20 ways to teach our sons not to be "that guy"

We need to move from teaching girls to protect themselves to teaching boys to not assault. We can be part of the change. 

This might sounds odd given the abject misery of it all, but I am so very happy that the Weinstein type and #MeToo stories are coming out in their thousands. It's a global loosening of tongues, whispers becoming voices - voices that are finally, rightfully being heard. Women and girls (and men and boys) everywhere are finally feeling free to speak out about their experiences without shame. As a therapist, and as a woman, with her own #MeToo stories, I am actually excited by this.
So what about you? Is it #YouToo? And your daughter - is it #HerToo? Your son?
In the midst of such a deluge we might wonder - What can we do?
Well, I think we're doing it. We are speaking out. As more and more of us do, we are being heard. Men are starting to see that women experience the world quite differently. Which is great. But I am also mindful that this is triggering, scary and difficult for a lot of men and women. And it's presenting challenges for parents. That's the bit I'm going to talk about today: We need to move from teaching girls to protect themselves to teaching boys to not assault. We can be part of the change.
It's easier than you may think! To get you started here is a quick list of things I invite you to practice:
  • Teach your boys that boys and girls experience the same emotions It is only the expression of them that society has trained them to do differently. There is no credible evidence to support the myth that we are 'hardwired' differently form birth.
  • Teach your son kindness. Even to his toys. And as he grows, to animals, children and adults. A lot of our sons are watching and playing games for hours, every day. Games where cruelty is associated with fun. Games that teach "cruelty is fun". Your twelve year old may be playing a game (which I won’t name but you all probably know it) where he can rob and then shoot a prostitute. Nice.
  • Teach him how to comfort and to express his natural ability for empathy. 
  • Teach him to walk way from any situation where he is being devalued or abused. It’s OK for a man to leave a fight or an abusive situation. And we absolutely must teach that to our sons.
  • Teach him not to "manspread". So if you see your son taking up two seats because he’s let his legs fall open, taking up two spaces with his gear on a gym bench, spreading his arms across a shared table – bring this to his attention. Show him that the message he is giving essentially is “I don’t respect your space and I am more important than you”.
  • And if you’re a Dad reading this – have you ever noticed yourself do this? Maybe you just realised it now. Please don’t feel shame, but maybe stop doing it?!
  • Teach your son that women enjoy sex and that female sexuality is real and fun and good. And equal. Teach that sex is not to be ‘given’ by women to men, and it’s not to be ‘taken’ by men from women, or from each other. Challenge your son when you find him watching online material (because you likely will!!) that is more abusive in flavour than erotic. Boys are accessing explicit material now that pairs cruelty, shaming and violence with eroticism. This is dangerous. Many of your son's female friends will already have been sexually assaulted - 97% of them by males, 21% of whom are under the age of 18. Teach your son not to be that guy.
  • Teach your son that sexual assault is any unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature. Any. So forcing a girl down onto the ground in a schoolyard, or the back of a club, or onto a couch at a party and kissing her against her will, counts. Putting his hand up her top if she tries to shove it away - even if she's laughing... Unless she consents - that's different. But they gotta find out if she wants to!
  • But teach your son that healthy sexuality isn’t shameful. Shame triggers self-loathing and is at the root of many relationship difficulties. Your son deserves to enjoy sex and sensuality. Sex and masturbation are supposed to be fun!
  • Teach him to value and celebrate his body  I am uneasily aware of the mounting pressure on boys and young men to push themselves physically to match the ever more sculpted ‘ideal’ male body image. But we often miss that, because we are so focussed on girls’ self-esteem. Boys are just as vulnerable to judgement, even if there isn’t as much out there.
  • Encourage him to call out his friends' sexist or aggressive or disrespectful behaviour by saying "That's not cool" or "That's a crappy thing to say".
  • Encourage him to follow pro equality accounts on social media. Some of teach through irony and are really quite funny - if not somewhat jolting! Try this one for starters: Man who has it All and this one for teens - That's not Cool
  • Teach him to point out when he hears women being overlooked or interrupted on TV or radio interviews - or if you notice it in your own home! Believe me, you'll get a chance several times an hour...
  • Be aware of how (differently) you greet his female and male friends - or yours in front of him. Do you tell the girls they look great? Call them cuties or sweetie? Please don't feel bad if you do - but feel OK about changing it -they will learn from you!
  • Teach him that consent isn't necessarily about hearing the word "no". Girls might freeze when they are in a situation they are uncomfortable with. They may have been assaulted before and not have the strength to talk about it, or the awareness to call it assault. This is because sexaulised behaviour has become normalised to such an extent for teens now that they think it's normal to feel uncomfortable and that they are expected to perform acts they may not feel ready to participate in. In my practice I see this is driven by the flavour of porn the boys are watching - and coercing the girls to watch too. Unless we tell them this is not normal healthy sex, they won't know. Sex-ed is still abysmal in this country. So we must step up and start talking to our kids!! So teach them to seek explicit, enthusiastic and active consent before they proceed together with the girl or boy they are with. Teach them to constantly observe the other person's body language for the hesitations that mean "no".
  • Teach him to be more creative with their insults - bitch, cunt, slut, pussy, girly - these words are heavily gendered. There are many other options - figuring them out might be fun family time for all of you! (Just be ready to hear them during a fight and maybe reigning them in a bit...)
  • Teach him to be mindful of where he is in relation to a woman or girl walking by herself. Teach him to slow down or cross the street - to show her she is safe. It's a sad reality that every woman feels that prickle of fear and the responsiblilty to be vigilant when alone. The boys and men around us can help with that by just being aware.
  • At family gatherings call your poor/ weird/ creepy relatives on their behaviour when they descend at Christmas and gatherings. This will teach your kids to feel OK about doing the same.
  • When you're old and wrinkly and sitting back watching a gorgeous new generation listen out for things like - "Imagine! In the early 2000s women were still scared, shouted at, pawed, groped - on streets, in schools in their homes! They weren't paid equally, heard equally, and they did far more housework than their male partners! HOW WEIRD WAS THAT??"
  • And sit back on your little solar powered rocking chair and smile, knowing that you were part of the change that made it possible for them to feel valued, equal and safe.
Written by
Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Expert at Family Friendly HQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ full time experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.com or on Twitter @psychosalor Facebook at Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.

Sally O'Reilly

Person, Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor with special interest in adolescence. Love all chocolate equally, hate all blue cheeses - equally.

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