Empowering Boys and Girls In a Culture of Sexual Harassment
The news has been shocking to say the least. But I believe the tide is turning. Powerful men are being called to the table and women are feeling strength in numbers. How did we get here? Or rather, if this is the beginning of the end of centuries of male conquest and domination, how do we raise our children to keep the momentum going?
It comes trippingly off the tongue for us to encourage and admire the strength and competition of boys and the delicate, sensitive nature of girls. Even when we consciously want it to be different, unconscious norms take over. We’ve been this way for eons; no wonder it’s hard to change habits.
Without knowing the sex of a baby, one dressed in blue will get comments like, He’s so handsome, look at those muscles, he’s all boy; and one dressed in pink will hear, She’s so pretty, look at those delicate fingers, Dad you’d better watch out!
We don’t realize how readily we set boys and girls apart giving them different messages that bombard from all directions. Girls are supposed to be gentle and kind and even though we want boys to be gentle and kind, they are supposed to be tough and feisty. We certainly know what we call strong, opinionated women and men who are gentle and sensitive. Stereotypes abound.
I am all about inborn temperament, and nature being as important as nurture. I was determined my daughter would play with all the cars and trucks that my son was obsessed with. But she had no interest. She loved playing with Fischer-Price people, playgrounds and houses. Families were her thing. And when she was given her first doll, she carried it around everywhere.
I am not advocating that boys should play with dolls or girls play with trucks if they don’t want to. What I am advocating is taking your child’s lead, finding out what he and she like and not trying to influence them in any particular direction.
And I am advocating putting far more conscious attention on what we say and do with our boys and girls. So much of our thinking is ingrained, unconscious and automatic. Even if we want our boys to express feelings and be sensitive and we want our girls to be strong and stand up for themselves, our automatics flow all too easily.
Let’s look at how to be more intentional:
- If your son is aggressive with your daughter, empower your daughter rather than punish your son. Problem solving allows you to facilitate them working out their problem rather than you deciding what and who is right. Often we unconsciously set up the perpetrator and the victim with our reactions.
- Pay attention to how often you blame your child. She then has no choice but to build a defense. If you use consequences and threats, your child will hide behind a defense mechanism to avoid getting in trouble. Lying, blaming others, laughing, fighting back, or playing the victim are all defenses to protect oneself. Taking in the actual outcome of their behavior doesn’t happen, so conscience doesn’t build. When there is no trouble to get in, defenses are down and the child is more likely to feel bad about what she did and make amends when provided the opportunity.
- Avail your toddlers of a range of toys and watch what they choose.
- Watch that you are not projecting your unmet desires or happy experiences onto your children—pushing boys into football when they would rather dance, or girls into dance when they would rather play football. They are not you and very possibly nothing like you.
- Watch color choices when picking out clothes for infants and toddlers. As soon as they are able allow them to choose what they want to wear and what colors they like.
- Whenever a problem arises, ask your child for his side of the story first. Give your children their voices and opinions even if inconvenient.
- When either your sons or daughters come home with frustrating stories of teasing or bullying, role-play first giving them the chance to yell and scream whatever they want to their nemesis. After emotions are fully expressed, ask what they want from the bully and what they can say and do to get that.
- Always, always, always allow your child’s emotions. Never tell either boy or girl to calm down or there’s nothing to cry about or god-forbid, stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about, boys don’t cry, and stop being a baby. When you can’t tolerate their emotions, note that is your problem. Telling them to stop asks them to take care of your problem. Simply acknowledge all emotions and be open to sharing your own as well.
- Model the qualities you want your children to have. If you want kindness and respect, ask yourself if you are kind and respectful to them. If you want them to be generous and caring, are you? If you encourage strength and confidence, do you show them how it’s done?
- If you yell, blame, threaten, and punish, you are using your power to coerce them to get what you want. In other words, you are teaching them how to bully.
To raise conscious, caring, respectful and considerate children, you need to provide a home where family works as a team and children are motivated to help out. It means that no one’s needs and rights are any more or less important than anyone else’s. There is mutual respect, thoughtfulness, and connection. And the family is far from patriarchal.