The Bringing Up Boys panel discussion – held on 6 March 2020 at the WOW (Women of the World) festival at London’s Southbank Centre – brought up interesting ideas and advice…
ON BOYS AND EMOTIONS
Ellen Bird of Mums Like Us (network for mothers with disability) If boys can explain their emotions, they can explain their behaviour. My 11-year-old wants to be open and honest. He’s in a class of competing boys at school, so sometimes at home he’ll check himself and say: “I put on a front at school – now I have to shake that off.”
Jendella Benson of Black Ballad (lifestyle platform for black UK women) In her book We Real Cool, about black men and masculinity, the writer bell hooks talks about soul murder – the “crushing of the male spirit in boyhood” and boys’ restricted emotional capacity.
I come from a British Nigerian culture where boys are cuddled a lot, but only up to about age 7.
I tell my son, who’s 4: “There’s nothing wrong with emotions – it’s how you react to them and what you do with them. You get in trouble for being angry then smashing the plate. So take a breath and have some thinking time. Think before you react.”
Boys and men get let off on bad behaviour. It’s: “He broke his tennis racquet” not: “He lost his self-control.” They’re supposed to have hunger, fire, drive – but where does grace come in?
Koen Dedoncker of the Men Engage Network in Belgium Men need to seek help when they’re in trouble, but they have a built-in mechanism that says: “I have to deal with this myself; I don’t talk about it.”
Jendella We’ve got to give our boys the space work through their emotions – that’s something I even have to tell my husband. I teach our son to feel and process his feelings. His teacher says: “He’ll come to us and say he’s upset – we don’t usually see 4-year-olds articulate their emotions.”
Aceil Haddad of Pregnant Then Screwed (women’s rights charity) From boys’ early days, they’re affected by stereotypes like “man up” and “boys don’t cry”. And that “boys will be boys” idea is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Ellen “Man up” is used as “shut up”. Because actually we don’t want to go there.
ON BOYS VS GIRLS
Koen The division between boys and girls is unnecessary. But in toy shops, boys don’t go down the pink row.
One of my sons was sensitive, and when he got out into society he had difficulties. At age 3 he was wearing his hat from Frozen everywhere, then after a week of wearing it to school he came back and said: “I don’t like the hat anymore.” Both girls and boys had told him that it was a hat for girls.
It’s not easy when it’s enforced by society and boys are told: “This is how you live from now on.”
Jendella I only used to think about masculinity in terms of how it interacted with femininity to the detriment of women.
Then when I had my sons, I started observing my brother and father, like a weird scientist, to see what they valued, what to pass on to my two boys. We had heated discussions about expectations of boys and what should and shouldn’t be said.
Koen We educate our boys and girls in a totally different way. We focus on the emancipation of girls but we’ve forgotten the boys. Boys’ freedom is restricted; things are stricter for them.
In school boys are told to be strong, tough, competitive, aggressive, be the best, be a leader. They are ostracised if they show emotion and vulnerability and go outside the “man box”. There’s peer pressure to stay in the box. It’s a ticking time bomb.
When Men Engage goes into schools, we ask 16-year-olds to write down words they associate with men and women. For women it’s things like sweet, titties, emotional; for men it’s things like dicks, masturbation, strong, competitive. When we point out that women can be strong and men can be emotional, they see that apart from the physical differences all the rest is a social norm. After that lesson the kids don’t tend to gender-police one another.
Gender and violence are framed as women’s issues, so boys zone out and think: “It’s not about me.”
Boys can get angry that girls are being raised to be empowered.
If you point the finger at boys and paint them as the bad guys, the conversation will close down. Boys and girls have to make changes together – but if we don’t engage boys we aren’t going to change anything.
ON POLICING ADULTS WHO SAY DAMAGING GENDER-STEREOTYPE THINGS IN FRONT OF YOUR CHILD
Ellen Call it out there and then. Or pick your battles and later on ask your child: “What did you think of that?”
Keep doing what you’re doing so that other adults will see your position, and your values will also be instilled in your kids.
Jendella Say to your child: “Do you think what that person said is right? Is it true?”
Kids should know about boundaries and that people shouldn’t cross them.
If it’s bang out of order, say something to the adult. The patriarchy exists with women upholding it too, so say: “I want to raise my son this way and I don’t think what you said is healthy.”
You can have the conversation with the adult as well: “How does my son’s behaviour make you feel?” A person’s remark says a lot about them, about how they’re being challenged and about how they understand the world to be.
ON HOW TO REACT IF YOUR SON SAYS SOMETHING LIKE: “THAT’S FOR GIRLS” OR “GIRLS ARE STUPID”
Jendella Your son is probably not doing it maliciously, just trying on different roles. Have a firm conversation and draw a line in the sand: “This was said, but this is the truth.” Your kids will parrot back your views.
Aceil It’s never too early to counter things. Ask your son: “Where do you get that from? I don’t believe that.” Show your children a portrait of Elizabeth I – she was strong!
Koen Ask your son for examples. Ask questions: “Why do you say this? Why do you think it? Why is this only for girls?” After a few arguments he’ll get stuck and see that it doesn’t make sense.
ON ROLE MODELS IN SCHOOL AND GENDER ROLES AT HOME
Aceil Society doesn’t pay mothers or value care – we need to readdress that narrative.
Koen We have to make the shift so that caring jobs are attractive for men too. Teaching – and communication and caring for kids – is the most important job in the world, but masculine values like leadership are valued more.
Right now parents don’t trust a male kindergarten teacher – they think: “What’s wrong with him? What will he do to my children?” It’s ingrained in us – and to get it out of us is hard.
It starts with me as the dad. I feel lucky to spend time with my kids. I’m hands on.
But even though I’m the one who makes my son’s packed lunch, the female kindergarten teacher said to me: “Tell your wife not to make the sandwiches so big.”
Ellen At our home the gender roles aren’t traditional. Because of my disability, they have to be different. I can’t bend my arms, so I don’t do the dishes – but I do mow the lawn. My sons wash my hair in the shower and it isn’t a big deal.
I struggle with why parents have a hard time having open conversations with their kids.
Jendella If your child knows you’re their safe space, when they’re questioning something or themselves, they’ll know they can come and talk to you. Kids are bombarded by so many difficult things. So keep the lines of communication open. It’s just important to talk.
Koen It all starts with our relationship to our kids. How do you raise boys? Just raise children!