My 8 year-old daughter recently complained to me about a boy in her grade.
“Dad, he keeps on trying to kiss me. Today at recess he kissed me twice on the face. I keep telling him to ‘Stop it!’ and he doesn’t.”
Historically this kind of incident may have been called cute. Parents or staff members may have knowingly smiled and clucked about what a great pair these two would make.
Today… I’m unhappy about this. The boy may only be eight, but he is old enough to understand respect and consent. And he is old enough to know that if anyone, girl or boy, says to “Stop it, I don’t like it!” then he should stop.
My daughter should not be made to feel uncomfortable and afraid of going to school because a boy is overly affectionate.
Is this where violence begins? Maybe… or maybe not. But it is undeniably disrespect. And pervasive disrespect leads to violence and harm.
Teaching boys to respect women
It has been widely reported that many people, from our Prime Minister down, think Australia has a respect-for-women problem. Let’s review the statistics:
- One in three women over the age of 15 have experienced physical violence.
- One in five have experienced sexual violence.
- One in four have been emotionally abused by a partner.
Men are almost always the perpetrators.
- Approximately 70 women are killed each year by a current or former partner.
Men are almost always the perpetrators.
- One in four children in Australia experience domestic and family violence.
Again, it’s predominantly at the hands of males.
Yes, women can – and do – offend violently. They harm others. And yes, these statistics have been called into question by thoughtful researchers who argue that a far more nuanced (and gender-balanced) view may be more accurate.
But whether the statistics are on the money or are missing the mark a little, there would be few who would argue that there is significant room for improvement with respect to respect in Australia. And far too many girls and women are being disrespected – my daughter being an example of where it can all ‘innocently’ and ‘harmlessly’ begin.
Game changing ideas to teach boys better
Here are just a few ideas for teaching our boys to respect girls, women, and womanhood, whether we are mums, dads, aunts, uncles, teachers, or neighbours.
Teaching boys under 5
Example, example, example
If we show respect we will teach respect. This means we respect our children, we respect other adults, and we especially respect women. It means that we do not call girls or women names. We do not ever hit or threaten to hit girls or women. It means we listen to girls and women and respect their opinions.
This is pretty basic, but at this age, it’s all it takes to show respect. Say please and thank you. Never say things like ‘shut-up’ or ‘get lost’ (or anything worse), whether to a child, or an adult, and regardless of gender. Respectful speaking teaches respect.
Teach boys (and all children) to recognise when someone needs help or feels lousy, and show them how to help.
Teaching boys from age 5-12
The ideas from the previous age group are just as applicable for these boys. In addition, the following ideas are important:
Violent media is increasingly normal and has an undeniable desensitising impact on those who view it. While most 5 year-olds don’t enjoy violence, by the time they’re 9 or 10, they’re all over it. Sitting down with your 6 year-old (or any child) to watch MMA fights on pay tv exacerbate violent attitudes and model aggression. Allowing kids to watch Game of Thrones and similar gratuitous sex and violence does nothing to help the cause. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Counter Strike, and many more glorify violence (including violence against women). Some studies have shown that after playing violent games or viewing violent ‘entertainment’, people are less likely to show empathy or kindness. Minimising exposure to games and movies or tv shows that promote disrespect and inhumanity can help.
Pre-arm against pornography
The average age of boys’ exposure to pornography is 11. And we’re not talking the 1980’s Playboy style pornography. We’re talking hardcore, violent, disgusting content that teaches boys that women exist to be violently and sexually disrespected.
At around the age of 8 or 9, we must start pre-arming our boys. I’m presently working with the Federal Government’s Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner to create resources for teachers and parents to help with this issue (and in turn, they’re working with Life Education to pre-arm children in schools).
Let boys know that pornography exists, that people might want to show it to them, that others might think it’s funny, and that it teaches bad things. Let them know it’s not real. It’s not reflective of what people want in healthy, functional relationships. Let them know they can and should talk to us if anyone tries to show it to them.
Keep them away and do not normalise exposure to porn as something ‘all the boys do’. Such attitudes are part of the domestic violence and disrespect problem.
Talk about the issues
When you see disrespect, talk about it. Ask your sons how it leaves them feeling. How does it make the victims feel? What are better ways of responding to it? Such conversations promote empathy and perspective, and help our boys develop social awareness and conscience.
Teaching boys from age 12-18
In addition to all that is outlined above (particularly regarding media and gaming) our boys need to be taught the following in their teen years:
Our sons should be learning about healthy relationships where people love one another and express that love in healthy, functional ways. They need to understand more than the mechanics of sex. They need to understand context and commitment. When there is no real commitment, guys think there are no feelings involved. When we separate physical and emotional intimacy from one another, we provide fertile soil for sexual miscommunication and sexual coercion.
Based on my daughter’s experience, perhaps I should place this earlier in the developmental trajectory. Boys must know that they should not touch a woman without her explicit consent. They should not kiss her without her consent. They should absolutely not be intimate with her without her consent.
Our sons must understand that no means no. T-shirts and slogans that promote the idea that “no means yes, and yes means anal” demean not just the wearer, but our society as a whole. We are too casual about sex, and serious about consent. This may not be working.
We should talk to our boys about scenarios where they find themselves at a party with a girl who is drunk and all over them. Is she capable of providing consent? What are the risks involved? What if she’s only a little drunk, she gives consent, and then she changes her mind even though her pants are down and so are yours? Consent is a conversation that must be had – repeatedly.
Set clear boundaries around porn
Let your sons know that porn is off limits. Teach them why. Currently, statistics suggest 100% of boys have viewed violent pornography by age 15. We must turn this around.
Call them on sexism
When I was younger, I regularly heard jokes about how “women should get back in the kitchen” and other derogatory remarks along similar lines. It was part of being male.
Well folks, masculinity has changed. And it needs to change more.
When you catch your boys criticising women because of their maths or driving ability, or for any other gendered issue, call them on it. Let them know sexism is not cool and it is not funny.
Ultimately, regardless of everything that we say, it is what we do that makes the biggest impact on our sons’ respectfulness. What the blokes in your children’s lives do will set the scene for ongoing behaviour from your sons. If the men in their lives think it’s ok to stare and whistle at women while driving, to abuse women and call them names, to watch porn and objectify the women in their lives, or to hit them, the odds are stacked against your boys because of those poor examples.
Surround the boys you parent or work with with good men. Be a great example.
These are our best options. Let’s teach our sons well.