I don’t want my kids to absorb the subtle and not-so-subtle messaging in the world where some men sexualize and objectify women. My young boys will soon be men of the world. And, I hope, they will be conscious, self-aware, and empathetic.
In this dingy gas station, I was acutely aware that the burgeoning consciences of my young sons were present. As they raced around and exuded youth and innocence, I knew I had to address the calendar. Cultural messaging shapes beliefs, and beliefs shape attitudes and actions. Without delay, I said, "Yikes. I am not into that calendar" as I brought their attention to the sexualized woman. "It makes me feel uncomfortable," and just like that we walked out without buying the drink. As a mother, I am in a privileged and perfectly positioned place to shape the next generation of conscious young minds. It is in these moments that I can affect my sons and hopefully the next generation of men.
When we got to the car, I more fully explained why I was uncomfortable and shared that the picture objectified the woman, and it offended, disrespected, and even made me feel a bit vulnerable. The boys naturally wanted to know what "objectify" means, and I said, "It is when someone treats a person like an object rather than a person." They connected with the injustice of it, and although the abstract concept of objectification probably did not completely resonate, I know they will remember the emotional tone from the moment. Very simply, they will remember their mother felt upset as a woman by a picture like that.
As a clinical psychologist, I hear my patients talk about the painful and lasting impact of various breaks in safe boundaries. It ranges from hurtful language to seriously traumatic trauma and everything in between. Although most people assume trauma comes from random acts of assault, more often than not, sexual violence is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Often, the perpetrator does not identify the trauma as such.
There is no script for how to build conscious and caring young boys. The most important thing is to move toward the conversation rather than avoid it, which is what we have historically done as a culture. Name and notice what you see, and raise general thoughts and feelings with your children. Take the pressure off yourself "to teach." At Harvard and in the classroom, we often use "noticing and wondering" to spark conversation. Give kids something to think and talk about. Be curious about what they think and how they feel. Raise awareness. As we move on as a culture and begin to process and hopefully repair the trauma that has been unveiled, consider focusing on these points when talking with your young sons.