sons. I am asking all of us to step outside of our comfort zones. I am asking us to consider that our cultures (whatever they may be) have not always set our children (and ourselves) up for success. Some of these tips may seem painfully obvious, but they need to be said because pretending that their simplicity can be written off as unimportant would be detrimental to the emotional health of all of our children, regardless of their sex or gender.
- Encourage boys to explore emotions - not just anger. It’s okay for boys to cry.
- Make sure that boys know that the desire for emotional connection is not limited to people who have vulvas and vaginas. It’s cool to want to be cared for, even when you have a penis.
- Let boys know that it is okay to want sex, and girls want it, too (when it is consensual)
- Give boys the freedom to wear pink or explore toys and activities that aren’t in the sections designated “for boys only” (which is ridiculous anyway)
- Let boys have long hair and defy all of the old stereotypes that have plagued us for eons.
- Give boys the opportunity to tell us who they are, rather than making assumptions about them (or their sexual orientation)
- Show boys that strong girls and women are not to be feared, but rather, admired and respected
- Teach boys that partnerships should not be adversarial; friendships and romantic relationships should never have winners or losers. There should be equity, not a power imbalance
- Encourage boys to use their voice to challenge expectations of traditional manhood when they hear them used at school, on fields, in life
- Encourage boys to speak out against unethical behavior
- Explain to boys that bodies are not to be commented on unless someone specifically asks them for their opinion
- Tell boys that no one wants to see their genitals unless someone has explicitly asked to see them (and of course, it has to be consensual)
- Model for boys how to ask for permission. Consent cannot be a word with an application limited to sex and bodies. If you have a script when you’re young, it becomes far easier to negotiate behaviors when you are older. ”May I please kiss you?” or a more simple: “May I borrow your notebook?” (I don’t give a shit what examples you give, just show them how to do this!)
- Model for boys how to cope and respond if permission is not granted i.e “It’s okay. I understand.” You might even teach them to say, “I’m frustrated, but that’s okay. You have the right to withhold permission.” (Young people do not instinctually know how to do this.)
- Call out bad behavior. Make it loud and clear. Ambiguity doesn’t help. Turn on the news, explain how these public examples of criminal behavior are unacceptable, and repeat every single day if need be. In a strange turn of events, we have an embarrassment of riches in the “models of bad behavior” department, so use them to inspire conversation at home.
And if you take anything away from this, let it be this:
Don’t assume boys are innately predatory. They are not. It’s on us to make sure that they stay that way.