How many of you have ever said to a young man, “Boys don’t cry.”? Well, guess what? They do. We’re made up of a million emotions, and it’s OK for girls AND boys to feel the range of those emotions. Reinforcing stereotypes can cause young men to suppress their emotions, which can be damaging and may limit their ability to develop healthy relationships with others.
The #MeToo movement has brought increased awareness of the serious harm that sexual harassment and assault cause to victims/survivors. The constant flow of news stories about domestic violence is alarming. There is a need for a real change in our communities, and that change needs to begin with raising emotionally healthy boys who grow up to respect women.
Disclaimer: I understand that boys also experience sexual harassment and assault, but in most cases the victims/survivors are female, and the perpetrators are male, so this article is based on that fact. Also, the points raised in this article are only suggestions; they are not meant to dictate to anyone how you should be raising your children. However, there may be some parents/caregivers out there who are not aware that teaching/discussing certain behaviors early with your boys may save the family from many headaches and heartaches later.
Recently, a group of boys were interviewed on Good Morning America about respecting girls and treating them as equals. In the 7 to 10-year-old group, when one of the boys was asked what it meant to “man up” he said it means to “be tough” and “strong.” In the ages 12 through 16 group, a young man answered, “You’ve got to be mature, can’t show emotions.” Dr. Stephanie Dowd, a clinical psychologist and guest on the show, said this understanding of masculinity can become “dangerous” as boys grow older (see opening paragraph); it is up to parents to teach their sons that these views of manhood are false.
It is important for boys to develop lifelong beliefs in the equality and value of women as people with needs, feelings, skills and power. So, what are some of the root causes of believing that girls and women aren’t equally worthy of respect? Where do these feelings of men being “tough” and women being “frail” come from?
Disrespect of girls/women is learned. It starts early when boys are taught to be aggressive and disrespectful. These behaviors are modeled by media (TV shows, movies, music, and videos), peers, family members, community members, and even when consequences for sexual crimes are too lenient. To counteract those media images and impressions, boys must see positive examples. Boys pay attention to how their mothers, their sisters, and other women are treated and talked about by men. Coaches, mentors, teachers, pastors – even the neighborhood barber can also serve as models for respectful behavior toward females.
Boys can be taught to start respecting girls long before sexual harassment or assault even enter their minds. From the time they are little, boys associate with female peers. They can, really, they must be taught as soon as possible that they must listen to and respect those females and understand that “no” means “no.”
Teach boys to respect a girl’s boundaries when they are young; including their interactions with siblings. If the brother likes to take his sister’s belongings or pull her hair, teach him not to. They should respect each other.
Teach boys to ask a girl’s permission before borrowing a pencil, or hugging her, etc. Personal space and boundaries are precious.
Teach boys about healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships. Discuss what a healthy relationship feels like, looks like, and sounds like, versus an unhealthy relationship.
If your child hears or sees a story about domestic abuse, use the opportunity to talk to him about abuse and why it is not okay. This will be difficult if the caregiver is in an abusive relationship, but the conversation is still very important. In homes with untreated domestic violence, it may help for abused mothers to say, “I don’t want you growing up to treat women like I’m being treated. I know I deserve better.” Please seek help by calling the Domestic Violence Hotline at 216 391-HELP (4357).
Support gender equality by assigning equal chores. Rotate chores among children. Teach youngsters that there are no such things as “boy jobs” and “girl jobs.”
Encourage more flexible thinking by discussing basic assumptions about gender roles. Point out atypical examples of occupations when you’re riding in the car or watching television, i.e. female construction workers, female police officers, male nurses, female fire fighters, etc. And, equally and enthusiastically support the boys’ and girls’ interests and activities, whether or not they are typical for a particular gender.
Boys who have a good sense of self are less likely to look for fulfillment in unhealthy ways. In order for boys to like themselves, they must be treated with love and respect. They can’t give it if no one has given it to them. Teach boys to have empathy for others, to develop an awareness of how others are feeling; then, they can use this as a guide for the kind of person they want to be. One sure way to help boys develop empathy is through community service. Encourage boys to volunteer by helping others who may not be able to help themselves. There are many possibilities: animal shelters, parks, food pantries, Habitat for Humanity, libraries, art museums, political campaigns, retirement homes, and many more.
The most important way a parent/caregiver can raise an emotionally healthy boy who will grow up to respect women is to develop a trusting relationship in which the child or teenager knows he can always speak honestly without fear, and will be listened to.
Thanks for all you do, parents and caregivers.