Several news stories recently (eg, Standford conviction and Baylor University controversies around sexual assault by athletes) have led many to be talking about the role parents play in shaping our sons’ characters and choices, especially regarding sexual consent. As a parent and therapist, I see several significant opportunities for parents to deeply influence their sons, in spite of any external social messages that we can’t control. The biggest themes at any age are genuine empathy for others and personal accountability for one’s own actions and the effects of those actions on others. This is not just a single conversation for parents to have with an adolescent boy, especially if our goal as parents is not just to avoid having a son who is a convicted rapist. The much deeper, and MUCH more important goal is actually raising sons who view all others, including all women (regardless of dress, physical characteristics, level of attraction, or even level of intoxication) as human beings who are inherently worthy of a basic level of kindness and respect.
- From a very early age, consistently reinforce respect for body boundaries (their own and those of others) and the expectation that one must listen to both the actual words of others and their nonverbal cues to know what is ok with another person. For example, when I taught preschool aged children, we coached them to ask, “May I have that toy when you are finished?” instead of simply taking it out of the hands of another. There are many opportunities during the toddler and preschool years to discuss when it is and is not ok to touch another person (as well as when another person is allowed to touch the child). You can also use a hula hoop as a visual representation of ‘personal space’- we must have permission from the other person to be inside their personal space. Parents with more than one child have an endless supply of opportunities to talk about respecting boundaries- “knock before you enter another person’s room”, “I just heard your sister say she didn’t want you to touch her art project- that means it is not your choice to hold it in your hands.” Awareness of one’s physical presence and respect for the physical space of others is taught through hundreds of interactions and conversations across childhood and adolescence.
- You made the choices, you experience the consequence- regardless of the role others played in the activity. I don’t care who said what, and influenced your actions (from taking an extra cookie for dessert, to watching off-limits programing on YouTube, to smoking pot). If it was a choice you made, there are consequences for it that will not be softened just because someone else was doing it too, or somehow influenced you. When this personal accountability message is internalized at the same level as gravity (meaning, it is just a given in one’s experience of reality), it then makes conversations about personal responsibility regardless of what a girl might be wearing, saying, or drinking much easier. Emphasis in our discipline conversations on choices and consequences of one’s actions on others also makes it easier for us as parents to stay connected with our children and not be the ‘mean parent’- “When you chose to push your sister, you chose to not watch TV the rest of the day. I know you really want to watch your favorite show, but you made the choice. I hope you make a better choice tomorrow so we can watch it together.”
- Learning how to manage his own physical power . In many ways, I want my son to see females as equally powerful and capable, even knowing that girls can be better and smarter than him. However, it is quite likely that he will be physically stronger than many women in his life. This power advantage therefore makes him even MORE responsible. In my house, this is an easy area to address, because my son has a younger sister- there are frequent conversations about recognizing that she is younger and not as strong, and being more responsible during play because he is stronger. Whether parents have the benefit of a sibling relationship for this emphasis or not, the combination of learning through experience and verbal dialogue is important. Experience is how we make it a memory in our bodies because we’ve actually experienced what it feels like to stop or redirect physical power. Dialogue gives this experience language and meaning.
- Related to self-control of physical power is the difference between using that power in competitive sports and the rest of life . In football, basketball, soccer and many other sports, the message is to take what you want by force. He who wants it most gets it. While there are many valuable life lessons that come from sports participation, there is also a need to help our sons recognize the differences in how those rules apply in life versus on the field.
- Empathetic perspective taking , I believe, is the single most important skill we can teach our children. Unfortunately, there is a much stronger cultural emphasis for girls in this area than for boys. Watch an afternoon of children’s programming on Netflix or Disney channel, for example, and you will see an endless line of programming for girls that included heavy themes of friendship, fair play, and empathy. This emphasis is largely absent in boys’ programming (with some notable exceptions- I love Thomas the Train for preschool boys for this reason). Empathy is not just about understanding how others might feel- it is about a deeper connection to the emotional experience of others. Can he look in the eyes of the other and see what they feel? During toddler and preschool years, these types of opportunities occur daily- “your friend is sad because you took the toy he was playing with- Look at his eyes, do you see how he feels?” There are temperamental differences in kids that make empathy easier to teach to some children than others; however, if you have a naturally less empathic son, then it is even MORE important to consistently focus on this skill and theme in parenting. Every major religious tradition has some version of the Golden Rule- the purpose of which is to humanize others and teach empathy.
- For many reasons, helping kids process social messages is important because it fosters critical thinking. For example, parents can talk to children as young as 3 or 4 years old about commercials being played on TV to get you to spend money. Sometimes what is claimed in commercials isn’t true! In the same way, we can help our son’s critically process social messages about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality that are covert within school dress codes, movies and TV, books, video games, etc.
- One of the strongest places we have influence over our children’s expectations about relationships and sexuality is in our own relationships. When we are consistently modeling respect, mutuality, and shared influence in our own romantic relationships, as well as in our relationships with our sons, their assumptions about the “way things just are” will include these principles.
- And finally, the part most parents dread- actual conversations during and after puberty and beginning dating . How do you know a girl likes you? How should you handle it if a girl doesn’t want to be your girlfriend? Under what circumstances is it ok to take pictures? When is it permissible to share a picture of a girl on social media? How do you know a girl wants you to kiss her? What kind of conversation should actually take place before you have sex? Most parents, including myself, would rather go back and watch a few episodes of Thomas the Train instead of having these conversations. However, these conversations are critical for the relational health of our sons, both during adolescence and into their adult relationships.
No parent wants to believe they are raising a rapist. However, the number of adolescent girls and young women I’ve heard describe sexual coercion (which ends with the girl saying yes or at least not actively protesting, but not genuinely meaning it) and sexual assault in therapy suggests that too many parents are in fact raising rapists. For the sake of both our daughters AND our sons, we must start having more of these conversations with our sons.