8 Tips For Raising Feminist Boys, From A Mother Who Has Been There

Photo: Tanja Heffner

My boys, who are 9 and 6, and I walked into a small local gas station to pick up a bottle of water. There, posted for everyone to see, was a pinup calendar with a voluptuous blonde bursting from her skimpy swimsuit. Since I am an almost 40-year-old woman, this was not the first pinup calendar I had seen at a gas station, and quite honestly, I barely batted an eye because I have been desensitized to the absurdity of calendars like those.

But this time was different. The psychologist in me cringed. In the past months, the news has been saturated with story after story of well-respected men sexually assaulting others in the most disturbing and casual ways. It was so pervasive, it felt like sexually responsible and conscious men don’t exist, which I know is a fallacy. But it also made evident the importance of talking to children about consent and responsibility at a young age, especially to developing boys.

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.

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.

Focus on safe boundaries and the impact of pushing boundaries.

For example, "You know it is never OK to touch someone else in their private parts, right? It is also not OK to hug or kiss anyone without asking. Why do you think that is a rule?"

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Give skills and language around asking for consent.

"You have lots of love to give. That is part of what I love about you. It is often OK to give a hug to someone, but make sure you know them and ask beforehand. You can say something like ‘you are the best! Can I give you a hug?'"

Use the language of bullying—they have a reference point from school.

For example, "Unwanted touching can make people feel unsafe. Although it is different from hitting or kicking, it can hurt people the same way and is actually one of the worst kinds of bullying."

Connect them with their intuition or gut feeling.

Say, "Our bodies are very smart and know when something isn’t right. For me, when something feels weird or unsafe, I get butterflies in my belly and feel like I want to leave. Although I might not know exactly why, that is my internal alarm system telling me to act. Have you ever felt this? Where do you feel this in your body? What should you do when you feel this?"

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Use "noticing and wondering."

Try saying something like, "I noticed our little neighbor hid behind her mother when I went to hug her. I wonder what she was feeling and whether she wanted a hug. What do you think? I assumed not, so I didn’t hug her, and that was OK with me."

Reinforce that we all are in charge of our own bodies.

For example, say, "You are in charge of your body. Nobody is allowed to force you to do something that feels uncomfortable or unsafe, and it is OK to say no. That is actually the law."

Talk about family values and the importance of keeping others safe.

For example, "In our family, we are helpers. It is a gift being a helper, just like police, firefighters, and doctors. It is important to us to look out for others and especially people who might need a friend or might need someone to stick up for them. How do you know when you need to help or say something?"

Of course, I believe it's also important to teach my sons the power of healthy, happy touch. Sex is something that should be celebrated, and that's something I want them to know—as long as they know how to respect boundaries, too.

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