When Max was just a few months old, I sat cross-legged on the floor with him in a circle of other mothers.  The facilitator for our “Mommy and Me” playgroup would throw a question out to the group, and we would each volley back an answer.

“What quality do you want to instill in your child?  What personality characteristic would you most like for your son to be known for?” she asked.

One by one, the mothers answered.  “Athletic”, “Good sense of humor”, “Brave”, “Smart”, “Strong”.

The answers blended together until it was my turn to speak.  I looked down at the tiny human wiggling around on the blanket in front of me, his perfectly round nose, his full lips that mirrored mine.  I stroked the top of his very bald head, and said with confidence “kind”.

I want my son to grow up to be kind.

The eyes of the other mothers turned towards me.  “That’s not always a word that you hear used for boys” one said.  “But yes, you’re right….so I guess, me too”.  At the end of the day, we wanted our tiny, fragile, helpless baby boys to grow up to be kind.  Strong, resilient, athletic, funny….but above all else, kind.

Max is almost 4 years old.  He knows nothing about the horrific things that young men did to a young woman on the saddest night that Steubenville has ever seen.    He doesn’t know, but I sure do.  I know that someone’s daughter was violated in the most violent way possible, by someone’s son.  By many sons.  The blame for that night falls squarely on the shoulders of the young men who made terrible choices, but it also falls in the laps of their parents.

Sexual assault is about power and control.  But it is also about so much more.  While it’s true that big scary monster men sometimes jump out of bushes to rape unsuspecting women, most rapists look like the men who we see every day.  Acquaintance rape (or date rape) accounts for the majority of sexual assaults that we see among young people.  In colleges, in high schools, at parties, in the cars and bedrooms that belong to the men who women trust.  These men are your fraternity brothers, your athletes, your church-going friends.  They are somebody’s son.  Date rape is often saturated with entitlement.  It feeds off of the hero worship that grows rampant like weeds on school campuses and in locker rooms.  Young men are taught to be strong, to be athletes, to be feared.  Young women are taught to be meek, to be feminine, to be small.  As our young people begin to sort out relationships with each other and relationships with alcohol, they encounter an endless menu of ways to hurt each other.

As a community we give our athletes free reign.  Young men are filled with the heavy power of triumph, their heroism illuminated by the bright lights of a brisk Friday night football game.  Young cheerleaders spend hours painting signs for them, adorning hallways with flourescent notes of encouragement.  Young men are known by their football number, their last touchdown pass, their ability to get any girl they choose.  Young women fill the stands with hopeful smiles, dying to be noticed.

We have created this.  We have allowed this.  We choose not to demand more from our young men, because we see how big they grow in the spotlight.  We give them adult power, without instilling in them an adult sense of responsibility and ethics.

Moms, it is time.  Now is the time to make this stop.  If you are the mother of a son, you can prevent the next Steubenville.

It doesn’t matter if your boy is 4 or 14 or 24.  Start now.

We must teach our boys to be kind.  A toddler can learn how to use words of kindness.  It’s never too early to teach empathy, compassion, and awareness.  “Friend, are you OK?”  “I’m sorry friend, did you get a boo-boo?”  Encourage tiny boys to be aware of how others are feeling.  Name what they see.  “Mommy is sad right now, honey.  Our friend G is sick, and I want her to feel better”.  Give children tasks that they can do to help someone in need.  Bake cookies to take to the local firehouse.  Bring dinner to a mother on bedrest.  Choose a toy to share with the new child that just joined your preschool class.  Teach your child to go towards a child who is upset, instead of walking away.  When I picked Max up from school the other day, his teacher remarked on how “kind” he was.  He checks in on other students.  He runs to them when they get hurt.  At first I was embarassed….oh how my husband will tease me for instilling my “Social Worker” traits in our son.  He must be brave and tough instead.  But I am so proud that he is kind.  That he is a helper.  That he sees the emotions of those around him.  Would he have hurt for the girl in Steubenville?  Would he have felt her fear, and said something?  Teach your sons to tune in, name emotions for them, give them words to match their feelings.

