The stories — and we’ve heard hundreds of them, maybe thousands — are always about “those men.” Those men who didn’t listen, those men who didn’t stop and those men who did it again. But what happens when “those” men end up being one of “our” men or boys?
“Me Too isn’t just about what’s going on now,” says Julie Romanowski, a parenting expert and consultant in Vancouver. “It started as awareness, then it became a movement and next we need to use it to teach. It’s going to reflect in the next generation.”
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It might be worthwhile to ask how we got to this place to begin with. Many point to “toxic masculinity” and the fact that for generations, men were raised to believe in stereotypical gender associations. As Romanowski points out, unhealthy attitudes toward women, behaviour and consent boil down to how kids are parented, although she believes the current generation of men in their 40s was raised to believe these gendered stereotypes were wrong. (But the furor surrounding stories like that of Aziz Ansari would indicate that these lessons didn’t stop with the Baby Boomer generation.)
William Pollock, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, talks about the “boy code” in his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.
“The Boy Code puts boys and men into a gender straitjacket that constrains not only them but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings,” he writes. What’s more, these constraints force boys to suppress their emotions, causing them to only “lead half their emotional lives.”
While this is an accurate summation of toxic masculinity, it also serves to emphasize that these antiquated societal mores are dangerous to everyone. Which is why Romanowski believes that the lessons we seek to teach our sons today shouldn’t only be aimed at them. They’re gender-neutral rules on how to behave.
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What you don’t want to do is create more stress or fear around the topic.
“There’s a piece [of this conversation] that’s bred in fear; it’s telling boys that if they try to hold someone’s hand or stroke their face in a loving way, that they’ll be slapped with a lawsuit.”
She says to avoid encouraging them to suppress their natural feelings and instead let them explore these feelings with guidance on how to express them in a healthy and respectful way.
Consent is a lesson that should be taught early and not necessarily in the context we may automatically think — it starts with a child consciously setting boundaries for themselves and with parents who will respect them.
Jillian Roberts, founder of Family Sparks and an associate professor at the University of Victoria, says that it’s detrimental to force your child to hug or kiss a relative or a friend of the family if they don’t feel inclined to do so. In that same vein, they encourage adults to ask for a hug or kiss instead of demanding one. Otherwise, children receive messages that they can’t refuse unwanted contact, even if it makes them uncomfortable.
“It is important to teach kids to listen to the boundaries and say ‘no’ when their boundaries are crossed,” Roberts says. “For both boys and girls, they should never be forced to hug or kiss people or relatives as this can confuse their understanding of personal boundaries.”
“Kids should also learn to ask someone if they want a hug and respect the answer if it is no. Similarly, kids should ask someone for their permission before posting something online.”
Furthermore, by forcing children to oblige an adult, it clouds their understanding of other people’s bodies and what they feel comfortable consenting to.
If you force a boy to consent to an adult who creeps him out, for example, “how can you start to tell him that he needs to ask a girl for consent? If you want to teach this to your son, you have to ensure that it’s happening in his life, too,” Romanowski says.
With older children and ones who are beginning to wade into the dating waters, have an open and honest discussion about expectations: what does he expect he can and cannot do when he’s with a date? What does he think a healthy relationship looks like?
And parents have to be aware and honest with themselves about whom their child feels closest to and with whom will they be most truthful.
“It might not be you, so you need to make sure you know who it is, even if it is hard to admit,” Romanowski says. “Raising our children in an emotionally safe and secure way is the most important role of a parent. That’s the glue that holds everything else together.”