Raising Boys to Men

Since my last post, Because I Worry, I have been having a nagging thought on what could we do to ensure that our kids grow up into mature, healthy adults who understand failure as well as success, relationships and their boundaries and respect — personal and others’. 

Meanwhile as I watched the movie Raazi, I was struck by the idea of consent that is beautifully portrayed in the movie. A couple is married, but that alone did not give the husband the right on his wife’s body. The respect of privacy and personal space is so beautifully portrayed I wondered if it was an honest capture of reality. 

How could we too raise men who understand these boundaries in their personal and professional lives? How can we teach our women to expect these boundaries as well as understand them? How do we teach them to not become mere providers of comfort, food and sex but as equal partners if they choose, ever, to have a partner?

And what about the times they fail in their attempts at love and relationships, because most often they will?

How then do we teach them to not look down at themselves or encourage self-loathing but understand that failure here could simply be delayed success!

When I moved to Kolkata, I realised that most schools here were gender segregated. I studied in co-ed schools all my life. When I got through Christ college, Jyoti Nivas and Mount Carmel College in Bangalore, my dad simply said, ‘Let’s go for the co-ed’.

So yeah, I wanted the same for my son except that the options were so far and few! 
Now how in the world do we expect our kids to have a healthy outlook to the opposite gender, if they never interact with them? Either they are going to be uncomfortable or in awe or terribly curious about the others.

Alana, who accidentally started the Incel project in an interview talks about the discomfort around the idea of not having dated till 22.  Most kids in India do not have real interactions with the opposite gender till they are twenty! And not just do they lack opportunities to interact, there is a sense of ridicule or shame when they do have a conversation with the opposite sex.  

And they grow up on fairytales of women waiting to be saved by the knight-in-shining-armour and their happily ever after. Or abusive fathers and male relatives who provide poor examples of who women ought to be and how they must be treated. Each of the situations far from the reality we want them to achieve. 

And since we also have a culture of pushing things under the carpet, their source of information will be other half baked ideas from peers, or our media (God help them!) or someone’s hidden stash of porn. I am not sure any of these are ideal contributors to a child’s understanding of the opposite sex. 

Vox’s sister site Racked calls incels “a subculture where women are considered extremely shallow, stupid, and evil.” So young men are growing up understanding women as sexual objects. Before we blame girls for their own sexualisation, let’s look at what is being fed to these girls and boys. Research shows that girls as young as six feel the effect of media’s sexualisation and body shaming, eating disorders and depression are some of the immediate impacts.

So how do we work around this space and culture that separates boys and girls, shames sexual explorations, and provides an absolutely incorrect view of the gender through its media.

How do we as parents ensure that our boys and girls can clear out the noise and hear only the relevant bits – bits that talk about self respect, mutual boundaries and healthy relationships?

As always, my mantra is ‘by example’. 

1. Teach them respect

Freedom of speech does not mean our kids can be hurtful. They have to make a better choice of words and actions; and they have to feel the consequence of times they are being disrespectful, even in ‘good’ humour. 

2. Teach them consent:

My son loves to hold my stomach as he goes to sleep. Now that he is older, he is beginning to get lessons in consent. Am I okay with him hugging me? Am I comfortable, do i feel like being touched? He cannot sleep with us without our permission. Sounds harsh but it is important. And NO means NO.

3. Boundaries and Privacy for self and others:

This one took longer because my kid is a hugger. He loves to hug people he loves — me, his cousins, his close friends. I have to keep reminding him about his boundaries, people’s need for space. His need to show love cannot be above my need for space. So yeah, this is work-in-progress. 
But you cannot be touched on your private parts. If you are uncomfortable with something, talk about it. Yell if you need to, we are clear on!

4. Call out sexist statements:

My son sometimes comments on my bra strap showing or says that something I am wearing could be inappropriate. My husband and I don’t skip a beat when he tell him to rephrase it or take it back. We are constantly reminding that he doesn’t get to define what anyone else should wear or not.
I do trust his style quotient quite a bit and often ask him how some combination looks, which heels to wear. But he is involved only if I ask him if for advice, not a word more.

5. Make different cool:

Kids are different. Some will be made fun of and some will feel rejection. Encourage the differences, celebrate them, ignore the bullies and make your eccentricities show through so your kids appreciate themselves even as others label and tag them. 

6. Acknowledge and question sexualisation

In Ads, television shows, movies, everywhere around us constantly. Fight it. So kids are aware that this is happening and the messages they get are not real. Show them real people and their stories, talk to them, question ideas and encourage discussions around sexualisation. 

7. Limit their internet and media exposure:

What they watch, how much they watch and what they access needs to be controlled. It is a challenging but important task every parent has to take. Once an Incel, Peterson, was a high school dropout who had unlimited access to the Internet. As a depressed kid who was being bullied in life, online chatrooms became his safe space. This is what we need to be wary of. 

8. Break the walls and allow for conversations without judgement.

Become the person they can talk to about anything, good or bad. My son often tells me I overreact to things and so it is difficult to talk to me. I am working on my response but I am glad we have a built a space where he can tell me that.

9. Stop shaming, start talking:

Shaming kids in their exploration of their bodies is far from healthy. It will have a negative association on something will impact most decisions of their life. At our home, we say it is not age appropriate for anything that involves sex or violence. If it’s scary, scary is usually enough. Somehow my kid learnt from peers that kissing is “yuck” so now we kiss more often. Madge the Vag may have some more answers for you.

10.  If you are in an abusive relationship, walk out.

Become the one who your child can look up to for breaking the glass ceiling and taking hard decisions. Tell your child by example that abuse is not okay and neither is taking abuse! If you are married, treat your partner with respect and show your kids what boundaries and consent mean for real. 

11. Keep them involved:

Whatever we do, keep them involved in our lives so we too are involved in their lives. Talk to them about your life, your experience with a terrible parent, your failed relationships, embarrassing dates, issues like bullying and depression. They need to know you have been there. They need to know these are normal issues to go through.  They need to know they can get past it, whatever be the problem.  

12. Get help:

Seek help wherever you feel you alone don’t have all the answers. Be open. Reach out to friends, people with different sexual orientations, counsellors, and whoever may give you some direction. Your child learns that it is okay to not be okay. It is alright to not have the answers. They will be comfortable seeking help when they need it. 

 We are responsible to create a safer space for our kids and we can only do that by acknowledge sexuality and the real issues that surround our children. Rejection, failure, loneliness and social awkwardness will be a part of our child’s journey, we cannot stop that from happening, we can prepare them to deal with these issues. 

These pointers are based on the lives, people and experiments in parenting around me. They are currently under exploration and research in my home and I can tell you if they work well only in ten – twenty years.

If the recipe works, great. May the pinch of salt that you add and the handful of measures that you take create all the difference you need in your curry. 

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