My role at CAASE is to put together a Parent Toolkit to help parents discuss issues surrounding sexual exploitation with their sons. As I research and write I can’t help but think of my own family dynamics. I come from a very small family (eleven members including all cousins, their spouses, and their children) comprised mostly of women. My family is middle to upper class, well educated and currently raising adolescent boys. When writing about positive role-modeling and communicating interpersonal expectations, I often imagine my family members having meaningful conversations with their sons about healthy interactions with girls and boys. I smile when thinking about the possibility of how these boys will grow to be wonderful men who are self-aware of themselves as well as their perception and treatment of women. This, however, is not as I had imagined it to be.
Like many of you, I visited my family over the holidays—unfortunately, I was less than pleased at what I overheard during our time together. Jokes were blithely tossed around by a husband joking with his children about the “girlfriend” he had on the side while a dad enjoyed a disparaging laugh with his son over the absurd image of adult women sitting on Santa’s lap. The young boys, in the same manner as their older counterparts, consistently made references to girls in sexual terms while utilizing language which objectified their bodies. This was happening in a family where I believed everyone to be culturally aware, gender sensitive and, dare, I say, progressive! How was it that demeaning behavior like this was taking place in such a family?
Like it or not, our culture is saturated with denigrating messages about women, violent images of sex and polarizing gender roles. If you’re a parent, it can be very easy to lose sight of what it means to responsibly raise young boys with healthy perceptions of women and girls in such a sexualized climate.
Knowing that our language and behavior towards one another shapes the socio-cultural environment we live in, here a few tips from the Parent Toolkit that I’d like to share when understanding the influence we have on young men in our society:
1. Model responsible behavior. Your interaction with women, the way you expose yourselves to media, and even some of the behaviors you think are secret—are, in reality, being recorded on your son’s mental camcorders. Know that your sons are always watching and are probably catching on to more than you are giving them credit for. For this reason you must always model responsibility and self-control!
2. Love your partner. You're two of the most important people in the world to your son. When sons see one parent yell at, belittle, taunt, or insult the other parent, they may feel torn, hurt, angry, scared, and uncertain about their future. When asked, "Who helps you the most in your parenting?" the most popular answer by far is, "My partner." Nurture that relationship. Also, consider how your marriage looks to your children. Whether you’re seeking to be a cycle-breaker in your family, or you want to faithfully capitalize on the example your parents set for you, it’s important to purposefully set a positive example. Ask your children what qualities they’re looking for in a future mate. Often, their answers will reflect something about your marriage.
3. Shape their identity. A boy's search for self starts with his father and other influential male role models. Influential men can model good character traits like integrity, honesty, courage, restraint, fairness, foresight, and citizenship and teach respectful behaviors such as listening, trust, tolerance, politeness, and understanding limits. By observing these values in action your son can begin to use them in his own life and relationships with women.