Joanna Schroeder wonders how to raise sensitive boys in a society that empowers them to abuse.
Galit Breen, a mother of a teen daughter, wrote a beautiful essay called “Why I’m Not Raising a Good Girl” about the moment she realized she’d succeeded in teaching her daughter not to be afraid to take up space. Her daughter had a cut that was bleeding profusely, and needed medical care. In order to get the care she needed, she’d used her voice to assert her needs to both the school nurse and the doctor, even in the face of their doubt.
I felt empowered reading this. I don’t know how many times, especially when I was young, that I felt afraid to say what I needed. I could be mouthy, I could be ferocious, but often when it came to my needs, I thought, “No, I shouldn’t need that…” and just kept quiet.
I wanted to raise my own children to know that their needs mattered and that they never deserved to be harmed or made to feel uncomfortable. As my sons grew, I read a lot about teaching them consent: Both to ask for it from others, and to know that they deserve the human right that is giving consent on their own behalf. I even edited and co-wrote a wildly successful guide to teaching kids consent.
So when I read Ms. Breen’s essay about teaching her daughter to take up space, I thought a lot about why we need to teach girls to feel entitled to be loud sometimes, to take up space, and ask for what they need … but not boys. I thought about our history, as a society, of telling girls and women to be quiet, and pushing them to the background in nearly every field and domain. As many women will tell you, we were told to quiet down, speak in a polite voice, not walk too loud, not laugh too loud, not to be too funny, not to show off, and not to make boys feel like we’re smarter than they are.
I thought about my boys, two sensitive and caring creatures whom we are raising consciously, and wondered, what do they need to know? Are their voices always empowered and validated? That was when I realized that this gendered dynamic of boys being allowed to be the loud, funny leaders while girls are asked to step back isn’t a simple binary.
No, what we’ve seen emerge is something more complicated than girls being quiet and boys being loud, but I believe it still reflects the effects of patriarchy.
The type of masculinity being cultivated and praised comes in a very traditional form marked by leadership skills, physical strength, and sexual prowess, for example. These are the qualities we nurture and reward in men—but not all men. We nurture these things in white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, neurotypical dudes.
In her HuffPost piece, Ms. Breen talked about teaching her daughter to be a good girl, which means conforming to what others want you to be, which is a heap of crap we need to rage against. But we’re not just telling that to our girls. We’re also telling that to our boys who don’t fit in The Man Box.
We tell our boys who fall outside the gender binary in even the tiniest of ways — playing with dolls, for instance — that this isn’t a good idea for them. Even if we’d be okay with them playing “like a girl,” we’re afraid of how society might harm them as a result, so we ask them to stop. We push trucks and dinosaurs at them, telling ourselves it’s for their own good.
We tell kids of color that they need to stop being so “ethnic” in many different ways, too. We try to whitewash cultures, eliminate accents, and ignore holidays that aren’t within the Judeo-Christian traditions (though Mayor DeBlasio is making efforts to correct that!).
We tell Black boys that being Black is not okay by asking them to prove that they aren’t dangerous in ways we never ask white boys to do. We ask them not to wear hoodies, not to sag their pants, not to listen to loud music, not to ever question a police officer’s “right” to slam them to the ground for not doing anything but walking. When white boys do the same things, we call it a rebellious phase or “boys will be boys.” When Black boys do it, we call it justification for murder. Of course, we do this to young women of color, too.
We also tell boys not to challenge the authority of “the pack” they’re in. As we’ve seen in Steubenville and similar cases, mob mentality often takes over, and boys who may be questioning the behavior of the pack don’t feel empowered to stand up against the loudest voices.
But there are very real ways in which I want to combat a culture that entitles my (white) sons to take up more space, speak more loudly, be more brash than the girls and some other boys in our society. I don’t want my boys to feel entitled to other people’s space, so I regularly say the phrase, “Mind your space!” when they’re being pushy. I try to say it nicely when we’re out in public, so they don’t feel scolded. They know what I’m asking them to do: look up, look around at who is near them, and perhaps adjust their behavior so they won’t bother anybody else.
Yesterday, one of my sons was pretending to be a mime (don’t ask) in line at a coffee shop, and his miming was irritating his brother. In true sibling fashion, the moment one says he’s irritated, the other does the irritating thing more. This was causing them to back further and further into the line, toward a man minding his own business. I yelped, “Mind your space!” and they both looked up and moved away from him.
I’d like to say they stopped miming/complaining about miming, but they didn’t. I finally knelt down and explained that the people in the coffee shop aren’t at a playground or in our back yard. They are here to buy coffee, some of which is probably hot, and that we need to respect their space and the loudness level. I said, “Can you be good, please?” and then turned to order my drink.
This interaction, combined with having just read Ms. Breen’s post about not teaching her daughter to “be a good girl,” really made me wonder what rules of “goodness” we can impose upon all children, regardless of gender, that will help them make the world better, but won’t stifle their voices.
I don’t have a great answer to this. I wish I had a pithy 25 item list (maybe someday I will!) to include here. But what comes to mind right away – for all kids – are these basic tenets of goodness, that hopefully don’t lead to anybody’s voice being silenced or their identities being erased.
First, listen to the voice inside of you that wants to keep you safe. You deserve your safety, your bodily autonomy, and to pursue happiness in ways that don’t hurt anybody else.
Second, before you act, consider how the people around you will feel. You don’t always have to do what will make others happy, but you need to do your best not to cause harm or discomfort for other people. In essence, “Mind your space.”
Finally, understand that you are not more special than anyone else in the world. You are special. You are important. But you’re not more important than anybody else. You are loved, but you are not the center of the universe, so don’t act like you are entitled to anybody else’s space, time, or emotional energy. Touch, love, time, and energy are gifts that are given to us by people, and are never to be taken for granted.
I believe these three lessons are ones we can teach all of our kids. After all, bullies aren’t all boys and victims aren’t all girls. It’s time all of our kids are taught how to balance empowerment with empathy.
The Healthy Sex Talk, Teaching Consent Ages 1-21 by Joanna Schroeder, Jamie Utt, Alyssa Royse and Julie Gillis
It Takes a Village to Raise These Rapists by Dr. Andrew Irwin-Smiler
Escape the “Act Like a Man Box” by Charlie Glickman, PhD.