We must teach our boys what it truly means to be brave.  Bravery doesn’t always feel good.  I’ve heard it said that “Courage is being afraid, and doing it anyway”.  How many of those young men in Steubenville knew in their sweet boy hearts that what was happening was wrong, but still they remained silent?  They were afraid to ruin their own hard-earned reputations, afraid of what their peers would think of them.  They were afraid of getting in trouble, afraid they wouldn’t know what to say.  Teach your boys that bravery can be terrifying.  Courage can be demanded of you at the most inopportune times.  Let them know that your expectation is that they are brave enough to rise to the occasion.  And show them how.

We must not shy away from telling our sons the truth about sex.  Of course this looks different in a conversation with a 4 year old than it does with a 12 year old.  In our house, we are still working on giving body parts their appropriate names.  Making family rules about how we always wear clothes when people come to visit (ok, Sean and I are good on that one, but Max keeps answering the door in his underwear).  As uncomfortable as it is, the conversation needs to evolve as your boy gets older.  Sex feels good.  Sex is overwhelming.  Sex is confusing.  Sex tricks you into thinking that you are recieving what you need (physical satisfaction, comfort, companionship, love, respect).  Sex education is more than just giving your child condoms and reminding them about STDS.  As parents, we need to worry about our sons being respectful of their sexual partners, not just about them getting someone pregnant.  Our boys need to know that they will find themselves at a crossroads one night, or on multiple nights.  Their body will be telling them one thing, and their partner may be telling them another.  It is a young man’s responsibility to listen to his partner.  Explain to your son what consent looks like (and doesn’t look like).  They need to know what sex looks like.  Not the Playboy magazine/online porn version, but the logistics of how it actually works.  Teach them to ask their partners.  Teach them to check in as they take the next step with someone.  Teach them to stop if they don’t think they’re getting a clear answer.

We must give our sons the tools they need to protect themselves, and each other.  Can your teenager call you in the middle of the night, no questions asked?  Can they tell you the truth, without you flipping out and getting angry?  Do they trust that you are on their team, that you will sit down and talk things through with them, making a calm plan together?  Role play with your son about how to find help, who to go to for help, what numbers to call.  An embarassed, terrified bystander in Steubenville could have quietly snuck outside to call the police for help.  Or to text an anonymous tip.  Or to call a parent or older sibling for advice.  Instead, at least a dozen sons were paralyzed by fear.  And intoxicated.  And probably overwhelmed by the sexual feelings of their own that they were experiencing….feelings that they were never given the context for.  Give your son the tools they need to understand that their sexuality is a powerful thing, one that they are solely responsible for.  Give them a framework for understanding that sex carries an enormous responsibility, not just to themselves, but to their partners.  Does your son know what rape is?  Does he know what it means?  Does he know that it’s not just creepy smelly guys who hide in alleys who are responsible for rape?  That it’s his peers?  Discuss the ways that a woman can give consent.  Pull the curtains back on the grey areas, and demand that your son learns how to protect himself and his partner.

When I found out that I was having a son, I was relieved at first.  I thought I had dodged a bullet, not having a daughter who I would have to protect from the big, scary, violent world that is still so unkind to women.  This will be so much easier, I thought.  But it’s not.

It’s harder.

I am now pregnant with my second son.  As a feminist and a mother, a survivor and an activist, a human and a writer, I have discovered that my job in preventing sexual assault is even bigger than it would be if I had a daughter.  Because every rapist is someone’s son.  We have the chance to fix that, one little boy at a time.

 

 

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17 Comments ( Reply )

  1. Stacy @bklynstacy
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    Beautiful and thoughtful piece. I agree with every word. I have a son, and he’s nine. When opportunities present themselves — and they really do present themselves pretty often — I carefully lay out the core ideas of RESPECT and BOUNDARIES and when no means no, not in relation to women and sex, of course, but in relation to people as humans, to always seeing people as humans, whether they are fat, old, mean, smelly or whatever thing occurs to him at this age. But you’re right that the biggest challenge of all is to stand up among friends and say, “This is not right,” and dare to leave the room. I hope to teach him that being a revolutionary can be as strong and as simple as that.

    Reply

    • Kim
      Mar 19, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

      Thank you Stacy…it helps me to hear from someone who is parenting an older child, and you’ve given me some great ideas! I really like what you said about relating to people as humans, and encouraging our sons to be revolutionaries. Great advice, and I’m honored that you commented here!

