We never parent in a vacuum. Our parenting sits within a context of our personal history, our family and community, and our society with its laws, history, media. We’re not the only influence on our children’s lives, as anyone knows who’s had a five-year-old argue with them that “No, my teacher said it’s spelt THIS way.”
Our children do not enter the world as blank slates. Professor Emily Kane asked parents about their preferences for a boy or girl before they became parents. For the men, their hypothetical sons would be great for teaching sports to. For the women, these sons would be a companion for their husbands. Hypothetical daughters would be nice for dressing up, buying dolls and sending to dance classes. And these daughters would remember birthdays, unlike the hypothetical son.
During pregnancy, tone of voice and language used to talk to the baby will change if we know the baby’s sex. Once born, how we hold the baby, speak to them, dress them and our expectations of them changes based on whether they are male or female. Boys learn early to take up space, with clothing that facilitates movement and messiness. Girls learn to be kind and caring, their clothing more restrictive, the adults in their life focusing on how pretty they are. As boys grow a bit older their friends mock them if they like girly things. They become ashamed to cry, because that’s what girls do. In their teen years, if they are sensitive and kind, if they don’t conform to hypermasculine ideas, their friends mock them as gay. In church, the men’s ministry is all about wrestling with God, being the stoic provider who leads his family, the banter is about how eating fruit or being vegetarian isn’t manly (the unspoken message; it’s girly).
If the worst thing a boy can be is girly, how can he learn how to respect girls? If being feminine is the worst thing a man can be, why on earth would he respect women?
While there isn’t anything we can do to guarantee our sons, brothers, nephews, cousins, godsons or friend’s sons become men who respect women, in my book, Out Of Control, I list some factors which can increase the potential of boys to be respectful to women:
- Being brought up within a family where men treat women and girls with respect and empathy.
- Having a peer group who value and respect girls and women and don’t mock them for not being stereotypically manly.
- Having visible access to strong, diverse female role models.
- Their gifts and talents – if a boy is terrible at stereotypically masculine activities he will learn early that not all men benefit from restrictive gender ideas.
- Their personality – some people are naturally gentler than others (particularly if this gentleness is celebrated and not mocked or derided).
- Experiencing serious consequences for harming others, e.g. not getting away with sexually harassing girls in school or bullying other boys.
- Being encouraged to take responsibility for bad choices, e.g. not being able to lie his way out of consequences.
- Being given opportunities to build emotional literacy.
- Not being celebrated for abusive or damaging behaviour.
- Regularly seeing adults around him challenging gender stereotypes.
- Seeing male role models who don’t conform to stereotypical expectations of men.
- Living in a society where girls and women are encouraged and able to challenge a male partner who is behaving badly.
- Being taught empathy and having it modelled.
- Being taught about the challenges women and girls face.
- Being taught to be a critical consumer of media (this includes efforts taken to stop him having any access to pornography).
These are not quick fixes or a short conversation. They involve the whole of life, just like all discipleship does. As Christians, we can pray for the boys in our lives and seek to build families and communities where everyone learns that women are created in the image of God and the Holy Spirit inhabits women as deeply now as She did at Pentecost. Nowhere in Scripture is God described as having male anatomy, whenever God’s compassion or mercy is mentioned (rachamim), that word is derived from the Hebrew word for womb. And perhaps in learning God’s compassion comes from God’s “womb”; our boys learn that being girly is something to celebrate!
Natalie Collins is the author of Out Of Control; couples, conflict and the capacity for change and the Interim CEO of The Women’s Liberation Collective. She is the Creator and Director of the DAY Programme, an innovative youth domestic abuse and exploitation education programme and of the Own My Life course, for women who have been subjected to abuse. She organises Project 3:28 (www.project328.info), co-founded the UK Christian Feminist Network (www.christianfeministnetwork.com), and has written a short Book on Gender Aware Youth Work.