What Every Parent of a Boy Needs to Know
There’s no denying that raising kids is the hardest job out there. It can be especially challenging to raise boys as we navigate certain challenges that we haven’t really talked about as a society. That’s why we chatted with Investigative Journalist, Emma Brown, author of To Raise A Boy about what it means to be a boy and a parent of a boy circa 2021.
By Julyanna Trickey
What prompted your idea to write To Raise A Boy?
I was home with my six-week-old son when the first Harvey Weinstein story broke. As I was nursing my son, I was scrolling through all of those stories and the flood of stories that came out after about men mistreating women. I asked myself how can I raise my son to be different? This question set me on a journey to talk with people from different parts of the country. I talked to hundreds of researchers, coaches, teachers, parents, and boys and men themselves. And what I learned was unexpected.
From start to finish, was there anything that changed your original hypothesis about raising boys?
Starting this journey, I thought that life’s a lot harder for girls growing up because of all the messages being aimed at girls about girlhood and being a woman. But what I learned was that this was an overly simplistic view and things are pretty tough for boys, too. They face a ton of messages about who they’re supposed to be, which can be really difficult for them to navigate. I was really astonished at the amount of shame boys feel when they try to break out of what we have traditionally told them about how to be a boy. I was also shocked to learn that this produces not-so-great outcomes for men and their mental health.
In my book, I quoted a scholar who studies the gender of adolescents aged 10-14 all over the world and his work showed that boys in that age group face more neglect, physical violence, and sexual abuse by adults than girls do, which was so shocking to me. It upended the way I thought about how boys and girls live through the world. The most profound shift for me was coming to feel huge empathy for what boys deal with and a huge desire for when it comes to my son and other boys to do better by them. And if we can do better by them then it will absolutely have a translational effect where it will be better for all of us, girls as well. But we need to do better for boys also for their own sake because they need it.
What in your investigations and research shocked you most?
What shocked me the most is actually what I started the book with, the sexual victimization of boys, which is something I had not thought about to be honest. I certainly didn’t understand how common it is. Girls and women are definitely disproportionately affected by sexual violence but there are studies that suggest one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they are 18. It’s an overwhelming number. A lot of times our minds jump immediately to scandals involving older men preying on boys, like the Catholic Church and boy scouts, but data showed me that that’s only part of the problem and boys are also assaulted by their peers and sometimes by older women. It’s such a hidden problem because boys feel great shame in reporting it. I think we as adults carry around so many assumptions about boys, one of which is that they can’t really be victims in the same way as girls. And it’s just not right. But this makes it hard for us sometimes to see what is really going on.
What do you think are some of the challenges boys are up against in their teens?
I think there are a few. Shame is a big one in which they feel forced to bury parts of themselves, especially when they are living their lives away from home and they don’t want to get teased or bullied. So, it could mean they are hiding some superficial things like liking the colour pink or liking sparkles, but it could also be much deeper with more important things like how they relate to other people and how they recognize and articulate their emotions. So I definitely think the tension boys have between being themselves and fitting in is a challenge they face.
Another challenge I think boys are facing right now is where they are being told to adopt new masculinity. On the one hand, they hear how they should behave from adults, and on the other they are living in a world where, for many boys, that’s not how you fit in. So there’s tension between what adults are telling them and their lived reality. So, I think a lot of boys struggle with that.
We are also in the era where boys know there is greater accountability for violating someone else’s boundaries. But even though they know that, which I think is kind of stressful for boys, they aren’t getting a whole lot of guidance. Here in the US, sex education has really evaporated over the past two decades in schools and there is survey data showing parents aren’t really talking to their sons about intimate relationships. So boys are being left on their own to learn about sex from pornography, which oftentimes shows not very respectful or even consensual encounters. It’s a challenge because we aren’t giving them the right tools to navigate a really important part of life, one that I think many boys are now keenly aware can get them into trouble.
You say “shame is a really corrosive force” for boys growing up, what are some ways for parents to combat those feelings and how can they teach their boys to stand up for themselves?