      Reply

  2. Mommyproof
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    Love this post -and I so agree. I’ve talked to a few friends – moms of girls – about how I find it strange that women having baby girls are often told, “Oh, she is going to be lucky to have a mom like you and you will teach this little girl so much” but people rarely say anything like that when you’re having a boy. Friends say, well, that’s b/c boys have all the advantages so our girls will have to fight harder to “have it all” and be happy and balanced and respected. But isn’t the flip side the fact that if boys/men don’t DO the respecting, it will never happen? I have a 1yo boy and feel everything you’re saying so heartbreakingly. thanks for writing this. xox

    Reply

    • Kim
      Mar 19, 2013 @ 10:46 pm

      You’re very welcome, and thank you for commenting here! I agree with you, people seem to set very low expectations for raising boys. It’s nice to know that there are other moms out there who feel the importance of our unique responsibility to our sons.

      Reply

  3. Cornelis van Dijk
    Mar 20, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    This is the way I was raised.

    Reply

  4. openeyedmom
    Mar 20, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

    Very thought provoking. I especially like the part reminding us all that being “brave” may mean learning to say NO to doing horrific things that peers or society may insist is “heroic”. I have a 9 1/2 year old son, and volunteer a lot at his school still, stay so involved and “there” for him. I think that is so important, our children learn compassion and kindness from example. A child (boy) in his classroom said to me recently “your son is so happy and kind, he is weird”. Of course, this was said by another young child, so I just laughed and said “you know, being kind and happy is just important for boys as it is for girls”. I don’t think though, that if I had a girl, I’d feel the need to be more protective in this violent world. If anything, maybe less since we as a society already put an extra layer of protection over girls which I think is wrong. Why worry over a girl being raped more than boys, that are molested and yes, sexually seduced by teen aged girls? Girls at age 13-16 are often times far more sexually interested than boys, as they sexually mature up to 6 years earlier. Also, even though no girl deserves entitlement to her life and limbs over any boy in USA’s horrific wars that society wrongly deems as “bravery” or “heroic acts”, why do we still have so many more boys than girls out there? Because we think its somehow a “boy” thing to do? We market violent toys as “boys toys”? All that matters is strong humanitarian & moral beliefs as well as awareness of world happenings and USA’s pivotal role in it all, and overall human compassion. All “kind” qualities any son who is a CO has over any girl/woman violent minded enough to believe in war as a “service to our nation”. This targeting of boys with violent roles and toys with military themes are also directly linked to increased violence, such as shootings in schools. Just as we’ve created a society giving free reign to athletes, we’ve created a society giving free reign to political and economic “power and control” and the corruption making profits off war, guns, violent video games, desensitizing our people to violence. Our society teaches boys violence, they are not inherently more violent. Tell a girl she is ugly, she believes it. Marketing is a powerful tool. If indeed the girl with a history of lying and drunkedness in Steubenville was raped as alleged by an unconfirmed anonymous video of boys as young as she was, then its horrific. Where were the boys parents as much as the girls? They all need “protection”. They are all the same age. Yes, I like your part about being “brave”. Brave enough to say no to peer pressure or societal “norms” of “heroic” wars, trying drugs, being a “tough guy”, thinking its cool to take advantage of girls that have reputation for being drunk and lying, or parents that are so borderline paranoid or over-protective of their “perfect” daughters they would assume if she has sex, the boy must have been the aggressor. I am not assuming these boys are innocent,and my comment is general, not about his case. But there is a shadow of doubt here. Let’s not protect girls more than boys, it only weakens both genders in the end.

    Reply

  5. Jo Allen
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    I agree with all of this wholeheartedly! I have a three year old son and whenever I’m asked what do you want your son to grow up to be, mine, along with my husbands response always is “we don’t care, as long as he’s a good, kind person. Often we get looks like we are crazy. I want my son to be respectful to all. In this day and age I feel morals are lost. Boys are expected to be tough and not cry and that is not how we want to raise our child. Our beautiful child.

    Reply

  6. Laura
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 7:56 am

    I am the grandmother of 3 boys and 1 girl – Hooray for you! We need more mothers like you to take responsibility for teaching our boys (and girls) to be kind and respect each other. It is our boys and girls who, in the end, will have to pay the ultimate price. For so many generations this has been overlooked and we need to start somewhere. I am so happy to hear a mother say what needs to be said.

    You are a special person and we need more like you!

