In the #MeToo Era, Raising Boys to Be Good Guys
The thought of my sons harassing another person is enough to keep me up at night, so I asked experts for advice.
Parenting, as I have come to understand it, is an endless series of life hacks.
My wife and I have to think creatively to stay ahead of our two sons. I’ve hidden vitamins beneath pools of ketchup, made cough-syrup ice pops, learned the hard way that toothpaste will clean marker off wood furniture while hair spray will get it out of upholstery.
But there are no shortcuts for the core mission of parenting: Raising a child to be a good person.
The thought of either of my two sons harassing or assaulting another person, or being victims themselves, is enough to keep me up at night. Any parent is likely to share my worry.
My boys are only 11 and 13, but the University of Kentucky psychologist Christia Brown says that sexual harassment isn’t a problem confined to the adult world. It begins, in fact, much earlier. “By the time girls leave middle school, the majority of them have been sexually harassed,” she told me by email.
Nor are sexual bullying and harassment confined to girls. Teenage boys are under tremendous pressure to “act like a guy,” which often means fitting into narrow (and often toxic) conventions of manhood. Dr. Brown said, “It’s common for boys to be called homophobic slurs in middle and high school, especially if they deviate from the very narrow stereotype of what it means to be a typical adolescent boy.” Some boys, in fact, might sexually harass girls simply to keep themselves from being harassed.
Recognizing that this issue can’t be summed up in a list of quick tips, I still wanted some advice. So I reached out to Peter Glick, a friend and colleague at Lawrence University, the college where I teach. He is a psychologist and an expert on sex stereotyping.
Peter told me that challenging the prevailing norms of masculinity was more important than giving my sons a list of all the things they shouldn’t do. Some of his suggestions, like refraining from telling boys to “man up” when they showed emotion or valorizing physical dominance, seemed intuitive. But I was genuinely surprised by what he said next.
“One thing you want to be careful of,” he said, “is teaching boys to be chivalrous. We need to stop socializing boys to see women as needing protection.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, remembering my mother’s lessons about holding open doors and giving up my seat on crowded buses. I’d long taught my sons to show respect, especially to women. “Isn’t chivalry a good thing?”
“Holding doors and giving up seats are prime examples of courtesy,” Peter said. “Of course those are good things. But the idea that women should be cherished and put on pedestals fosters what’s known as benevolent sexism, which subtly demeans women as fragile and less competent. It reinforces a sexual script in which a man takes charge while a woman remains passive.”
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Even if well-intentioned, he said, benevolent sexism has been shown to correlate with hostile sexism, with threats to women “who don’t fit the idealized mold of women as pure, faithful and compliant. It’s important to promote a masculinity that’s not all about ‘protecting women,’
but rather about standing up for whoever is vulnerable.”
Sexual harassment and assault are often rooted in male entitlement, specifically in men viewing women as objects. Such a view has been bolstered by the media for decades, whether in the form of scantily clad women being used to advertise everything from cars to Carl’s Jr. to Calvin Klein underwear, or Megan Fox’s bare legs and cleavage on constant display in the “Transformers” movies, a franchise heavily marketed to young boys.
But even though sexualized images may be pervasive, parents aren’t powerless. Campbell Leaper, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says parents can start a discussion by asking their kids to count up the number of women in a movie relative to the number of men. “If male characters greatly outnumber women, or if the men are dominant, a parent can encourage a son to consider how a woman in such a situation might feel,” Dr. Leaper said.
Emily Kane, a sociologist and author of “The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls,” argues that parents need to rethink the gendered divisions that have traditionally separated boys from girls, and have long excluded kids who don’t fit neatly into either gender. “Though many parents encourage their daughters to aspire to traditionally male occupations, few encourage their sons to consider traditionally female ones, like nursing, elementary education or social work,” Dr. Kane said.
Dr. Kane stresses the importance of breaking gender stereotypes in small, everyday practices. For example, she recommends assigning boys the kinds of household chores typically given to girls, like mending clothes and dusting furniture and nurturing younger siblings. Likewise, promoting emotional expression — the freedom to be vulnerable and sad, rather than just angry and strong — as well as celebrating creativity and quiet introspection are also key to countering patterns of gender inequality.
Fathers are often the guardians of gender boundaries, especially for boys. Anxiety concerning the harsh social judgments a son will receive for straying from the traditional gender norms can lead some heterosexual fathers to unconsciously reinforce limiting and even harmful views of what it means to be a man. It’s therefore doubly important, Dr. Kane said, for dads not only to strive to loosen the restrictions on the kinds of men their sons can be, but also to make a point of calling out gender stereotypes.
All of this sounds fine, except for one problem. My heart-to-hearts with my boys rarely go the way I’d like. They are only at the start of adolescence, and already every cell in their bodies wants to resist me. On most days I’m the last person they want to talk to about sex. Given the pressures from their peer groups, the pervasiveness of cultural messages and their raging hormones, how much of an influence can I really have?
Dr. Brown insists that parents remain important, and regular conversations — in the car, at the dinner table, while washing dishes — are a critical part of raising moral, empathetic children.
Dr. Leaper directed me to a study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology suggesting that, if parental values are imparted in a loving way, most kids will eventually adopt their parents’ beliefs, even if they appear to reject them while trying to carve out their own identities.
Which means parents need to take the long view and keep at it. When it comes to doing the right thing, there isn’t — and never has been — a hack.
David McGlynn is an associate professor of English at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and the author of “One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood.”
Boys harassing girls- AND boys- has always been an issue: pigtails in the ink well and kicking sand in the face of the skinny boy are classic examples.
This issue is bigger than #MeToo. We have failed boys for decades, watching them fall behind girls in almost every category.
As a society, we have determined that BOYS are the problem to be fixed, here by learning not to harass. And despite the prevalence of "Mean Girl" culture, somehow it's just the boys who need to "learn" not to harass.
It is exactly this thinking that worries me about my son. Add in my son's Black skin and you have a parent who knows society can now add potential Sexual Harasser to the many preconceived ideas of who he is.
My friend's daughters? They are the poor innocents that need saving. Funny how we've managed to maintain the same stereotypes.
2010 NYTimes: The Boys Have Fallen Behind https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/o...28kristof.html
2017 The Atlantic: Why Men Are the New College Minority