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Raising Sons, Not Rapists. Targeting Brains And Emotions, Not The Genitals

Posted: July 31, 2016
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Raising sons goes way beyond teaching them not to rape. It takes looking at the whole human being and prioritizing life skills and empathy.

When the Nirbhaya case happened, everyone was incensed. We were in Delhi during the protests and the kids got to know more than I would have wanted about a concept like rape at their age. Around that time, there were short films made in the name of women’s empowerment that I found myself sickened by.

When a Madhuri Dixit (in the video link above) says smugly, “teach your sons to not make girls cry” and in 95% of that short movie, boys were crying, we’re clearly far from ideal or even a working solution. Did no one see the injustice in telling boys to not cry because “ladke rote nahin” and is there any justification whatsoever for a link to be made to the last frame when the man hits a woman?

So many messages to the parents of boys stop with ‘raise your sons not to rape’. Well, it is a given that we teach our children to not commit crimes. What is rarely spoken about is how we get to this better way of parenting boys. Let us first acknowledge that more men don’t rape than those who do. Making all men out to be rapists or potential rapists devalues our sons, men and their upbringing by male and female parents.

We are far away from societal solutions that are based on an understanding of what causes some boys and men to rape. In order to prevent any crime, we need to understand it. On the other hand, we also need to understand what many boys and men are – human and non-rapists. So how did these parents do it and what can we do today, with our societal constraints?

I have had to think about this – I have a daughter and a son. I believe firmly in equality and am concerned that in the effort to make our daughters stronger, we might not pay the attention our sons need to develop into empathetic human beings. Even if only from a very self serving stand point: my daughter’s companion is likely to be someone else’s son.

An ‘I’ has been used many times in the article to mean all parents, much like a ‘he’ is used to mean ‘all humans’ in much writing.

Some good practices in my opinion are:

Addressing adult gender stereotypes from early on

When my son was very little, he loved the colour pink. He got incensed that his sister could wear dresses, skirts, shorts and pants while he had to only wear shorts and pants. I am talking roll-on-the-floor tantrums before school to wear her clothes. There were times that I strongly considered giving in…and would have if no one might have said a word about what he wore. He wanted it so strongly that I relented for a fancy dress party at the crèche they used to go to – he went as a girl, with a cap sewn with black ribbons for hair and his sister’s party frock. He gets teased bullied about that to date. I was worried about this all along and it came to pass.

When kids come and say, “Chee, pink, it is a girl colour”, what is our reaction? I understand that objects have gender in Hindi, do colours have gender too? Do they have to? Do we pay attention to our language – are boys complimented for being smart but girls for looking pretty?

When we stifle our boys and teach them that certain things are for girls and other things are for boys, we plant a non-existent difference in their minds. This difference can’t be conveniently manipulated even by us, the planters: here now, gone when we want it to go!

Deconstruct opinions from the outside world

I can say and do all I want at home. Kids will evaluate their lives, homes and experiences with their peers. I can ban gadgets, televisions, computer games but I can’t eliminate the influence of the outside world, not even for a little while, until they build up enough gender muscle to speak up. That banning doesn’t work is clear.

What I can do though is deconstruct the messages they bring, I can discuss advertisements critically, I can ask for explanations as to why their friends say that and what my kids think, based on their life experience thus far. Not only am I giving them strong clues, I will be asking them to have opinions. If my kid has no opinion, he can’t speak up…what will he speak up for?

This step comes with its pitfalls. It will mean you stand your ground when an elder, your parent airs their gender stereotypical views. Grandparents take a lot from their grandkids, so it might be better to let them handle it between themselves. As a parent, if I want my child to take a stance, I will need to speak up and challenge even elders on certain thoughts. If I want my child to speak up, I need to model how.

Walking the talk

So this is the hard part of parenting – kids do what we do, not what we say. As a woman, do I stand up for myself? Does my child see me as a person with views and opinions? Do I call out people on what I don’t like hearing – like sexist jokes – or do I laugh along? Do I share the chores and ensure that a spouse who wants to cook is comfortable in the kitchen without taking on all domestic chores as my preserve? Do I do the banking and tax paying too? How do we treat the people who are our helpers? Do we use our power judiciously when we have more of it? When we are upset with anyone in a power situation, are we fair and balanced or do we fly off the handle?

My daughter is watching.  My son is tooI have the potential to raise him to expect equality – for him to clean the kitchen and the kids’ vomit as well as support a career of his partner as he would expect to be supported himself. As a woman and his parent, am I up to that task? Is my co-parent? If not, why not?

Teach independence

If a parent is going to lay out his clothes, give her a bath, put things on a platter for the crown prince/princess, then anyone could grow up corrupted to expect and feel entitled. I learned early on, from their Montessori school, that kids were not only capable of doing more but felt a sense of pride at taking care of themselves and helping around the house.

Raising sons take care of themselves is the first step to their making free decisions. I get that children learning to cross the street has been put off but is there any danger in their sorting out clothes, learning to run the washing machine, sweeping the house and ensure that they keep their own stuff tidy and in order?

If I can do for myself, I have no dependence on others. As a man, I don’t have to get married just because I am moving to the US and can’t cook. As a woman, I don’t need to get married for economic reasons. We could actually choose to get married (or not) with more clarity and independence versus becoming cook/cleaner/earner-provider. It starts young and from home.

Discuss social issues and set your home’s values explicitly

Is it fair that several girls don’t go to school after they get their periods because their schools don’t have bathrooms? Why should puberty mean less freedom for one sex and not as much for another? What is our home’s policy? What’s up with girls being told they can’t do x, y or z because they are growing up? Why do poor people end up more and more disadvantaged? What is privilege and what do we do with it?

