On Raising Boys

I saw two videos of teenage boys in one week. The first is posted above, and consists of local news coverage of a heartwarming interaction between an uncommonly kind young basketball player and a teen with special needs. The second was the Steubenville rape case video, in which, for a stomach-turning twelve minutes, a high school student mocks the unconscious victim of a gang rape.

As the mother of a boy, I want to know: what makes the difference? How do you raise one instead of the other? How do you teach compassion while at the same time not pathologizing every little manifestation of aggression?

I’d really like an easy answer, some reassurance that the parents of those rapists and their reprehensible friends were monsters, absent, ignorant, abusive. My guess is that the truth lies in a more uncomfortably grey area than that.

This is not another species committing these crimes, these are our sons. It indicates a failure on so many levels- schools, parents, peers, communities. I think this Salon article makes an interesting point in exploring the efficacy of bystander education programs that target specific communities.

This country is pathetically puritanical when it comes to sex education in our schools. I realize it’s not a panacea, but education is a beginning, at least. It has the potential to give kids the correct language with which to discuss sexual assault. It opens up the dialogue, rather than couching it in silence and shame.

Having a boy who will one day be a teenager changes the experience of watching these horrors unfold in the media. One of my greatest (and hardest) gifts of motherhood is that is has connected me to the world in a more urgent way. How can we raise our boys to be kind, conscious, empathetic? I don’t have an answer, but I am deeply engaged with the question.

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7 Responses to 'On Raising Boys'

  1. Nani Parker says:

    Isnt that realization the first step though? I have two small sons (7 and 5) and I try somehow every day to work into our conversations that my job as a mom (and the job of their other parents) is to make them socially constructive, decent human beings… Who understand common courtesies, who remain compassionate and show empathy for those less fortunate, who have work ethic and a moral compass…. I could go on and on.

    How will they know what it means to be decent if I’m not a) an example and b) communicating clearly what the expectation is…. And when slight adjustments are needed, we make those and keep moving… Always forward, always productively…. (or at least this is all my prayer every night)

  2. Rona Compton says:

    I think the answer begins with having involved fathers. Your boy has a solid example of what a man is. He has a real life example if how to treat a woman

    Next is recognizing mental illness and getting help for your kids if they are sick.

    I also believe having a strong connection to faith and a community of the faith you follow are important.

    You also need to expose your kids to those less fortunate or who are less able. I have found that the kids who have grown up with Wyatt are very compassionate.

  3. Janet Clare says:

    I was a very young mother of an only son. Today, he’s the magnificent father of three, two of them boys. One is 19, the other 6. They’re both great kids and adore each other, (and their sister).
    I was divorced, twice actually, so there goes the perfect family theory. Religion? Not so much. Golden rule works. There was no magic. I didn’t read hundreds of books and manuals,there were no blogs or websites devoted to “the art of parenting.” I felt my number one job was to keep him alive. The second, to have him grow up valuing himself and others.
    He does.
    They do.

  4. Jillian, I read your blog post via Facebook and thought a bit. Now, I think, or at least hope I’ve formulated a coherent reply. Here’s my preface: I’m a criminal and victim advocacy lawyer, visual artist and most importantly the mother of a son. Much of my legal work presently involves sex and gender based crime.

    With that, you’re question is complicated for a few reasons, some if which are well addressed in the Salon piece. One, which is not entirely addressed is your primary question; How do I raise a compassionate young man like the one above, versus a sexual assailant? The problem is that the two are not actually discreet. As noted in Salon, and by most experts, particularly Anna C. Salter, rapists are recidivists. They simply go undetected. In my experience, many offenders usually steal, or have criminal histories of burglary or robbery. I often describe rape as the “ultimate theft crime.” With that, a recidivist rapist could feel entitled to a woman’s body, but simultaneously have the capacity to be kind to a disabled person or walk an old lady across the street. Some very calculating predators are, themselves, disabled. I read a very interesting account of a young man with Downs Syndrome explain that it was easier to prey because of the presumption that disabled people are inherently good folks! The fact remains that a sexual predator may very well have the capacity for kindness or generosity, but are nonetheless, rapists.

    I certainly think many people rape because they feel entitled, but that is only one facet (however defining) of a person’s overall makeup. Recently, Alyssa Royce was deservedly lambasted for her Good Man Project piece, “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too.” It was horribly rape-apologist and riddled with victim blaming. Nonetheless, it highlighted the misconception that if a boy or man is nice overall, we presume he lacks the capacity to rape. This brings me to my suggestions:
    1) Tell your son about rape. It needn’t be complicated. He’ll get it. My three year old asked what rape is. I said it is stealing the worst kind if “bad touch” from another person. I further explained that it is stealing the bad touch because either the person doesn’t want the touch, or because they cannot say yes or no. He had very few follow-ups.

    2) We are an affectionate home, with hugs and kisses galore. However, Abe MUST ask another child if he can hug or kiss them. He’s confused and disappointed when the three year old apple of his eye says “no” but he respects it. Hopefully this will plant seeds for the future.

    3) Make sure your son (particularly as he gets older) knows rape is not exclusively a crime against women. Boys who are raped by older women are socially expected to feel proud, or give the “high five.” This is bullshit! Also, an erection doesn’t equal consent.

    4) Finally, and this gets back to bystander education, some rapists will rape regardless, but some may not. Research shows that those who may be disinclined to act in a particular manner will do so if we socially normalize the behavior. Likewise, if we socially normalize assault by justifying it or victim blaming, people are less likely to intervene. So tell him it is not normal to sexually touch a drunk person, and that it’s not normal for his friends to do so. Tell him a woman’s sexuality doesn’t always mean she wants sex. Most of all, share your stories with him! In doing so, you’ve initiated wonderful dialogues amongst men and women alike. Share those dialogues with him . . . when the time is right.

    Good luck to you, and all of us as mothers. With rape culture as it stands, we need it. PS: I’m sorry this reply is substantially longer than your blog entry.

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