Nurturing our sons: Raising compassionate, responsible men in today’s world
As a mom of four sons, I have thoughts on some prevailing stereotypes and flawed thinking that do our future men of tomorrow a disservice.
I want to ask you to look in the eye of any father and try to see him in a different light. This man be he absentee or not was once an innocent baby, then a toddler, then a little boy with his whole life in front of him. This developmental process is highly influenced by social conditioning, which includes the assumptions and stereotypes that we impose (often subconsciously) on our children.
I want to challenge a few of the messages that are prevalent in our society today and connect them to how you can debunk this message your household. Whether you are a single parent, you co-parent from separate households, or you are in a committed relationship (with or without a man/father-figure), it is up to us to reflect on how we raise our sons as individuals and how they will contribute to their generation.
Societal message #1: When a baby is created, that baby is the woman’s responsibility. The man involved may or may not be involved in raising that baby.
It is easy to blame an absentee father for his son’s lack of responsibility. “Well, he’s just doing what he knows.” We throw our hands up or shake our fingers. Parents, in our emotional investment, have unfortunately somehow sent the message that it is okay for boys to have an “out,” when discussing the potential crisis of a teenage pregnancy. It’s ultimately the girl’s problem since she’s carrying the baby, right?
Internalizing responsibility and ownership for one’s actions starts way before an accidental pregnancy can occur.
Right from the start, our family’s values must be explicitly shared with our sons and modeled for them. If he drops something, he picks it up. If he hurts someone’s feelings, he needs support and words for what he can say to help them feel better. Parents, don’t apologize for your kids, have them apologize and take responsibility for themselves. Praise him at every step when he is taking responsibility, telling him specifically what he did right. This can help him feel a sense of accomplishment and start to internalize compassion for others, a very important step for functioning successfully in relationships, the work environment, and the world. If we are consistent with supporting our sons through circumstances that affect others and reinforce this sense of ownership, they are far more likely to behave in a responsible manner later on when the stakes are much higher.
They can also feel and see value in how they contribute to the family and at school. This scale of responsibility helps them to build their moral compass for life.
Societal message #2: It’s not okay for a man to hit a woman, but it’s okay for women to hit men. And fighting is fun and should be posted on the internet for the entertainment of others.
Maybe someone’s written an article or blog about this, but I haven’t seen it. Our children, especially if we are not actively monitoring their media exposure, are getting confusing messages about violence in interpersonal relationships. Domestic violence is never okay and boys, of course, need to understand this.
I want to challenge us as parents to take it one step further. If we want to raise peaceful children, they must get a consistent message from us that they are never to hit anyone out of anger and violence does not solve problems. It creates bigger problems including criminal records, medical bills, time out of work to address injuries, and most importantly, destruction of relationships. This means parents must model stress management and calm problem-solving techniques.
Our boys have to have healthy outlets to express their anger. Boys are often treated as if they are not allowed to have feelings, partly because girls are viewed as being more “emotional” and so girls are more often forgiven and permitted to express their emotions, even when that expression is a tantrum or other outburst.
Boys need to know that all feelings are okay—it’s what we do with them that makes the difference. Boys need to be held and comforted and allowed time to recover when they are sad or feelings are hurt.
Acknowledge your son’s feelings and admire his honesty and courage. As he gets older, have your son show you what he’s watching on TV and online. Discuss his understanding of what he sees and make sure he’s making the distinction between what he sees and what’s okay for him to do and how he treats others. When he’s disappointed or frustrated about something that affects him, allow him and encourage him to talk about his feelings. Boys can’t “man up” all the time. It’s unhealthy to do so.
The bottom line is, our sons (and really, our daughters too) need to understand that every action they take has a consequence. Building their character starts from the very beginning, and when we reinforce positive messages of compassion and self-discipline, we are helping them to create a moral compass that they can take into any situation. We can trust them with this moral compass to take ownership for what they do and support their positive impact on the world.
Emily Griffin is a native Washingtonian, wife, and mother of four biracial sons in a blended family. She is the founder of Happy Parents, Happy Babies, LLC, which is her private practice devoted to in-home parent counseling, coaching, and support in the DC area.