Seven Ways to Parent Our Sons for Success

Mothers of girls are often told what they must do for their daughters, but parents of all children need to work together. Thus, I offer seven tips for the parents of boys.

Mothers of girls have it tough. If I were to go by what I read, I might believe that they are solely responsible for keeping their daughters safe, helping them feel equal, keeping their sexuality pure, making sure they “have it all” and accomplishing great things despite the myriad cultural influences working against them. That sounds like a lot of pressure.

However, I am not the mother of a girl; I am the mother of a boy. Whew! In a lot of ways, that lets me off the hook. But does it?

I am a family psychologist which, by definition, means that I believe in systems. Families are not just a group of people. They are a system and they are more than the sum of their parts. Thus, the choices made by just one person can change the way the whole family interacts. Don’t believe me? Try this exercise and then tell me I’m wrong. Have everyone in your family join hands and walk in a circle, ring-around-the-rosy style. Then, have just one person (just one), walk differently. She or he can walk counter to the original direction, forward, backward, or just stop walking altogether. What will happen is that the whole circle will be thrown into disarray, possibly permanently or maybe just for a moment. Some families will readjust the walking circle to accommodate the errant member’s behavior while others will stop and disband. Whatever happens, the major point here is that one person changed the way the system operates. So it goes in families but also in cultures as well.

Culturally speaking, we used to all walk in one direction with regard to the gendered behavior of our children. We all agreed (more or less) that girls should be treated one way while boys were treated another. Then, we started realizing that girls were being treated unfairly and we asked the mothers of girls to start walking differently (who knows what the fathers are supposed to be doing; we don’t talk to or about them). This created major confusion in the circle because now we have some members walking in one direction with others walking opposite. So, the circle is in chaos and has been weakened. What should we do? How can we make the circle stronger?

The first step is to bring the parents of boys (yes dads, I am including you in this too!) into the equation by helping them understand that equity is not just for girls. Sexism negatively affects boys too. Sexism constricts the vocational choices of boys, leaves them open to poor relationship choices, decreases their happiness and can even lead to an earlier death.

So why do we not talk about the way we’re hurting boys by the way we parent our sons? Why is it that the mothers (and yes, the media usually focus only on mothers) of girls are the only ones shouldering such a burden? Such an emphasis implies that, once again, the oppressed group (read: women) are solely responsible for their own oppression. Yet if we are to work toward making the world a better and more equitable place, we all have to be in it together. The circle demands it.

With all that in mind, I recently read an article on entitled “7 Ways You’re Hurting Your Daughter.” I don’t tend to like parent-blaming articles but the blurb sounded interesting, so I read it. Although it had lots of good things to say, sure enough, the “you” they were talking to meant mothers. Just for fun, I also took a peek at some of the other articles they listed including “Are Mothers Most Responsible For Sexist Attitudes?” and “5 Ways To Close The ‘Ambition Gap’ For Girls.” If you hazarded a guess that mothers are to blame for those problems, you would be right.

Apparently mothers of daughters are so incredibly powerful that they can make the toy industry change its ways, help their daughters avoid the internalized sexism they receive from cultural messages, ensure their daughters receive equal pay and great benefits, and have a fabulous body image. You know, all the things these very mothers probably wanted for themselves but never managed to get. What, were their own mothers just slackers?

Yes, I’m being sarcastic but only because I’m so tired of articles like that focusing on individual versus systemic aspects of social problems. I do not believe that this is an accident. As long as you can get parents in general and mothers in particular to believe that they are the ones who are the problem, then the status quo remains. That being said, I do think that parents have a powerful impact on their children and there are things that we can do to help our kids create a better world which leads me back to the original article. It did have good tips for the parents of daughters. However, since the parents of sons are also walking the circle, I’m offering the 7 ways you’re hurting your son:

1. Teach him to be loud and noisy.
Many people smile and say things like, “Boys will be boys” when they are shouting, interrupting, wrestling and just being wiggly. While there is nothing wrong with that at times, they also need to be taught the opposite. Being assertive and knowing how to argue your point of view are important abilities, but good leaders, good parents and just good human beings in general also must know how to be quiet and listen. People other than you have important things to say and allowing them to be heard fosters stronger relationships and better decision-making. It is no accident that a phenomenon like groupthink (in which poor decisions are made due to the stifling of dissent and discouragement of creativity) occurs when only a few voices are heard. Thus, boys should have to practice good listening skills and be encouraged to respect the voices of those who are different and/or less powerful. Good leaders rarely have to yell.

