Donald Trump’s comments from 2005, recently released on video, suggest he not only has committed sexual assault, but also views grabbing women “by the p***y” as the casual right of powerful men. That this comes from a presidential candidate is something well beyond disturbing.
Obviously, Trump is not in sync with the vast majority of Americans, especially parents and teachers who want to help young men become… well, the opposite of lewd, crude, and abusive.
The question is: how? It’s a monumental query to answer. But here are some of the best ideas on how we might get started.
- Arm yourself with reality.
Boys today are exposed to an infinite range of ideas, from what’s running on copious cable channels to the sleepless beehive of Internet content. And they now carry all of it around, 24/7, making every moment a potential introduction to not-so-great ideas about women, courtesy of the smart phone.
Beyond technology, other cultural trends are having an impact on young men’s identity, internally and externally. Last year, PEW Research Center released a study showing the rise of religious “Nones.” That is, people who no longer identify with any religion, nor attend church of any kind. With the largest “None” demographic being Generation Y, we can expect this decline in organized religion to continue.
That has an impact on young people, because they don’t learn morality in a vacuum (and how you treat others – including women – most definitely comes from a moral understanding). So if boys no longer get some of that from religion, we will need to…
- Be intentional about teaching character
Parents are the star players here, but schools can also do much more to bring character into the spotlight.
To take one example, this focus on character is one of the distinguishing features of The Boys School of Denver. Their curriculum includes an entire 65-minute daily class devoted to students’ getting to know themselves called BOYS (Be Only YourSelf). During the course of the school year, young men are introduced to a variety of ideas, from the Native American “Circle of Trust,” to the African philosophy of Ubuntu. The focus is always on respecting yourself, which leads to respecting others.
As Head of The Boys School, Nick Jackson, told me in an interview last summer, “From our perspective, boys need to be empowered. They need to learn how to be compassionate, empathetic, relational.”
It may come as a shock to some, this idea that boys are the ones who need to “be empowered.” (I’ll refer back to Tip #1 here, that we inform our steps with reality: boys trail girls academically.)
But in today’s context, it’s quite clear that boys do need to learn that it is okay for them to be kind. It’s good for them to care about their friendships, their families, and all people, women and girls included. And in order to express those traits, empowerment is necessary.
- Go high, but also go deep
I have long wondered why we don’t teach philosophy in middle school and high school. The subject lends itself perfectly to academic goals: critical thinking, history, reading comprehension. It remains a mystery why we’re leaving this out of our subject staples.
Never mind. Teachers can bring philosophical questions into most classes. When I taught about the Holocaust, my students had to discuss all kinds of knotty questions about human nature.
Did bystanders play a role in Nazism’s rise? How large a role? Were they, as Elie Wiesel thought, perhaps more culpable than Nazis themselves? Is indifference indeed the opposite of love?
Were there instances in my students’ own lives where they had seen – or been themselves – indifferent to the suffering of someone else?
And ultimately: what gives a human life meaning? (How much deeper can we get, amirite?)
8th graders discussed these questions with nuance, and extraordinary honesty. I sat, often, in awe of their willingness, and even desire, to figure out how to be better people, how to be “good.” Young men need more of these kinds of opportunities. (Imagine if Trump had been forced to think about women as people, rather than just pretty “things.”)
- Take a page from England’s playbook
In 2010, the GREAT Initiative was founded in England. The charity aims to “tackle the root causes of inequality.” And they’ve extended their focus to include outreach to young men, employing rapper Doc Brown (given name, Ben Smith) to visit schools and raise awareness about systemic sexism.
On one school trip, Smith began by showing that day’s issue of British newspaper The Sun. He pointed to the featured topless woman whose breasts were covered by a sign stating “Hello boys.” And then Smith rightfully pointed out that we would never allow a naked black man to be portrayed in a similar manner. The implicit question: Why do we allow this with women?
Like many men, Smith became acutely aware of societal sexism when he became a father to two young daughters. And he’s willing to take on everyone, from drugstores selling pornography to Justin Timberlake.
It is almost unfathomable to imagine the same strident commitment to treating women equally in the US (we love our celebrities, as Trump has made abundantly clear), but we could start by founding our own GREAT Initiative. It would send a signal that we, as a society, recognize systemic sexism as a real, manifested problem.
And that the actions and attitudes of boys are crucial to fixing it.
- Give young men better role models
It’s no secret that young men often idolize their sports heroes. And that makes the violence of Ray Rice, and other football stars, all the more devastating. Misogyny doesn’t get much more graphic than a muscular athlete punching his girlfriend in the face.
And after this year’s presidential election, boys will be in even greater need of good male examples. A national cleanse from malehood as portrayed by celebrities and politicians might be in order, in any case.
So why not make Frederick Douglass even more of a hero, by highlighting his support of women’s suffrage? Or showcase the NFL players fixing their daughters’ hair? There are plenty of men who know how to treat women: like humans worthy of dignity and respect.
Helping young men understand how to be in the world, and be good in the world, necessarily entails giving them a foundation in gender equality. That might be an uphill battle against the culture; but it’s a worthy fight.
Because a world in which some humans are treated as less-than is stealing from our sons, as well as our daughters. To accept the status quo is to accept a lie. And all our kids deserve much better than that.