Boys to men

Raising respectful, kind and empathetic sons, requires parents to rise above outdated stereotypes
By Samantha Page

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Calling all mothers of sons. Yes, moms of adorable apple-cheeked cherubs, squishable chocolate-covered marshmallow boys and preschoolers smelling of crayons and school, I’m talking to you. Those beautiful babes will grow into men soon enough and women of the future are depending on you to raise smart, generous, observant, sensitive, strong, kind, confident and respectful men who listen well and are able to articulate their feelings to their partners, colleagues and friends. When Sheryl Sandberg so boldly declared in her New York Times bestseller Lean In that the most important career choice women will make is who they marry, she also had you in mind because your son’s education begins in the home with his parents – and these days – with single motherhood on the rise – particularly with mothers.
 
The world is engaged in one of the most important dialogues of the century, wrote Alyson Schafer on The Huffington Post last year. “Every person is being called to make his or her contribution towards creating a more egalitarian, safe, respectful society for women. For parents, that includes making efforts to raise a new generation of boys who reject old stereotypes and instead come to respect girls and women, adds Schafer.
 
William Pollack, PhD, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, and a groundbreaking researcher and clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School who has devoted his investigations into boyhood for over two decades, makes a strong case for breaking the “boy code” as a starting point. Boys are told not to cry, that the things they’re interested in are for “sissies”, that real men play rugby and ballerinas play cricket and how often have you heard boys being told to “man up”? In his book, Pollack explores the toxic conceptions of masculinity in boy culture and how he believes it leads to boys doing poorly in education and health and having higher involvement in violent crimes and suicide than girls. Boys are being made to feel ashamed of their vulnerability, Pollack contends, and “while we have rethought some of our ideas about girls, we are overdue for such a rethinking about our boys.”
 
“My son is loving and kind but I feel like I need to prepare him for the tough male culture that exists in my culture and the world and that he will inevitably become a part of,” says *Tumi. What’s Pollack’s bottom-line advice to Tumi and other moms who face the same dilemma? “Stay connected, no matter what.” Communicating with your son has never been more important than right now – and that means listening as much as speaking. “Over the last several years, I and other professionals who work with boys have become increasingly aware that even boys who seem okay on the surface are suffering silently inside – from confusion, a sense of isolation, and despair. They feel detached from their own selves, and often feel alienated from parents, siblings and peers. Many boys feel a loneliness that may last throughout boyhood and continue into adult life,” comments Pollack.
 
Parents need to consider that boys are now twice as likely as girls to be identified with a learning disability and in the US alone, boys constitute up to 67 percent of special education classes, and in some school systems are up to 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious emotional disorder – most especially attention deficit disorder for which many boys are receiving powerful medications with heavy side effects that range from lack of appetite to mood swings and insomnia. Recent research also shows boys’ scores on reading lag way behind girls in every country in the world with no real signs of amelioration, and in general its boys’ self-esteem that is more fragile, resulting in disciplinary problems and mood disorders.
 
“When my best friend’s son was three years old, he loved to wear his sister’s tulle ballet tutu and her sparkly tiara and sing that Disney earworm Let It Go whenever he had the chance. My friend was so relaxed about it and even helped him put together his various outfits, and it made me wonder why his behaviour made me so uncomfortable; why I was secretly thankful that it wasn’t my son playing ballerina dress up. Was I afraid that my son would be perceived as gay and why did that strike such fear,” muses *Judi, a mom of two tween boys. Olga Silverstein articulates this thinking in her book The Courage to Raise Good Men. “According to society’s stereotypes, if males exhibit feminine behaviour, they can bring harm to themselves by becoming homosexual or weak, while at the same time, harming the parents for having failed at raising their male children.”
 
In her book, Silverstein cites an example of a mother who brought her son to a family therapist, claiming her son was lacking male influence in his life after her recent divorce and her now single motherhood. The mother’s concern was that her son needed a man in his life to teach him how to be a man. While the therapist agreed that the young man needed male interaction as well as female interaction, the therapist did not say the mother should bring a male into the boy’s life. Instead the therapist stressed that if you want to raise good males in society, they must embody the best qualities of both genders. The same can be said for females and Silverstein concludes that just as feminists combat female stereotypes, we should also combat male stereotypes of what males should be and support those men in all their endeavours, interests and emotions. Clearly we should raise the standards for both genders to improve.
 
So how do parents raise men for the women of the future?
Model respectful behavior at home: children learn gender relations at home, so, Dad, be aware of the way you speak and interact with the women in your house. Are you using a respectful tone and displaying a positive attitude? Is there sensitivity and an open exchange of ideas? Does Dad make statements like “You must be hormonal” or “Women can’t make up their minds”?
 
Ask and listen: it’s not enough to enquire if your son is okay. Create opportunities for him to share and for you to listen – free of judgment. This is a chance to develop a platform for active listening where you listen to gain information, understand where he’s coming from, enjoy the insights into his personality and learn something new – yes, you can learn from your child too.
 
Let go of the “boy code”: if you’ve ever said “that’s for girls”, “boys don’t cry” or excuse your son’s bad behavior with “boys will be boys”, you need to be aware that these seemingly innocuous statements reinforce old stereotypes of what it is to be a boy or a man. The long-term effect of suppressing any emotion is more often than not destructive, and enabling his lack of responsibility diminishes his character. Reading with your kids presents a great opportunity to discuss the characters and the roles played by men and women in those stories and how the stories make him feel. What is his emotional response to a story or character and why do they resonate with your son or not.
 
Educate your sons about how to speak about and to women in a respectful way. It’s not enough to say, “don’t do that”, says Schafer. Parents must attempt to raise a boy who is willing to speak up against their peer groups’ degrading jokes and taunting. Schafer even suggests getting boys to practice phrases so it comes naturally when boys need to use them. For example, “Hey, that’s not cool, that could have been my sister, dude” or “You don’t have to impress us with that macho stuff.”
 
*Names have been changed 

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