By Alison Bowen Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Parenting boys who grow up to respect women is something many parents might be thinking about after a year with so many allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.
On a recent afternoon, Holly Daly's twin boys were debating whether there were enough female superheroes.
The twins disagreed. One pointed out that he could list multiple, She-Hulk, Black Widow, Captain Marvel. The other countered that compared with the male superheroes, that didn't seem like many.
For Daly, the conversation was a good sign. As a mother of four boys, 9-year-old twins, a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, she was glad to see them thinking through how they saw women represented.
"It was interesting how they're learning and letting that be a process for them," she said.
Parenting boys who grow up to respect women is something many parents might be thinking about after a year with so many allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.
But how can parents impart respectful teachings and behavior to boys at different ages?
Experts agree it is never too early to think about parenting children who understand boundaries and respect.
"The roots of things like sexual harassment and sexual violence against women start so early," said Dr. Laurie Berdahl, based in Denver and co-author of "Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids From Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression."
The conversations happening right now, from boardrooms to bedrooms, may ultimately result in something positive. Jeffrey B. Rubin, a New York psychotherapist who also teaches meditation, said the string of revelations can be a chance to create conversation and, hopefully, change.
"Let's use the opportunity," Rubin said.
Talk about boundaries. That conversation is never too early. Even with young children, parents can emphasize that people have a right to say no to someone else touching their body.
These are the building blocks of how boys consider personal space and boundaries later, said Ted Bunch, chief development officer of A Call To Men, which educates men on healthy, respectful manhood and aims to prevent violence against women.
"We have to have conversations much earlier about respectful boundaries about girls, about valuing girls," Bunch said. "We're talking about respecting your body and the bodies of others, being able to say no and understanding that someone is not supposed to touch me in certain ways."
For example, he said, you can say to a child, "If somebody wants to give you a hug, it's OK to say, 'I don't want a hug.' "
For older boys, this might mean cultivating a clear conversation about consent. A recent study showed college men often conflated their perception of a woman's sexual desire with her consent for intimacy with them personally. As a mother of four boys, consent is a topic Daly sees on the horizon.
"We're going to have to have those conversations," she said.
Model good behavior. Children learn mostly by seeing their parents' examples, experts noted. Respect can be construed through behavior or lack of it, spouses sharing chores, or silence after someone denigrates a woman.
"This starts at home," Berdahl said. "Boys watch how their mothers, their sisters, other women are treated and talked about by men."
Think not only a husband being kind to his wife, but also the reaction after someone insults a woman.
"This can look like watching a TV show where someone isn't talked to well and remarking on it," Berdahl said.
Not everyone has a male role model at home. Coaches and mentors can also model good behavior, she noted.
Make it clear that emotions are OK. Parents should strive not to reinforce stereotypes that indicate boys are weak if they cry or feel emotions. "I think that we have to be careful in how we talk to our boys and be more sensitive in how we talk to our boys, similarly to how we may talk to our girls," Bunch said.
"We want to teach boys to have the full range of emotions, let them cry, let them experience their feelings," he added.
Rubin encountered this recently, when someone told his grandson, "Boys don't cry." Rubin told the boy, 8, "You know what? Real boys and real girls, they feel a range of feelings. It's OK to feel happy, it's OK to feel sad."
Construe to children that "we're made up of a million emotions, and it's OK to feel the range of them."
Pair this with teaching empathy. This can be done in different ways for different ages.
For his grandson who just hit someone with a rock, for example, Rubin might say, "Feel the edge of that rock. Imagine that goes against the skin." Talk out how things feel and how other people are affected by their actions.
"Try to get them to empathize with the consequences of their behavior," Rubin said. "What that leads to is greater moral imagination."
Assign equal chores. Berdahl remembers the moment when, as a kid, she realized she was doing much more housework than her three brothers. "I had a conversation with my parents, and I said, 'You know, it seems I'm doing most of the housework, and the boys have to mow the lawn during the summer.'"
She said parents can support gender equality not only by sharing responsibilities themselves, but by rotating chores among children.
Build up boys. Finally, boys themselves should feel empowered. Boys who have a good sense of self are less likely to seek fulfillment in unhealthy ways, Rubin said.
"We have to raise them to like themselves, and to do that, we have to treat them with love and respect," he said. "We have to appreciate their uniqueness. We need to validate their feelings; we need to empathize with their pain."
He emphasized that raising boys who like themselves benefits them and others. "When there's less wounding, there's less need for compensatory building up of themselves," he said, whether acting out or acting against others.
As a parent, Daly encounters gender stereotypes in ways big and small. Recently, her husband, Ethan, was cooking dinner, and one of their twins said, "I think in most houses, the mom wants to be the best cook." Her husband responded, "What makes you say that?" which led to a conversation about how the parents share chores.
For Christmas, they bought their toddler a Baby Alive doll to take care of, realizing he wouldn't get as much experience nurturing as his older brothers had, having younger siblings.
Recently, they enrolled the family in a women's studies class, for ages 6 to 12, through their home school co-op. That's where the superhero conversation came up and where parents were learning some things too.
Whether about superheroes or sexual consent, Daly knows the future will include many conversations. She wants her sons to know she and her husband are listening.
She tells them, "I want you to always think you can talk to us."