What is rape and why does it happen? Should it matter what a woman wore? Does a wife have to fast for her husband’s well being? How can husbands show their concern? What is a sanitary pad and would my husband go to the store to buy my daughter or me some? Why ever not?

Am I going to be the parent who speaks up against a crime or blame the person who survived for putting herself in that position in the first place? What do I say if my spouse were to think ‘she asked for it’? Some combination of discussing social issues, speaking up and discomfort are called for. The discomfort comes from our having to break our own socialization very consciously as parents, as women too. Women carry several regressive patriarchal practices forward very vehemently, so this goes beyond gender alone.

Not only do we need to discuss issues, we need to explicitly tell our children what we think is right (or not) and be open to their opinions. Debates are good, certain differences are okay but stuff like ‘No means No!’ has to just be the norm, whether it is a boy saying it when he is too stressed or a girl saying it when she’s told to do/deal with stuff she doesn’t want to. This means we learn to follow these limits are parents as well. Respect for a person isn’t conditional – it can’t be that adults don’t respect kids but expect kids to respect them just because.

Saying this explicitly is important – when we end up asking kids what they think their parents expect, more often than not, you find some mismatches, ones that we might have mentioned in the abstract but the kids didn’t relate to themselves.

Plus in today’s world, where privilege comes from being educated, with families that were educated when we were born, being from the middle class, no one else outside is going to school our kids on our responsibilities because we have privilege. Noam Chomsky said it best: “The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have.”

Establish emotional health and welfare

Children need to know all kinds of emotions. Have you ever tried to find enough words to describe all kinds of emotions in your native Indian languages? I tried and often, I came up with only three to four emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and shame. Where are the nuances and some examples of situations where we feel these emotions?   That is Step One.

Step Two would be about helping kids become aware of which emotion they are feeling and what their triggers are. Children need to learn to ask and answer questions like:

  • How do I handle rejection – do I get all sad, wanting to cry or do I lash out?
  • Can I take feedback, especially critical feedback?
  • Do I analyze feedback on its merits (or not) or do I justify, blame and give excuses?

Self-awareness is a critical skill in life.

Step Three is their linking their emotions to their bodies with questions like:

  • How do I feel physically when I feel angry?
  • Does that sinking feeling in my stomach mean I am afraid?

Unless children recognize and become aware of their emotions, they can’t do much about that uncomfortable feeling. Teaching them to understand the reasons behind their own behavior is a great start.

Give kids coping mechanisms and tools

Once children have the vocabulary, they need some tools. If there is conflict, children need to know some tools like expressing themselves appropriately, collaborative problem solving and some calming techniques. For example, can children say “Dear X, when you do/say Y, I feel ______. I would prefer for you to do/say this instead.”

Teach them mindfulness – it is any activity that gets them to pay attention consciously, in the present and non-judgmentally. It does not have to be meditation based, even walking 5 steps done mindfully brings self awareness of what one is feeling. There are many fun mindfulness activities for kids from shaking snow globes to holding postures, feeling their muscles and knowing their limits.

What can they do when they feel angry? Since a physical reaction isn’t acceptable, can they journal or do rigorous physical exercise? Research has shown that punching a pillow doesn’t help as much as exercising your negative energy out. Venting doesn’t help either – apparently, it only helps to keep you stuck versus find and implement solutions. So you vent once. Then what? Our kids need to know. The nation also needs to know but hey, we’ve got to do it one citizen at a time and calmly!

Restorative justice versus verbal apologizing

When a child has hurt another, parents ask them to say sorry. Many times, it becomes a formality and a way out. “Yeah, I did that but I said sorry!” Is a mere apology enough? Even if it is a well-formed apology that takes responsibility, saying sorry is no skin off a person’s back.

We need to teach our kids to make it up to the aggrieved party. Kids need to ask the hurt child what they can do to make it up to them and then actually follow through. The pain that was felt can’t be undone but we can share in the solution and try to do better by ourselves and the other person. Experience is the best teacher.

A lot of these points are pretty unisex, right? Well, the next one might put the cat among the pigeons.

Acknowledge the differences between girls and boys

On the most basic level, we’re all human – we eat, cry and bleed when we’re pricked. I get that. So this ‘we’re all the same’ is pretty good. Yet, the issue is in the differences too, isn’t it? On several levels, we are NOT the same – we have different body parts and different maturity levels at the same age. That is a good thing – difference just is, it is not good or bad by itself.

This is where several women go anecdotal – yes, I also know very mature boys. Yet in school and everywhere else, I do see a marked difference in a girl at 12 years and a boy at the same age. In several ways, boys are simpler and it is wonderful. Not for them the picking emotionally like girl bullying – there has been an established difference to how girls bully versus boys. Boys are more physical. A sensitive girl is lauded while a sensitive boy is preyed on. This is our world.

I don’t see a problem with acknowledging the difference – in no way do I advocate lower expectations for either gender. Girls need to believe in themselves a lot more than they do (as a whole, not anecdotally) and boys need to soften up a lot more (again, in general, not specifically).

My son played with dolls, he also fashioned guns out of everything – we didn’t believe in toys that give space for someone to point at a friend and shoot. Even for fun. My bias – violence was not tolerated even for play, not that I raised a boy who wasn’t physical when he got angry. We dealt with it and thankfully, also overcame it. I am no purist but cringed at laser tag parties that means your friends ‘died’ when you marked them with your weapon. And you win when they die. Really?

As a parent, I am done with people telling me to raise my son not to rape. Parents want to know what to do to set a foundation that their kids can build on. Parents want to be remembered as someone who tried their best versus someone who did the basic minimum to feed, clothe and educate their kids.  Greed like this is what our country sorely needs.

Image source: shutterstock.

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