One of the most important things I have learned from Judy Chu at Stanford University and is what I want to do for my son, who is currently three years old, is to give your son a safe haven at home to be himself. This involves examining your own biases and making sure you are creating a space for your son to be himself and not telling him who he can’t be because he’s a boy. Many boys have told me that they were told at home never to cry because they were boys. One boy told me he loved to dance when he was six years old, and his father told him not to do that because it was “gay.” So, I think a lot of boys don’t have that safe place at home to really be themselves. One way we can help them out is by having a space for them to express their joy, their sadness, and whatever feelings they are having.
Teaching your sons to stand up for themselves is the really hard part of being a parent. You are sending your child out into a world that isn’t always kind and parents in this particular problem really need help from the other institutions that are helping to raise our boys. Institutions like schools, sports teams, and faith communities have a lot of influence over the kind of cultures they are creating in those spaces and they can do a lot to help us out as parents.
One example in my book looks at the influence athletic coaches have over their players on sports teams. In a program called “Coaching Boys into Men,” coaches can follow a brief curriculum where they talk to boys about issues of respect, consent, dignity, and dating violence for 15 minutes a week. The research shows that it has helped boys have healthier relationships, less dating violence, and are less likely to stand by if they see someone else being abusive. Boys who have gone through the program told me that it made a difference in the way their teammates related to one another and they became closer and more respectful. They changed the way they talked about girls and women in the locker rooms with less misogynistic language. I don’t think 15 minutes a week is a whole lot to ask. If we change our expectations about what we want from coaches, not just to win, but to cultivate a healthy space for our sons, it could be really useful for helping them grow.
Where do you feel is the best place for schools to start to change their way of teaching boys?
I think that you can start with our really young kids and teach powerful lessons that don’t have anything to do explicitly with sex, but are about respecting other people’s personal boundaries. And it’s also important to help them understand their own boundaries and how other people need to respect them as well. We need to teach boys that their bodies are sacred as well. I think this is a pretty foundational lesson to having a healthy relationship that we can teach really young without having to talk about things that may make some parents uncomfortable. We can talk about consent without mentioning the word sex.
I think another thing schools could do better is dealing with and confronting sexual harassment and bullying. When kids see that happening around them, and it happens more than you think, much of it goes unaddressed and kids then learn that it is normal and just how the world is. And that’s not what we want them to learn.
What are your best three tips that every boy mom or dad needs to know?
- Boy parents should tell their kids what girl parents tell their kids about the sacredness of their bodies and the right of each person to determine who and how they’re touched.
- Something I have noticed myself doing is being very intentional about talking with my son about feelings because research shows we are less likely to talk to our sons about feelings than we are with our daughters. When we are looking at books and see characters who are reacting to something, I ask him how he thinks they are feeling.
- This tip I learned from a dad in Pennsylvania who had created a ritual and great space for his son, who was in Grade 8 at the time I met them. He said to have a place to share openly and honestly. Their space is walking the dog around the block every day. So find some kind of space or time in the day where you can really connect with your son.
What would you say to parents who believe in the traditional masculine way boys should be raised and how would you change their minds on how this isn’t necessarily a great way for a boy to grow up?
People have commented to me on Twitter, “Why are you trying to change boys into girls?” and that’s not at all what I am saying. What I am saying is that there are really great qualities that we have traditionally called masculine and really great qualities we have traditionally called feminine so let’s give our kids access to the best of both worlds.
In my book, I wrote about having this instinct to tell my daughter when she was two and scared on the playground to tell herself she was “strong and fearless,” but I didn’t have that same instinct with my son. By the end of my book, I realized I want to tell him he is “strong and gentle.” He doesn’t have to be only the things we have traditionally said boys are. Gentleness is an incredible and manly characteristic and he can be those things.
Have you noticed any challenges popping up for boys during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Yes, this pandemic is hard on everybody! I think one challenge that boys are facing is navigating online social life earlier than they would have otherwise since the pandemic has forced us to live our social lives online. I think it’s a good time for parents to be aware of that and to talk with their sons about what that means for them.
Basically how I think about it is that respect and dignity are no different online than they are in person. The reality of life right now is that some of the tough things kids go through on social media are being reached by boys (and girls) much earlier to the point where it can become an issue, so it’s important for parents to realize that.
Emma Brown is the author of “To Raise a Boy.“