Long before Weinstein, Ailes, Lauer, Cosby, Woods, Trump, etc. I have had many sleepless nights worrying about how I can help shape the character of my sons, so they can grow into kind, compassionate and respectful partners to the lucky women they have romantic relationships with.
My worry was fuelled legitimately several years ago as I witnessed my oldest son’s reaction to the Tiger Woods’ drama. When Tiger’s extramarital activities were exposed, my son and his friends were bewildered mostly because they thought Tiger’s wife was “hot” (concerning objectification but not the point of this reference). A few years later when my son was around 13 he accidentally showed me a picture of a mostly naked girl on his phone, who was two grades older than my hormonal teen and intentionally sent him this picture. Trying not to show emotion in my reaction to these events I attempted to be pragmatic as I asked my son to think about respecting women as a concept to guide all of his actions. As a mom of boys, I wanted to offer an example of a strong, independent career woman who was an equal partner to their father in a mutually respectful relationship. There is a different pressure in raising boys as they are the perpetrators of the misogynist actions that are being reported almost daily.
Fast forward years later and our teens are getting flooded with the narrative around the themes of exploitation and subjugation of women. It has been very challenging to explain to my young men how the most important job in the world got filled by the poster boy for misogyny and narcissism. The subplot of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why is sexual abuse and objectification of young women. Instagram celebrates influencers with millions of followers, and they are most often provocative and sexually charged images of young women in very little clothing.
In 2017 Harvard Graduate School of Education put out a report that detailed the research findings of 3,000 young adults surveyed between the ages of 18-25. One of the conclusions was that misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be pervasive among young people and specific forms of gender-based degradation may be increasing; yet a significant majority of parents do not seem to be talking to young people about it.
There were alarming stats in the report especially the following: 87% percent of women reported having experienced at least one of the following during their lifetime: being catcalled (55%), touched without permission by a stranger (41%), insulted with sexualized words (e.g., slut, bitch, ho) by a man (47%), insulted with sexualized words by a woman (42%), having a stranger say something sexual to them (52%), and having a stranger tell them they were “hot” (61%). Yet 76% of respondents to this survey had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. The majority of respondents had never had conversations with their parents about various forms of misogyny.
I have espoused platitudes of the importance of respecting women but what does that mean to a teenage boy? Generations of gender bias have contributed to our current state, and we have to turn protocol and past patterns of communication and consequence upside down to ensure positive change going forward.
When the Weinstein story first broke, the questions I got around the dinner table were:
1. Why is this only coming to light now when some of these events happened years ago?
2. Why would a beautiful young actress go to a Hollywood producer’s hotel room late at night for a “meeting”, what did she think would happen mom?
There is a surging collective consciousness against a culture conditioned to condone violence against women up until recently. There are millions of years of evolutionary wiring which rewards boys for acting like cavemen, and we have casually joked that “boys will be boys”. With the power dynamic shifting, we need to take advantage of this opening to connect with our sons on a deep emotional level (how to do this when they can only process nine words at a time).
Misogyny and toxic masculinity is the underpinning of the notorious actions reported in the news by all these former heroes and icons. It is so much more complicated than teaching your sons to open the door for a woman or giving up the seat on the bus and is more nuanced than saying No Means No. It starts with how they think critically about women and images of woman and examples of having empathy for women’s perspective. There has been a power imbalance collectively we are coming together to correct this as a society.
Through all of this, I dug deep to reinforce for myself the essential family virtues that guided my upbringing and looked for ways to thread through the worlds of my sons. Respect, kindness, humour and integrity are the pillars of my belief system thanks to my parents, and they are not words that were ever used out loud per sey but a way of life, and it was natural.
I have an additional secret weapon now that my sons have a precious 4-year-old half-sister which I use as a comparable. We have to speak to our kids in terms they can identify with, as broad theoretical preaching will not be impactful. I often find myself saying “what if your sister was treated that way”?
Parents, educators, psychologists need to pull together to build strategies on how we cope with the world we live in, and there continues to be no playbook for parenting. We have to be nimble and react to the stimulus all around and try and put ourselves in our children’s shoes. It is critical to know and understand what will work on our own kids as nobody knows them better than we do. What works for one 15-year-old won’t work for the other, and it is all about context.
I don’t have all the answers, and some strategies have blown up in my face, but the below concepts have come together in a recipe that brings about awareness and openness to advance our journey in helping to shape young men into respectful gentlemen.
Surround your family with examples of healthy couples and strong women role models.
Encourage your boys to cultivate positive relationships with girlfriends beyond their crushes or romantic girlfriends.
Celebrate the amazing men in our lives who are taking a back seat to the predators in the news.
Talk to your kids beyond platitudes of values and character. Mandating “you must respect women” doesn’t mean anything. Give examples and be open about what you are seeing. Last year my son told me about a girl that he had casually dated and since left the school in a cloud of drama with her reputation in tatters. After some gentle pressing, it became apparent that he had been involved in contributing to the drama and was feeling badly. I suggested that he had nothing to lose by reaching out to say hi and see how her new school was going. A few days later he came to me with the news that they had gone for a drive and talked for hours and she unloaded her perspective of what she had been dealing with; shame, depression, thoughts of suicide. This was such an eye-opener for my son as he has no clue and upon hearing her perspective, he expressed heartfelt remorse and subsequently encouraged other kids involved to reach out to this young woman to apologise.
Adjust our conversations based on the stage of moral development your child is at.
Push back on stereotypical gender roles. Do the women slave in the kitchen exclusively with our teenage daughters as the men in the family watch sports or do chores split equally ignoring typical gender roles.
Ultimately, we must live as an example knowing you promote what you permit. If we as wives, moms or employees allow ourselves to be disrespected our children see this as acceptance of cultural and societal patterns that will live on.
And most importantly, be open and honest and have the tough conversations as examples happen which turn into learning opportunities for us all.