Braden: Raising a respectful boy in a #metoo world

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When I was just out of college I was waitressing at a pizza restaurant. During the lunch shift when it was just the kitchen manager and me working, I had to grit my teeth as he filled the time with inappropriate comments. I briefly considered saying something to the male owner of the restaurant, but it was obvious that I was a far more dispensable employee than the kitchen manager. If one of us was going to lose our job, it wasn't going to be him. To me, the chances that the owner was going to take me seriously were slim.

As it's becoming increasingly clear, this dynamic is pervasive — and my experience pales in comparison to the seriousness of what other women have faced. To bring forth the cultural shift that's needed, there are several fronts we need to tackle. One of them shapes my life every day: the need to be mindful of the way we are raising our boys.

If we want to teach boys that kindness and respect are paramount, we have to push back on the contradictory messages society is sending them. Boys are often expected to be tough and not to show emotions. We hear it in phrases such as 'man up' and 'don't be a crybaby.' But if boys play by those rules, they are forced to disconnect from their emotional center. Not only are they more apt to start seeing kindness as weak, but they may also try to fill that emotional void by attempting to degrade and control others.

Last year, the Women's Freedom Center sponsored a screening of an excellent documentary called "The Mask You Live In." It makes the case that boys are put into a box based on our culture's narrow definition of masculinity (one where objectifying women can get you respect). As we delved into the lives of the protagonists, it was clear what a struggle it was for those boys to stay true to themselves and stay connected to their emotions. The expectations of power and domination can be an unwieldy - and dangerous -- burden for boys and men to bear.

Helping boys love themselves for who they are on the inside is an essential first step if we want them to be able to grow into men who treat women with respect and stand up to men who don't. When my son started showing signs of being too hard on himself a few years ago, as a family we started saying a mantra every night that would remind him of the importance of both loving others and himself. Boys need to learn that real power is derived from an inner sense of worth and a supportive community — not from attempts to dominate others.

With that foundation of self-love, it's possible to drive home the importance of kindness and respect more successfully. And there are plenty of opportunities. It's a common refrain in our house that if someone says "no" to you (especially if it's your younger sister), you need to respond to it in a way that shows you heard it and respect it. Words matter, and our children need us to model how important they are.

Last summer, it was a beautiful day and we were all in the car with the windows open and the radio blasting. The catchy intro to a song I remembered fondly from when I was a girl came on, and I instinctively reached to turn the volume up even more. As the song continued, we got to the chorus: "My angel is the centerfold," and I realized that I had never quite processed the lyrics before. My husband, too, was listening to it in a new way. To his credit, it was my husband who turned it off. Then, when the protests came from the back seat ("I liked that song!"), he and I spent several minutes explaining to our four-year-old and 7-year-old why we weren't going to listen to a song that treats women more like objects than people.

If we want this cultural shift to happen, it's going to take all of us. The voices of men are needed — in particular, the voices of men who have refused to live within the box that society presented them.

Yes, let us hold every single person who has been guilty of inappropriate behavior accountable. Let us support the survivors who are speaking up, so that others who are still living it can find their way forward. Let us ensure that effective sexual harassment policies offering confidentiality and assurances of non-retaliation are in place everywhere. And let us make sure that we also push back against the assumptions society makes about boys, and raise our sons to act from a place of respect — not just sometimes, but always.

Ann Braden is a community organizer in Brattleboro. She founded the Local Love Brigade and serves on the leadership team of the Windham County Action Network (WeCAN). She previously led GunSenseVT. She writes about the joys and struggles of staying engaged in democracy. She can be reached at annbbraden@gmail.com.

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