The murder of Sarah Everard and the issues raised on the Everyone’s Invited platform have brought the issue of ‘toxic masculinity’ back in the news.
The question we all want answered is ‘how do we raise our sons to become men of integrity, kindness, compassion and respect?’
Raising the approximately 6 million male children in the UK to become the men we need for today and tomorrow has to be a collaborative effort. The debate urgently needs to move away from stereotyping, blaming and negativity. We all need to play our part. We don’t need to wait for (and we can’t afford to rely on) the government or schools to tell our sons how to be a good man.
Parents need to get into good habits of talking with and listening to their sons. We need to do this from a young age, and we need to do it often.
Attending a workshop or talk arranged by your school, reading one of the many articles or books, or indeed this blog, is just the start.
As parents, we need to find ways to integrate the ideas of respect, consideration, tolerance and consent into our daily lives at home. We need to help our sons learn to recognise boundaries, show empathy, accept differences, and self-regulate.
As a parent educator, and a mum of two sons who are now young men, here are my thoughts about how we can do this.
Talk about the different ways to be a man - and offer positive role models
Don’t allow one story about being male to dominate and influence your son’s view of what a man does, says, thinks or feels.
Over my time as a mum of sons, I have met hundreds of boys – sporty boys, artistic boys, loud and extrovert boys, quiet and sensitive boys. I know boys who talk too much and struggle to listen, and I know boys who think more than they speak, and struggle to make their voice heard. I have met boys who relish the spotlight and enjoy being in groups; and also boys who prefer to plot their own path, together with a few trusted companions.
We no longer assign all girls to one particular way of being female, and rightly so in my mind! Let’s not allow this stereotyping to happen to our sons.
There are as many ways to be a man or boy as there are ways to be a girl or woman. Men can be brave and also kind. They can be insistent and assertive, and also sensitive. They can challenge ideas and the status quo and also listen to differing points of view and learn from others.
It’s been getting increasingly hard to find positive male role models for our sons. It’s not just having fewer male teachers in schools, it’s also about the lack of access in the last year to the out-of-school activities that are run by energetic, committed, selfless men in our community.
Who are the great men in your life? How will you support your son to develop a relationship with these men?
We want our sons to be excited about becoming men. When they start to feel ashamed, and scared to be a man, we’re in difficult territory ….
Allow your son to show his feelings – and let him cry
We need to allow boys to be hurt and upset, and to cry if that is what they need to do. Our instincts are deeply wired, and most of us will naturally empathise with a crying girl and instinctively offer her reassurance. In the same situation with our sons, we’re more likely to tell him that boys don’t cry and that he needs to pull himself together and move on.
Moving on and getting over it can be good advice from time to time. But over the longer-term, it tells our boys not to listen to how they feel. If they can’t listen to how they feel, how can they listen to how someone else feels?
When we help our sons recognise and accept their emotions, we help them develop Emotional Intelligence which includes the ability to recognise and accept the emotions of others. When our words or actions tell them to dismiss or hide their feelings, they learn to dismiss the feelings of others.
Have clear boundaries and values about respect - and get into action
We need to be very clear at home about standards for language and behaviour. Respect and tolerance are huge concepts. Boys (and girls!) learn about them through observation and experience, not through posters and powerpoints.
When (not if!) your son is rude, aggressive, or hurtful, whether it’s to his sibling, friend, a stranger or to you, hold him to account.
We need to do this without anger, blame or judgement. And that’s really hard.
We’re often triggered by these behaviours and we react sharply with ‘no, don’t say that, that’s not acceptable’ which might stop the behaviour but doesn’t tell your son what he could have done instead. Or sometimes we feel powerless to do anything and we turn a blind eye, or even laugh it off as part of being a boy. Being rude or aggressive or hurtful is not part of being a boy. It’s something boys do, and so do girls, and we can help them learn to be kind, assertive and caring.
Help your son manage his physical impulses – and find his brakes
On the whole, boys tend to express themselves and release their pent-up emotions physically. You’re less likely to get a torrent of angry words from your son than from your daughter.
release their physicality and energy appropriately, and also help them learn to recognise when they’ve gone too far, and slow down and stop.