2. Buy only gender specific toys.parenting boy children
If you look at the state of toys, it’s pretty appalling. There is a great article depicting how aggressively the colors pink and blue are marketed toward kids. If you look closely at the pictures, you will also see that the “blue” picture contains lots of interactive toys, interesting books and weapons. The “pink” picture holds numerous dolls, clothes and cooking utensils but not many books. The obvious conclusion is that girls’ toys need to be more interactive and science based. However, the flipside is that boys should be encouraged to own toys that promote nurturing. Many of them will grow up to become fathers, so their talents in childcare also need to be honed. No child needs toys that emphasize appearance, so let’s get rid of those for everyone. I would also get rid of the guns.

3. Tell him he’s strong and smart to the exclusion of all else.
Kids are often complimented in gendered ways. Girls are praised for how they look while boys get accolades for whatever they’re doing. I have caught myself doing this at times, probably because it’s just so ingrained. Thus, many of us need to be a lot more purposeful about how we interact with kids and adolescents. While girls need to be given kind words for their skills and intellect, boys need to be encouraged in the skills that we sometimes leave out, things like compassion, empathy, cooperation and kindness. If we just emphasize strength and intelligence for boys, they may start believing that those are the only attributes that matter.

4. Indoctrinate him into the masculine cult.
There has been plenty of research showing that extreme masculinity is toxic, especially to the men. Herb Goldberg called this the “male harness” and it is the idea that men are successful, emotionally controlled, competitive, and independent. As part of this circumscribed ideal, adult men do not cultivate intimate friendships with other men, but instead rely primarily on their female romantic partners and friends for companionship and support. Those of us who want our sons to be happy and flexible enough to accommodate whatever skills they possess wish for them to avoid this masculine trap. Thus, instead of making boys stoic and “manly,” we should help them see that interdependence, encouraging the strength of others, artistic expression, and emotional availability (just to name a few) are better ways to be.

5. Show Mom and Dad performing only gender-specific tasks.
If we want an equitable world in which both genders can accomplish anything, kids must see that modeled at home. Consequently, boys need to observe both parents acting in non-gender-specific ways. Mom’s chores should include things like mowing the grass and changing lightbulbs while Dad’s chores must incorporate vacuuming and washing dishes. In short, they both must do a little bit of everything.

6. Only let him spend time with boys.
It is tempting to allow boys to only play with boys and girls to only play with girls but that isn’t the way the world works. Women and men are integrated into all aspects of our lives, so why shouldn’t that be true of kids as well? Boys may complain that girls don’t share their interests but they would be well-served by the ability to get along with and appreciate girls. This will be a wonderful asset later in their lives as they work with and live with women (in whatever capacity). Boys may even find that their interests are not that different from girls or learn to play something new.

7. Criticize women’s bodies.
Those of us in the United States live in an appearance obsessed culture, so it can be second nature to critique the bodies of others, especially those of women. The typical male gaze infers that women’s bodies are there for the pleasure of men instead of concentrating instead on the person inside the body. Emphasizing bodies at the expense of the person runs the risk of turning that person into an object and that, in turn, leads down a dangerous path. It is much easier to abuse or be unkind to an object versus a person. Thus, it is important for boys to understand that women’s bodies do not exist solely for their pleasure and that the body is only a small part of the whole person. Moreover, we should want everyone to have a positive body image and love how they look. A negative emphasis on bodies in general can lead to a possible dislike of his own.

So there you have it, parents of sons. It’s time to adjust our parenting decisions and start walking in unison with the parents of daughters. Once we all figure out how to walk in the same direction, then maybe we can start singing too.

I can hardly wait.

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