This is something I wrote years ago for my professional blog at a previous job. I am moved to re-share it today in light of many layers of commentary about convicted rapist Brock Turner, including letters from his father and other parents. I am not a paragon of parenting virtue, but I do think there is much to be unpacked around the ways we raise boys.
Several times in the last year, I’ve seen a photo go around on social media with a list of things we need to teach our daughters how to distinguish between a man who flatters her and a man who complements her, or a man who spends money on her and a man who invests in her; and on and on in the same vein. The most recent version, seen below, includes as the last line “and we need to teach our sons to be that kind of man.”
Much of this bothers me. The first problem with this is the assumption of heterosexuality, and required heteronormative pair-bonding. Huge problem, right there. Not all kids grow up to be straight, not all kids grow up to want a partner, not all kids are the gender assigned to them at birth.
Secondly, it puts the onus of “getting it right” on girls and women. It implies that we fail our daughters when we don’t teach them that men should respect them, and that teaching our sons to treat women well is an afterthought. I disagree. We fail our daughters when we don’t actively teach our sons to value and respect women and girls as human beings.
As a parent of two daughters and a son, the lesson I want to impart on my children is their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. My daughters will know, I hope, that their value is not their clothing size, or between their legs, but it is very much about how kind and respectful they are. My son will know, I hope, that his value is not how tough he is, or if he wins all the time, but it is very much about how kind and respectful he is. And all of them will learn this about each other too. I hope I am also able to teach them that their identity is their own, and isn’t defined by their relationship with others.
I am also trying to teach my son that all women and girls are his equals, not just the ones he is attracted to, if he is indeed attracted to women. This lesson, for me, supersedes teaching my daughters that boys and men should treat them as equals, because there are so many messages out there telling my son how to be disrespectful and cruel to women and girls-whether he is straight or gay-that I will have to work harder to help him see through the deception to the truth. I will teach my son that women are women, not bitches or hoes. I will teach my son that women are smart, capable, and far more interesting than television or movies make them seem. I will teach my son that consent is active. I will teach my son that he doesn’t get to take whatever he wants just because he is a white American man. I will teach my son to collaborate with women at work, to listen to what women have to say, to give women credit for their ideas, to create space for other men to listen to and collaborate with women.
I will teach my son that all women, not just his sisters, mothers, dates/partners (if he is straight), deserve respect. I will teach him to respect women who are hotel maids, sex workers, CEOs, models, actors, professors, comedians, writers, doctors, toll booth operators, students, servers, wives, reality TV stars, mothers, artists, data entry operators, managers. I will teach him to respect women who are Black, Bolivian, Japanese, First Nations or Aboriginal, Ugandan, Chinese, Mexican, Lebanese, Filipina, or any other thread of earth’s complex tapestry of ethnicity. I will teach him to respect women who use wheelchairs, canes, walkers or just their feet to move around. I will teach him to respect Pagan women, Jewish women, Protestant women, Atheist and Agnostic women, Mormon women, Catholic women, Buddhist women, Unitarian Universalist women, and women with no particular faith or spiritual allegiance. I will teach him to respect women who were assigned the gender “male” at birth. I will teach him to respect young women, older women and girls. I will teach him to respect women with Autism, women with mental illness, women who have developmental delays or intellectual disabilities. I will teach him to respect women who have less money than him, less access than him, less education than him, women who disagree with him. I will teach him to respect women who don’t want to have sex with him, and women who do. I will teach him to respect women who have addictions, or who have been or are in prison. I will teach him to respect women who are fat, thin, chubby, skinny, and women who look nothing like what someone else says is pretty.
I will teach him to respect all women, no exceptions. This will be harder work than teaching my daughters they deserve to be respected, but that’s ok. It will be worth it. My daughters are worth it, and so is my son.