One year removed from the Women's March and in the throes of the #MeToo movement, American society seems to finally be at a painful, but necessary turning point.
What the hundreds of heart wrenching stories of sexual harassment and abuse have shown is that the onus of stopping this toxic culture should not be solely in the hands of girls and women, but shared among boys and men. Rape culture doesn't end by just shaming predators and perpetrators; it ends by dismantling the learned behaviors and institutions that have enabled it.
In 2004, feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem said, “We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." In 2018, her words ring more true than ever.
Refinery29 interviewed 3 mothers along with their sons, ranging in age from 2 to 10. While each woman is from a different background and may have different parenting styles, one sentiment is consistent across them all: To have a society of men who respect women and treat them as equals, we must reverse course in terms of how we raise boys.
All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Marvi, mom to Mateo (8) and Kaleb (6)
My husband and I have been more aware of how gender socialization seeps into everyday play so we make sure to watch out for comments like “throw like a girl,” “cry like a girl,” and instead of reprimanding them, we talk to them about why the motivations behind those words are demeaning and can be hurtful to others.
Some influences are beyond our control. For example, they don’t like pink because they’ve been told at school that pink is a “girly” color. My eldest stopped painting his nails because he was getting teased even as early as preschool. It comes down to everyday conversations, like “what makes pink a “girly color?" Or just guiding them in how they can respond to teasing and why it is important for them to stand up for what they believe in and what they like. I think in the end, it’s about building their self-confidence so they can parse through these pressures.
In kindergarten, my youngest was very friendly with a girl in his class and they were very affectionate with each other. So Ben and I kept repeating ourselves that he has to always ask permission before he hugs her.
We don’t talk down at them, but we also haven’t delved into more complex concepts like “feminism” or “racism” because at that age, those words don’t quite mean anything to them. We approach those talks on a more personal level. We ask them questions like “well do you think it’s fair that X gets treated better than Y only because he’s a boy or he has a different color skin?”
Nikita, mom to Nicholas (6) and Zachary (2)
Nicholas is very conscious of everything around him. I make sure that if he talks back to me, I'm like "Listen, you have to be respectful. I'm your mother. There's going to be a day where you're out in the world with other young women and you need to treat them the same way you would want me to be treated."
He doesn't know about [#MeToo] because we don't talk about the birds and the bees yet but when it comes to school, we tell him, "Don't hit girls. They might call you names, say silly things but you make sure you respect them. You don't touch them, you treat them nice."
He came home one day and said something about Trump and I said "where did you get that from?!" and he said he got it from school. I do feel some type of way towards [Trump] because I am Haitian and he has said some things about Haitians. I don't put my opinion onto my son, I want him to form his own opinions. At the same time, I want to teach him how to be not politically correct but morally correct. You have to have ethics and that starts at home.
I hope he takes what we've taught him at home out into the world. We're trying to eradicate the rape culture, the catcalling, having women being treated as objects ... we don't want him to go out into the world like that. We want him to be a good person.
Bristol, mom to Kinjé (10)
I have, as I think many mothers have, tried to raise my son to be respectful of everyone, especially those who are different than him. For my family, this started with discussions about his race first. It has been important for me to point out to him his relative privilege because of his race, and how he has extra responsibility to his peers to be a role model for other kids with similar privileges.
The last 3-4 years, gender has come up in our conversations in a more obvious way than before, perhaps because our family dynamic changed when my husband and I separated.
When it comes to setting boundaries and respecting them, what I’ve tried to do is lead by example. For instance before something as seemingly natural as hugging my son, I try to ask him for a hug first. This simple act shows him that I don’t assume to have any autonomy over his body — his body is his domain and I should ask permission to touch it, no matter what. I believe strongly that this sets a precedent for him, that even people that love each other need to consent before physical touch.
I want to encourage him to not see masculinity as it is often portrayed and exhibited: as one-dimensional, stiff and aggressive. I really want him to know that he can be masculine and still be sensitive, to listen and to be thoughtful before acting. I also want to encourage communication as much as possible even when it may be uncomfortable or difficult. Mothers can and should be able to talk to their sons about consent and about how women and girls should be treated.