Every woman I know has a story about an (at best) unacceptable or (at worst) illegal encounter they’ve had with a man. If #MeToo has taught us one thing, it’s that bad male behaviour is depressingly common. I now have a son, which has made me think about this even more. And while I know (hope?) that my husband and I are decent people who are committed to equality, when I hear about #MeToo experiences, there’s still a voice in my head that panic screams, “HOW DO I MAKE SURE MY SON ISN’T A D*CKHEAD TO WOMEN?”
I’m not alone. “I want my son to have a high emotional IQ where he is free to be caring, truthful, and honest. It’s everything a woman wants in a man, and yet we don’t teach it to our boys,” Beyoncé said in US Vogue last year, and Amy Poehler touched on the same topic during a Sunday Times Style interview in April. They’re both high profile feminists being open about the need to be attentive when it comes to raising their boys in a post #MeToo world.
So how do we do it? Showing equality through example and avoiding the bad people is the obvious answer, which seems doable while my son is three and everything he does and every single person he encounters is completely under the control of my husband and me. But it’s probably not a long-term plan. (Or is it? Can I control everyone in his life forever?) No, says David Brockway, Schools Project Manager at The Good Lad Initiative, an organisation that runs workshops in schools for boys aged 12-18 aimed at opening up the conversation around negative gender stereotypes and promoting positive mental health among young men. David says it’s about tackling the inequalities that are already out there: “Until we’ve made enough changes to our society that negative messages about gender equality don’t seep through, we need to keep countering it.” And that starts as early as possible.
So that means not just avoiding labelling ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, or assigning ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ toys (although that is part of it) but offering open-ended play to all children (e.g. dressing up, blocks or crafts), so they don’t surmise there is only one type of role for them in the wider world. It’s also about encouraging boys into ‘caring’ roles, such as helping to look after pets (Isaac likes taking our cats their food bowl – they like less that he always tries to stroke them near their bums, but it’s a start).
Apparently, there’s evidence to suggest that the ‘you can be whatever you want’ message is filtering down to girls, but it still doesn’t go the other way. For example, parents often actively suggest that girls try sports like football, yet don’t necessarily encourage boys to try dance classes. Even forming co-ed sports teams and encouraging male-female friendships stops children thinking it’s acceptable to exclude someone from an activity on the basis of sex and counters the idea that ‘girls’ toys (and later in life, careers) are less than.
I’m also pre-ordering Respect by Inti Chavez Perez, a Swedish writer and sex educator. (And the Scandis have got it sussed on the gender equality front, haven’t they? So it must be good.) He’s written a guide for teenage boys about sex, consent and positive relationships, so that boys learn to respect their potential partners and themselves.
Because it’s not just about redressing the equality balance for the sake of women. Toxic masculinity is real and terrifying. I don’t want my son being conditioned by outdated gender stereotypes that dictate he has to keep his emotions bottled up (not currently a problem, as this morning’s meltdown will attest) or feeling too uncomfortable to challenge hurtful or sexist remarks disguised as ‘banter’ (God I hate that word). ‘Manning up’ is still often perceived as being stoic and silent, even as we know that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. So while teenager-dom seems light years away right now, the groundwork for his mental health is already being laid. At the recently, I saw a boy of about five fall off a swing. When he burst in to tears and ran to his mum, she said, “Are you a baby or a big boy? Because big boys don’t cry.” It made me gasp out loud. I don’t want my son to think crying is a weakness, not least because the best men I know have always been free and open with their emotions.
The one thing I do know is this: our boys being able to talk to us is the best way forward. Another recent study, this time by The Marriage Foundation, found that boys deemed to be ‘extremely close’ to their mothers at age 14 are 41% less likely to suffer from mental health problems.
Just the excuse I need to keep him by my side. In a totally non-controlling way, of course.
You can follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter at @itshelenwhitaker and @helbobwhitaker respectively. Helen’s debut novel, The School Run, about the comic lengths parents will go to for a school place, is out on 22 August and available to pre-order now.
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