In my last piece I spoke about the particular challenges faced by the parents of girls and today I’m going to look at some of the things we can teach boys as they enter their teens.
A lot of parents will say that raising boys is easier. We all know our sons won’t be judged as much as our daughters, that they aren’t pressurised (as much!) to look a certain way, and that they aren’t sexualised (as much). Our sons probably won’t be sexually harassed, and neither their progress at work nor their earnings will suffer because of their gender. Your son is more likely to be listened to in a group, less likely to be beaten by his partner and far less likely to be abused or raped.
Happy days right?
The Challenges Boys Go Through
Boys have their own challenges, tough ones. Like the pressure to ‘man up’, to be strong, to lead, to take, to win, to be strong.
And so raising a son is a great opportunity to turn things around. There is so much we can teach boys about how to be, and we can teach them to be aware of the challenges their sisters and friends face. In this way we can increase their chances of having successful, equal and respectful relationships with each other and with the women in their lives.
How to Prepare Your Tween for the Teen Years
I suppose on a grand scale I’m talking about a societal shift, but for now, let’s work on creating a nice ripple!
1. Remember that boys and girls can experience the same emotions
It is only the expression of them that society has trained them to do differently.
There is no evidence to support the myth that we are hardwired differently, but we do know that male mental health problems are very much coming to the fore these days. While girls have their challenges, the biggest challenge for boys is the challenge of being vulnerable.
Pain, loss, fear, upset, doubt, sadness – these are feelings we ‘allow’ our girls to express, but we still haven’t nailed it with boys. Boys still feel less permission to be vulnerable and more permission to be angry, proud, confident, leading, demanding, aggressive. And this is creates problems.
We can help our boys with these feelings by allowing them to be vulnerable, by not mocking their vulnerability and not referring to them as ‘girls’ if they cry or express discomfort or fear.
After all, that’s offensive to both genders!
2. Teach him to ask for help.
This can be particularly difficult for boys who are being taught that men have solutions to all matters technical, mechanical, financial and emotional. This expectation is too great and it’s damaging our men’s mental health. And so teach by example, by asking for help in front of them. If you’re a Dad reading this, encourage your male friends and any male role model in their life to do the same. Even small things can have profound effects: like asking a woman for help with a gender neutral task in front of your son. You’re teaching him that women are capable, and that you are OK with being vulnerable. Two birds, one stone!
3. Teach him kindness.
Even to his toys. And as he grows, to animals, children and adults. A lot of our sons are watching and playing games for hours, every day. Games where cruelty is associated with fun. The violence to which they are exposed is making a measurable difference to their attitudes and behaviours – this is no longer theoretical. Your twelve year old son may be playing a game (which I won’t name but you all probably know it) where he can rob and then shoot a prostitute.
We can do our best to balance this up by consciously teaching and practicing kindness. And by consciously challenging behaviour that is unkind – wherever you see it, online, in a store or at home.
4. Teach him how to comfort and to express his natural empathy.
Comforting and being empathic are often seen as being the remit of girls and women – but why? Boys and men need comfort too and are beautifully (and equally) capable of giving it. Let’s teach our young boys and men that it’s OK to go with the instinct to offer comfort – and it is an instinct! We even see it in primates!
And empathy, the ability to understand another’s feelings, is a useful skill. It diffuses tense situations (“I can see you’re angry but let’s just take a moment here to figure out what we can do”). It helps us ‘hold’ painful situations. Empathy will help him to form deeper and more fun connections in his relationships.
5. Teach him to walk way
It’s ok to walk away from a fight, or any situation where respect, kindness or empathy might not cut it. Where he is being devalued or abused. It’s OK for a man to leave an abusive situation and we absolutely must teach that to our sons.
6. Teach him not to ‘manspread’. This phrase might sound amusing – I howled laughing when I first heard it – but it has a sinister undertone and one we would do well to be aware of and teach our sons about. Boys don’t have a bigger right to space than girls and it’s our job to teach them that. So if you see your son taking up two seats because he’s let his legs fall open, taking up two spaces with his gear on a gym bench, spreading his arms across a shared table – bring this to his attention. Show him that the message he is giving essentially is “I don’t respect your space and I am more important than you”.
And if you’re a Dad reading this – have you ever noticed yourself do this? Maybe you just realised it now. Please don’t feel shame, but maybe stop doing it?!
7. Teach him to have fun
Fun isn’t just connected to technology or power.
8. Teach your son that women enjoy sex and that female sexuality is real and fun and good. And equal.
Teach that sex is not to be ‘given’ by women to men, and it’s not to be ‘taken’ by men from women, or from each other. Challenge your son when you find him watching online material (because you likely will!!) that is more abusive in flavour than erotic. Boys are accessing explicit material now that pairs cruelty, shaming and violence with eroticism. This is dangerous – for both genders. Teach your son about male sexual entitlement and how it hurts the girls they know.
Remember that one in five of the girls your son knows will be sexually assaulted in the U.S., almost 50% of sexual assaults happen before people reach 18, and the vast majority of victims are girls. 82% of assaults are perpetrated by non-strangers, boys and men that they know.
Teach your son not to be that guy.
9. Teach your son that healthy sexuality isn’t shameful
Shame triggers self loathing and is at the root of many relationship difficulties. Your son deserves to enjoy sex and sensuality.
10. Teach him to value and celebrate his body While the pressure on women is much documented and something I write about a lot myself, I am uneasily aware of the mounting pressure on boys and young men to push themselves physically to match the ever more sculpted ‘ideal’ male body image. But we often miss that, because we are so focussed on girls’ self esteem. Boys are just as vulnerable to judgement, even if there isn’t as much out there.
I know a lot of you write too and are dedicated parents and thinkers so please do feel free to comment with ideas or suggestions that could be added – I am genuinely interested! And thank you for reading, sincerely.