(Warning: content may be triggering for survivors of harassment or violence)
With all the talk about sexual harassment on the heels of Harvey Weinstein’s decades long and seemingly systematic harassment and assault of women in Hollywood, survivors from all around the world are disclosing their own stories with #metoo.
You may know from our community newsletter that I have mixed feelings about #metoo and #himthough, but this movement has undoubtedly spurred much-needed dialogue about misogyny that thrives today.
Instead of asking what was she* wearing? it feels like we are starting to ask more questions like why did he do it?
Strangely, some parents don’t think we need to teach boys about consent.
In a recent New York Times article about the mothers of accused sexual assault perpetrators on college campuses, some parents said that they didn’t think this a needed lesson. “We don’t really need to teach our sons not to rape,” the accused’s mother said.
But many of us are realizing how young these problems start and why kids and teens need to discuss this topic openly.
A little education goes a long way.
It’s never too early to start teaching your child how to respect other people, their bodies, and their agency.
If you can believe it, 76% of teens and young adults said in a recent survey that their parents never talked to them about how to avoid sexually harassing others. And most of their parents didn’t talk with them about misogyny, either.
This is a problem. Especially when you consider that 87% of young women in this survey reported some kind of harassment or assault, whether being called a sexual insult by a stranger or being touched by a stranger.
So how do you address these problems as a parent of boys?
It starts with trust, respect, empathy, and tools to handle rejection.
We can learn a lot from a child’s first crush.
My friend Kristen’s^ 11 year-old son, Nathan has been close friends with Ella, a school classmate, for many years. As they approached adolescence, Nathan realized he began to develop romantic feelings for Ella. After keeping those feelings to himself for a while, he decided he wanted to tell her the truth. First, Nathan went to his parents for help.
Kristen and her husband’s advice to their son got me thinking… THIS is how you raise boys. THIS is how to create men who respect women.
How you can learn from these parents:
1.Create a trusting and honest relationship. How many 11 year-old boys go to their parents to confide in their romantic feelings for a friend? From the time their son was young, Kristen and her husband routinely answered any questions he had about bodies and sexuality. They didn’t say “we’ll tell you in five years” or “you’re too young to talk about that.”
Even if it feels embarrassing, figure out an age-appropriate explanation for each of your child’s questions. [Example: kid points to tampon. “Mom, what’s that?” Uhhh….] Try to figure out what your answers are before your child asks them! That’ll give you the chance to practice the hard stuff, like sex and birth control and pregnancy and feelings. When you create that open and honest relationship, your child will go to YOU for correct information, instead of Googling it or going to friends on the school bus for answers.
2. Encourage and normalize friendships between boys and girls. As children approach adolescence they receive messages from society that girls and their bodies are vulnerable assets, a measure of worth, and a possible source of shame, while boys learn it’s normal to be dominant aggressors.
When you encourage play time and friendships with all kinds of children, it has many benefits. They’ll be less likely to think that men and women have set roles; stereotypes that can lead to negative consequences.
3. Prepare your child for possible scenarios. When Nathan told his parents he wanted to inform Ella about his feelings, they prodded him a bit about outcomes. They asked him to think about Ella’s possible reactions. She might feel the same way, but she might not. Ella might want to be friends only.
When you teach your child that rejection is a possible outcome, it won’t be as shocking if it happens. By normalizing rejection for our boys, they are less likely to feel entitled to a woman’s attention or affection as teens or adults.
4. Walk in her shoes. Even though Nathan had been stewing over his feelings for a long time, his parents prepared him that this news might be surprising to Ella. She might be taken aback or caught off guard. They advised him not to make too lengthy of a speech to avoid overwhelm. And then give her time to process. Don’t demand answers on the spot.
When you teach your son to think about girls’ feelings almost as often as their own, our boys become more empathetic. They’ll be less likely to engage in behaviors such as catcalling and casual objectification in the future if they consistently consider others’ feelings.
5. Be ok with “no.” I mean, be really ok. Nathan’s parents prepared him for the possibility that Ella wouldn’t return these romantic feelings. They didn’t want to dash his hopes, but wanted him to be realistic. It would be too easy to make her feel bad, make her feel guilty, end the friendship, or even turn his friends on her.
When ‘tweens and teens receive romantic rejection, it’s easy to go on the offense rather than deal with the rejection. Try to teach your kid that “not everyone’s for you, and you’re not for everyone,” as my sister says. That will help them take rejection a little less personally and treat the other person with respect.
While we certainly need to teach boys and teens that “yes means yes,” let’s get them to think about the consequences of their behavior and to think outside of themselves. And most of all, start with respect.
They’ll learn that from you.
*People of all genders are both survivors and perpetrators, but I used “she” for the survivor and “he” for the perpetrator because women file significantly more sexual harassment complaints than men (even though it’s a very underreported offense overall) and women are more likely to experience sexual violence.