If there is anything I have learned after a quarter century of marriage, it’s that kindness really matters.
Turns out I married a really good guy. It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t circumstance. It was a conscious choice. Now I want my girls to do the same.
Maybe it’s one reason why I wrote a book. Not on boys. But on kindness. I just hope they put the two together. Kind boys.
It’s not been easy watching my teenage girls navigate the boy scene. It’s hard when their mom is a psychologist. They keep things secret and don’t want to be judged. So, my husband is there for them, in his gentle way, to remind them what it means to be treated well. “True friendships lift you up, they don’t bring you down.” There have been times when his heart was cracked wide open just absorbing the weight of their tears.
But, there’s only so much either of us can say. As we know, kids watch far more what parents do than what they say. So, our presence and how we move through the world matters. That’s what the conscious parenting movement is all about. But there’s something else, too. It’s really about how empathy is cultivated in relationships, the kind of empathy that motivates people to be caring and kind.
My husband shows up for me in countless ways, and I probably don’t show enough gratitude. For instance, even though I bought myself my Christmas gift that he could give me (to make it easy for him and so I could get what I wanted), he still took time to find a thoughtful gift. It was a book called “Why I March: Images from the Women’s March Around the World”. He knew I’d enjoy looking at the crowds of people and protest slogans.
The Women’s March in 2017 was probably one of the most significant events in the recent past, if not in decades when we did AIDS walks together along the Charles River. To my surprise, he really got into helping us create the posters. Our daughters got a kick out of seeing mom and dad flanking their signs as we made our way to the Boston Common like giddy kids.
The book was a small thing.
By the end of the year, the #MeToo campaign erupted. He wondered about the time we secretly dated while at work. He was nine years older while I was just a few years out of college. Okay, a potential power differential there. He asked if I thought his flirtation with me would be considered sexual harassment today. “What, those little drawings and cartoons you would leave at my desk? Seriously?”
In his mind, he must have thought he came on stronger than I ever had. He was persistent. Not inappropriate. And I reciprocated. But, it’s true that a pendulum has swung in a direction that blurs the lines on an issue that should be clear on the boundaries of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse. I can’t blame him for questioning things. But I’m glad the conversation is happening.
Now that our daughters are well into their early dating years, the question of what is appropriate in a dating relationship comes up all the time. It’s not easy. They balk when I insist we meet the boy, have his contact info, or meet the parents.
As a psychologist working with young women, I am well aware of hook-up culture, more fluid identities and relationships, as well as the consequences of sexual trauma. None of this changes a thing for me. I will not be deterred by their complaints or embarrassment. I insist on some relationship basics because they aren’t going to get them from school, their friends, or the internet. I’d like the boy to come into the house and introduce himself, thank you very much.
We even had both my daughters go through a 24-week comprehensive sex education program in middle school offered at a local church. They used the well-regarded “Our Whole Lives” curriculum which covers the gamut: friendships, relational intimacy, dating violence, gender and LGBTQ issues, and some visuals akin to the “Joy of Sex” coffee table book my parents had in the house in the 1970s.
My youngest lamented one evening when I picked her up. “What is this, Mom? Porn? Are you trying to traumatize me?” The problem was less about the explicit illustrations of copulation; rather it was the reaction of the boys in her group. It was an unfortunate year as the boys in the class were on the younger side as 7th graders, and the girls were mostly 8th graders. Naturally, the maturity level was light years apart. The teachers didn’t manage the ruckus and the chortling very well. At some point, I highly recommended breakout groups for the boys and the girls. But that didn’t happen.
Odd as that seems, I just want my girls to be prepared. Prepared for the culture of men. My eldest graduated from high school fairly recently and, of course (of course!), I was the mom who had a self-defense brunch party for about 20 graduating girls as if it were a Defense Against the Dark Arts course at Hogwarts. I am a pragmatist and I know the stats all too well. About one of four girls will experience some kind of sexual misconduct in college and one in nine will experience rape. These stats haven’t really changed much over time or from one feminist wave to the next. I really didn’t want my daughter or her BFFs going to college and not knowing how to get out of a sticky situation. They learned a few good moves.
But all the girls’ empowerment initiatives can only do so much. We need a boys’ movement. And there needs to be a bridge between the two. The bridge can be built brick by brick with love, compassion, kindness, friendship, gratitude, and mindfulness. We need to cultivate skilled bricklayers with social, emotional, and relational skills. With any apprenticeship, practice makes progress, and we can never have too much training in empathy.
I married a good guy. But the relationship takes work. The simple truth about happy relationships, writes relationship expert John Gottman in “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work”, is deep friendship. “These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well-versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways, but through small gestures day in and day out.”
When couples connect or make “bids” for connection, they turn toward one another with admiration, attention, and acknowledgement of each other’s needs. They do kind things.
They may even march side by side for what they believe in.
And that may be the best lesson our girls have gotten yet.
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