We need to get our sons out and about and using their bodies in positive ways, incorporating daily exercise into normal family routines. We can help them move and use their strength to help with household chores. And many boys flourish with sport (team or individual, depending on temperament!) and other physical activities in the community.
We can’t let them linger for hours in front of screens, on a regular basis, becoming sedentary and solitary. Even if that makes life easier for us!
Whether it’s organised sport, or traditional games involving chasing and running, and listening and stopping, we can help our sons learn to control their bodies. It’s not easy going from full speed ahead to a full stop, let alone turning around and setting off in another direction. He needs LOTS of practice to do this, in a safe and fun environment, so he’s more able to physically stop himself when he’s feeling over-excited, threatened, or under pressure.
A great way to help your son learn to manage his physicality is to allow play-fighting or rough-housing at home, with clear rules! There must be an agreed safety or stop word - whether it’s simply ‘stop’ or something silly or random like ‘bananas’ - which each and every child can say at any point they feel they want to stand back. And this code word needs to be respected by everyone involved, including and particularly parents. We can’t use our stronger physical presence or our authority position to say ‘come on, don’t make a fuss, it’s fine, let’s keep going’.
Talk to your son about bystanding - and practice ways to stand up to the crowd
Boys have an innate sense of right and wrong, and justice. They have an instinct to be loyal and leap to defend others if they sense they are in danger. The trouble is that they are also driven to act in groups. It’s hard for most boys to go against a group of his peers and act differently.
What happens is that when boys witness teasing or taunting, they often let it go, because they don’t know what else they can do. They worry that they will be rejected by the group or may become the target themselves. Bystanding means they unwittingly perpetuate banter and even bullying.
It’s not enough for us to say to them ‘you should tell them to stop, or you should tell a teacher or you should walk away’ because none of this advice is remotely useful to them.
We need to talk to our sons about these sorts of social situations and what they can do that will actually make a difference. There are fascinating studies that show when one child (boy or girl) stands up and says something like ‘this is not cool, give them a break’ then the vast majority of the time the rest of the group are happy to comply and the teasing, taunting and bullying behaviour stops.
What can your son say and do when he sees someone teasing or taunting a classmate? Help him come up with several phrases that he can practice through role play with you, complete with appropriate body language and gestures.
Show respect for his ideas, opinions and desires – and let him say ‘no’
We’re so eager to teach our sons to behave that we often don’t realise how often we ride rough-shod over their feelings, instincts, views, opinions and desires. We insist they wear their coat saying ‘I don’t care if you say you don’t feel cold, just put it on’ or we say ‘I know you don’t like broccoli, but you need to get on and finish it’.
We need to recognise and respect his feelings and opinions. This doesn’t mean we leap to saying ‘fine, leave your coat, forget the broccoli’ but instead we say ‘I believe taking your coat is a good idea, if you’re feeling too hot right now, do you want to carry it or put it in your bag?’ or we say ‘broccoli is not your favourite vegetable, would a bit of ketchup help, or how about swapping it for some cucumber?’
Again, this is not easy. Almost every parent we’ve met has struggled at first to understand how they can listen and accept how their children feel, and also help them behave appropriately and follow family rules. This is about being warmly and firmly in charge and is the most effective parenting approach we can take.
Help him take responsibility for his actions - and admit his mistakes
Boys (and girls) make lots of mistakes. We need to raise our sons to be willing to accept responsibility for their actions; acknowledge when they’ve done something wrong; be willing and able to make amends for any hurt, harm or damage done; and learn a more appropriate way to behave in a similar situation in the future. It’s a lot!
The single most powerful way parents can do this is by modelling this approach ourselves. We need to say ‘I shouldn’t have shouted, it was unfair. I want to hear what you have to say about this, so I owe you an apology. As soon as I am calmer, I would love to talk further’.
And when your son makes a mistake, recognise this is a huge opportunity for learning. Of course you will feel angry, sad, disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated …. But when we launch at our sons with an emotive reaction such as ‘What on earth have you done? What were you thinking? Why did you do this? Go to your room!’ we shut down communication and set ourselves up for an(other) argument. Instead, we somehow have to find it within ourselves to respond in a neutral manner. We need our sons to feel we’re on the same team and we’re ready to help them fix things that have gone wrong.