Currently, we can’t watch the news or connect with social media without hearing about another sexual harassment scandal. Although our instinct is to want to talk to our daughters about ownership of their bodies, boundaries and consent. But the vital conversations to have right now is with our sons. In order to raise caring, empathetic and sensitive boys we need to create a cultural shift to one of mutual respect between men and women in all segments of our society.
There are plenty of ways that you can get the conversations started.
Use stories in the media as everyday opportunities for “teachable moments” that open up discussions about sexual harassment or any aspect of sexual health and safety.
Listen more than talk. Ask your son what he has heard about the current news stories related to #Metoo and sexual harassment of women. After hearing from him, respond with your own thoughts and share your values and beliefs about these current events while clearing up any misinformation he may have. You may want to talk about your own experiences or those of people your son might know to help demonstrate the reach and impact sexual harassment has had in our society.
As much as topics related to sex may be on their minds, talking with a parent about this may be anywhere from mildly to wildly uncomfortable. Boys tend to respond best to conversations that are happening while engaged in some other activity, such as playing a game, watching TV or walking the dog with you. One of my personal favorite moments for these conversations is when driving to or from school. You have a captive audience, but your boys are not forced to look at you when potentially hearing you use words you may not usually utter, such as “sex,” “breasts” and “masturbation.”
Although parents often need to be the initiators of these talks, and the conversations may feel awkward, it’s helpful to try to keep things casual and avoid lecturing. Try to remember that boys tend to feel more at-ease with short, to-the-point conversations.
Encourage your sons to talk about their feelings. Communicate with them about pressures, challenges, stereotypes and myths they may be hearing and dealing with as they navigate issues including relationships, consent, gender roles and ideas of masculinity. Share your own negative and positive experiences and stay open to hearing their thoughts without judgment, criticism, ridicule or shame.
Look for books, articles, videos, TV shows and films that explore the topics of respect, kindness and consent. Encourage your sons’ questions and be open to finding answers together when you don’t have the information.
Finally, be honest and patient with yourself and with them. Model caring, empathy and sensitivity around the issues that young boys are often confronted with today. These include direct and indirect pressure to be “tough,” possess masculine traits and model behaviors demonstrated by celebrities, athletes and political figures. Help them explore what rejecting these social norms looks and feels like. Recognize and praise their efforts to be the kind of boy who speaks up for what is right and doesn’t remain silent when something is wrong.
Tracy Levine Wallace teaches sexual health workshops for kids, parents and schools through Can We Talk Health Ed. Visit her online at canwetalkhealthed.com.