Bill Cosby, Brett Kavanaugh and Harvey Weinstein. With prominent men being convicted of and accused of sexual assault and harassment in the news, parents are wondering how to raise boys in the #MeToo era. (Photo: Collage of Getty Images)
On Tuesday, Bill Cosby began a three-to-10-year prison sentence for his 2004 sexual assault of Andrea Constand.
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is facing multiple allegations of assault and harassment. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of a sexual assault while in high school, is scheduled to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday.
That’s just this week.
The past year has seen the rise of the #MeToo movement and the downfall of prominent men including Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Roy Moore. We’ve seen additional campaigns in #TimesUp, #WhyIDidntReport and #BelieveSurvivors.
#MeToo: First-hand accounts from 8 Hollywood professionals hoping for change
The issues swirling around these movements include entitlement, respect, consent and power. They are complicated and hard for most adults to understand.
Now parents are asking, how can we raise boys in the #MeToo era?
Jennifer Fink, a mom of four boys, ages 12 to 20, and founder of buildingboys.net, said it’s a question that comes up a lot lately.
“We want to get this right,” she said. “We don’t want our kids to be the next Bill Cosby or whoever comes out next. At the same time, some of this is a process, and kids are learning and growing.”
Social norms say boys need to be tough and that they don’t need to emotional support. Biologically, that’s the opposite of the truth, said Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at Notre Dame.
The structure of boys’ brains means they “need more nurturing than girls … more hugging and affection,” she said. “And because they develop more slowly, they need it longer.”
Parents should hug and play with their male children just like their female ones. (Photo: AleksandarGeorgiev, Getty Images)
Like most parenting issues, there is no hard-and-fast answer for how to raise a respectful, empathetic son. The real key is to bring the conversation into your home.
Teach them about respect at every age
Respecting babies is as simple as feeding them when they’re hungry, comforting them when they cry and keeping them clean. Children who do not have their needs met are more likely to be self-centered and cruel, said Narvaez.
“The thing with the Kavanaugh allegations is the cruelty of (his alleged actions),” she said. “It takes trauma to become cruel.”
Parents can talk to toddlers and preschoolers about boundaries. A new friend they met at a playground might not want to be hugged, for example.
In middle school and high school, the conversation can evolve to asking if someone wants to be kissed rather than assuming they do. Parents can explain that the way someone is dressed doesn’t imply a desire for sex. They can also assure teens that boys can be sensitive and girls can be assertive.
Even as adults in the workplace, parents should make their children aware of not talking down to female colleagues and complimenting their work rather than their appearance.
Watch what you say
Parents should avoid using phrases such as “boys will be boys,” “boys don’t cry” and “you’re acting like a girl.” They carry negative messages, such as boys aren’t responsible for their actions and that being masculine means never being scared or sad. Parents should be aware of how they talk to other adults because kids are listening even when you think they aren’t, said Fink. If you call a woman who comes forward with allegations of abuse a liar, your son could believe that to be true. If you shame a woman for what she’s wearing or use derogatory terms, your kids might do the same.
Practice what you preach
“We can talk to our kids as much as we want about consent and respect, but if they don’t see you acting on it, they’re not going to listen,” said Fink.
Parents should not make children hug someone if they don’t want to, even if it’s grandma, she said. When kids ask not to be touched — for example by saying ‘stop’ during tickling — parents should stop.
Role modeling can take the form of breaking gender associations. Dads should change diapers and help with night feedings. Boys can wash dishes and mop. Girls can take out the trash and mow the lawn.
Role modeling can take the form of breaking gender associations. Dads should change diapers and help with night feedings. Chores shouldn't be female vs. male. (Photo: UntitledImages, Getty Images)
Parents should listen to their children and respect their point of view. Don’t assume because they are young that their views aren’t valid.
Be aware of subtle differences
Peter Glick, a professor at Lawrence University, told the New York Times that parents should stop teaching boys to be chivalrous.
Chivalry, he argued, teaches men to be especially kind to women. To help, honor and protect them. That seems like a good thought, but it implies that women are helpless and need protection.
Instead parents should teach courtesy, which is kindness toward everyone. Yes, you should still hold open doors, but it should be for anyone who’s walking inside behind you, not just a woman.
“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.”
Allow your child to be an individual
Maybe you’re a big football fan and always wanted your son to play the sport but he’d rather read. Or maybe you don’t understand why he loves watching princess movies. It’s important to recognize your bias as a parent and not forcefully mold your children into who you want them to be, said Narvaez. Children who don’t feel secure in themselves or valued by their parents will either withdraw or seek to dominate, she said. That’s when behavioral problems can start. Parents should set aside their egos and insecurities and allow children to find their own calling.
Parents should allow children to find their own likes and dislikes. (Photo: omgimages, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Don’t jump to severe punishment
You hear stories about seemingly extreme punishments, like when a 6-year-old Colorado boy was suspended from school for kissing a girl on the hand. Little boys, especially, will get things wrong, said Fink. They learn about boundaries by testing limits and interacting with friends. This doesn’t equate to “boys will be boys” though. Instead, parents should use these instances as teaching moments to talk about apologizing and respecting personal space.
“Coming down super hard on a kid when they hug someone on a playground is not the best response,” said Fink, adding discipline should be done without implying your kid is a “bad person.”
Don’t assume boys are predators-in-waiting
A concern about the #MeToo movement is that boys are being framed as violent or inherently predatory. Fink recalls an assembly at her sons’ school where male students were asked to stand and pledge to never harm women. While she supports non-violence, Fink took issue with only the males being asked to take the pledge. Her son told her “The overall idea was that we, as men, need to fight the violent, felonistic ways inside of us.”
A more powerful message is that respect and freedom from abuse is a human right, regardless of gender.
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