I have two sons. I don’t know much about what it’s like to be a boy. I’ve been a woman my whole life. I certainly know what that’s like. And we all know it ain’t easy.
When I had my sons, I came to a new realization. I don’t think it’s easy to be a boy either. As I examine the world around me to see what my children are up against, I see boys and men going astray. While suicide rates have risen across the board, the increase is higher for white males than any other race or gender group. Mass shootings are on the rise, and almost all of them are committed by men. Or in some cases, boys. These boys are somebody’s sons.
Many people warned me that it’s harder to raise girls, mostly because you have to worry about what boys will do to them. There’s an unfortunate running joke that dads need a shotgun when they have daughters. The cautionary commentary that accompanies raising girls emphasizes their need to be protected and held to stricter rules enforced to ensure their safety. All of this contributes to the old wives’ tale that raising daughters is more difficult. I used to believe it must be true. But now, I’m not so sure. Raising sons has its own unique challenges, and one of them is making sure they do not turn out to be the kid any father needs to get a shotgun out for.
Many people have warned me that it’s harder to raise girls, mostly because you have to worry about what boys will do to them.
The question we should be asking is: How do we raise our boys to have respect for women, life, and other living things when everything in our culture encourages them not to? It seems like a difficult task when all odds are against us as parents.
I recently finished reading a book written by Sue Klebold. Her son was Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Her case stands out because he is an outlier for the mass shooting profile- he had friends, a loving family; he even went to prom. Unbeknownst to Sue, her son was plotting the massacre of his entire student body. And it happened under her loving and seemingly watchful eye.
The reading and recent events in our society had me questioning: How do we raise our sons to be decent human beings? How do we know what’s going on with them? How do we instill values to ensure they respect all living things? How do we protect them from toxic tropes?
Here are a few of many possible options for how to raise boys to become decent human beings:
Teach boys about personal space. I call this the “personal bubble” with my son after a recommendation from a therapist friend of mine. Teach them early on to respect the physical boundaries of both boys and girls, including their own siblings. Through learning about personal space, they can also learn about consent. Clearly, this is something we still need to work on as a society.
Allow boys to identify with any gender they want when they are playing. I know many men who cringe when their kid says they want to be “Wonder Woman.” A boy who has not been taught to identify being a woman as something bad won’t think it’s something bad when he grows up. Most of the time, the expression of gender fluidity is part of having fun and role-playing. It doesn’t matter if you dressed like Wonder Woman once when you were five years old. Get over it. The other day, my son put on a green Tinkerbell dress and said he was “War Machine.” Now that is the power of imagination. I would never deny him that.
Monitor and/or curb their internet activity. The internet has become a wildly dangerous place for boys, and it’s is definitely not the rabbit hole you want your child to fall into. This is also one of the main takeaways from Sue’s book. The glaring difference between my generation and the one that follows is the advent of the internet. Dylan, for example, was surfing the internet regularly. It was new then, and his mother wasn’t fully aware of the inherent dangers. His accomplice had published a site making clear his violent intentions. Yet, they both went unchecked. Monitor and curb.
The internet has become a wildly dangerous place for boys, and it’s is definitely not the rabbit hole you want your child to fall into.
If your child is involved in a fraternity or sports team, be extra cautious about herd mentality. If my sons ever approach me about joining their high school football team or wearing Greek letters, I plan to review some historical cases with them to lay it out on the table. I want them to know what herd mentality can lead to, why it is harmful, and what its potential consequences are.
Create opportunities for your child to be involved with other activities outside of school. They have to know that school is not their only opportunity for socializing. There are other ways to be engaged with their peers- and it’s not on the internet. This will ensure their social net is cast wide enough and that the weight of one group’s opinions won’t dominate their lives.
Do not teach your child to suppress their emotions. Don’t teach them that boys don’t cry. What happens to those suppressed emotions? They often manifest themselves in unhealthy ways. Humans cry. Get over it. Instead…
Emphasize and teach skills for self-control early on. I am a personal fan of meditation and mindfulness. We tell girls they have to adhere to dress codes in school because it is a “distraction” for boys. We need to start teaching boys how to curb their urges and impulses, and it starts by teaching them how to regulate – not repress- emotions in a healthy way.
We need to start teaching boys how to curb their urges and impulses, and it starts by teaching them how to regulate – not repress- emotions in a healthy way.
Teach empathy from an early age. Every child gets excited about squishing ants under their shoe. When my son engages in this, I actually discourage him. I tell him how hard the ants work. I understand not everyone will raise their child vegan, but perhaps we can teach them not to devalue life for sport. Death should, at the very least, have utility and value in life.
As they get older, acknowledge the emergence of the “second family” in their lives. The “second family,” a phrase coined by Ronn Taffel in his book, “The Second Family: Dealing with Peer Power, Pop culture, the Wall of Silence, and Other Challenges of Raising Today’s Teens,” is your child’s network of peers and the culture they participate in. One striking takeaway from the book was his emphasis on “comfort time” over “quality time.” Instead of taking your child to a museum, for example, you could sit with them on the couch while they watch YouTube videos (if that’s their thing). In this state, your child is in his comfort zone and would be more likely to open up about his second family. Our kids are more plugged in than ever before. We need to adjust the way we parent accordingly.
Love them. It won’t necessarily save them from the evils of the world, but it’s the very least we can do.
Jamie Parganos started the Wonder Mommy blog to create a community for moms to share their stories and support one another. She is also CEO and Founder of Mommy Hacks, a subscription box service designed to help you win at parenting. Before founding her companies, she worked as a program director in the New York City public school system. A mom who wears many hats, Jamie is also a professional singer. She lives in NYC with her two children, ages 3 and 1.