Before my son was born, I didn’t think it was my problem to raise good men. I’d been working with raped and battered women as a women’s rights advocate for many years, and had seen my share of sexist atrocities by men-gone-wrong. My aim was to get justice for women – even though I always understood that the only solution is to prevent the violence in the first place. But until such time as women and men have financial, social, economic and political equality, how could this be possible?
I always imagined that men become assholes because either
- men have the asshole gene and there’s nothing we can do about that or
- they were raised by asshole fathers or weak mothers who themselves had assholes for fathers.
But when my son was born, I became afraid that no matter what we did as his parents, somehow he’d get infected with the virus of sexism ‘out there’ and become one of those men I’d been working all my life to protect women from. I also didn’t want to become one of those domineering mothers who emasculates their sons for loud, aggressive testosterone-driven behaviour. Boys and girls are – despite all the politically correct notions to the contrary – different in ways it is disingenuous to ignore.
Here are some of my thoughts about how we can potentially raise boys who respect girls and women:
Surround our kids with good men
Boys who have dads (step-dads or other mentors) who are not assholes have a much better chance of not being assholes themselves. So the way a boy sees his father treating his mother, wife and daughters will have the hugest lasting impact on how a boy works this one out.
A while back I was chatting to a woman who confided that her teenage sons make sexist and misogynist comments all the time. She was confounded and deeply upset by this. ‘They just don’t respect me,’ she said miserably.
I made some suggestions about ‘laying down rules’ and ‘invoking consequences for rude behaviour’ but she shrugged weakly and said, ‘They’ll just laugh at me.’
‘What does your husband say about this? Why doesn’t he step in and let them know that it’s not okay to disrespect women?’ I asked.
‘Where do you think they learn it from?’ she asked helplessly.
Our kids become what we are, not what we say. Lecturing and teaching them doesn’t work. They learn from us by watching what we do.
Kids believe what their mothers say
As mothers, our job is to love and respect ourselves and other women. Our kids listen to how we talk about our own bodies and how we speak about other women and girls. Our self-loathing and gendered criticism trickles into our sons (and daughters) and is powerfully undermining of building respect.
Our kids imbibe sexual attitudes – not only from mainstream culture – but also through the subtleties of how comfortable we are with our own sexuality. If we talk about sex as something natural and mutual; if we discuss what is both interesting and disturbing about pornography, our kids will take those attitudes with them when they’re exposed to it.
Make it about ‘people’
Sometimes we have to talk about gender differences (like the fact that girls are the ones who fall pregnant, and are likely to be physically weaker than boys when it comes to gender violence), but in many instances, respect is about ‘respecting people,’ irrespective of their gender. If we role model compassion, non-judgement and kindness to everyone, that’s the message that sinks into our kids.
Some stuff is just unacceptable. If we fail to call people on sexist remarks or jokes (whether made by men, women, girls or boys) our kids learn that silence. They learn how to shut up instead of speak up. Watching us, our kids learn what is tolerable and what is not. Sometimes we have to shout ‘NO!’
At other times, we can speak up gently, compassionately and without humiliating the person.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a: ‘That remark really made me uncomfortable, perhaps you didn’t intend it, but that was the effect.’
We’re all learning how to make sense of a world of confusing and contradictory gender roles. We all make mistakes. We’re all learning how to be better people.
Teach your kids the ‘f’-word
‘Feminists’ are not a cult of rabid anti-men lesbians. Being ‘feminist’ simply means that we’re politicized, that we know we live in a world of social, economic and political inequality.
Our boys and girls can learn to say they are proudly ‘feminist’ because they believe men and women should be treated equally (which is not to say that gender differences should be ignored – in certain instances affirmative action might be an important reparative step in achieving that equality).
There is so much to get angry about in our modern world that we need a sense of humour to survive it all.
Laughter is the best way to build resilience. Life is serious, but we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously. We can laugh at ourselves – with all our mistakes, foibles, imperfections and failures, and in so doing, our kids will learn to do the same.
Read more from Joanne Fedler in her new book. See my review below:
“Speaking to Joanne Fedler you get a true reflection of a parent passionate to protect her children in the best way possible – by living and striving to be the best you can be, by letting go despite the difficulty encapsulated in that statement AND in always letting them know you are right there in the background. Behind every “crazy” teen is a parent that needs to know what is important to them, and live those values for their child to see and to remember what life was really like a teenager. Joanne shares her ups and downs, her hopes, her fears and her wisdom not only as a parent, but as someone who has “grown up” turned out okay and knows what she is all about. Her book “Love in the Time of Contempt” reminds us how we are the best role model for what we want to see in our children. She exposes the journey we are on in a way that makes you feel “Normal.” Something not that easy to feel in your parenting journey, and she does it in her typical raw honest and well-researched way. I loved laughing crying and reminiscing with you Joanne!”