    Reply

  7. Portia
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    This is one of the most beautiful things I have read in response to Steubenville. That incident has caused me to give a lot of thought to how I’d raise a little boy if I have one someday. I have thought about how once upon a time these rapists were someone’s sweet little boys who somewhere along the line absorbed some very wrong messages and adopted some very wrong attitudes. This is the loveliest thing I have read regarding how those sweet little boys could have been taught to be kind and caring men, and how to go about doing it.

    Reply

  8. Rev. Ralph England
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

    For the first very formative years of their lives the mother has more influence over their . Smale children than the fathers do So quit telling them that they are going to be a ladies man and quit telling them that they will have lots of girlfriends because they are handsome. It is good to tell them they look good and to let them know how you feel about them, and accentuate the positive things they do. but teach them also about respecting the opposite sexterach them that no means no, and to respect a girl who has the courage to say no in this day and time.

    Fathers treat your wives with respect, and don’t be afraid to tell her your sorry when your son is around. Hugs and small kisses also can be done in front of the kids. Fathers the older he gets the more he is going to imitate you. And for God’s sake when they are wrong tell them so and quit sweeping their mistakes under the rug, make it stick.

    When I was a boy my father would say boys will be boys, boys and girls are what we and others teach them. Lets stop using the catch phrases and teach them to love their fellow man
    not so much physically but mentally- spiritually as well.

    This From A father of Both sexes with four grand daughters and four great grand sons. I think I now have my next sermon.
    The Rev Ralph C england

    Reply

  9. InkBlotMom
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    Wow!!! Love this!! This is exactly how I feel, and I am so very proud of my 4 year old son when I get compliments of how very kind and helpful towards others he is. I am so glad that there are many of us whom are doing the best we can to instill these very important traits in our sons!!

    Reply

  10. Lyne Marie
    Mar 23, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    I have a 3-year-old daughter, and my challenge is to teach her to be kind AND strong, and self-sufficient: women should not need a man, but rather yearn for the company of one. I so hate the princess trends that we are living through now, that basically says that you are nothing unless the prince gets you – notice the passive tense…?
    I love your piece. As a sociology professor, I sometimes ask my students: Why, when there is a rapist roaming the streets do we ask the women to be careful and stay indoors? Should there not be instead a curfew on men walking the streets at night? Nice question, but futile in this patriarchal world!
    Thanks for your piece!

    Reply

  11. Lorie Kash
    Mar 25, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

    I completely agree with your article! I tell my 12 y/o son to be kind and loving. I remind my husband he is an example to our son. It important to display warm, tender and sweet moments. I tell women @ work to teach their daughter to trust themselves, listen to their gut, have complete open dialog, to discover and explore their bodies, to empower their mind, bodies and souls. Teach girls to be strong, to be kind to other girls, look after each other as if they are sisters and never let insecurities take over or overwhelm us – it only allows us to be preyed upon. I will keep this article and share it with everyone. Thank you putting into words so simply and honestly what needs to be practice raising our sons.

    Reply

  12. Stefanie
    Apr 02, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    Kim – This speaks to my heart, and if I were half the writer you are I would have thought I penned this myself. I have been thinking the same things for as long as I can remember – that what and how we teach young boys must change. Thanks for writing this, and I hope many many people share it.

    Reply

  13. Lesley Buse
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

    I had to visit your blog after reading your essay in Huffington Post. So well done! As a mother of three sons and a sister to five brothers, I was drawn to your message. Interesting for me on many levels. My brother’s last written message to his children before he died was “be kind” and it was the subject of the eulogy I wrote to celebrate him. His kids were waiting for this really deep message and at first felt a little disappointed his words were not more complicated. His message was written about in our local newspaper and now my niece has the script tattooed on the inside of her wrist. Thank you for the lovely reminder to teach kindness even when for many of us, there were times when a human interaction was not only devoid of kindness, but was when another human being inflicted terror we usual believe only a savage animal could create within us. I believe each of us, boys equally have the capacity for kindness, empathy and love. But they have to see, feel, hear and be accepted for those traits. Again, thank you. I think you are amazing!

    Reply

  14. Celina
    May 08, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

    I also had to look you up after reading this article in the Huffington Post via Community of Mindful Parents. WOW. A brave and thought provoking piece. As a mother of two boys I can certainly relate and you have reminded me of the huge responsibility we have. I have a third child on the way but not sure of the gender as yet, either way as you say it has it’s different challenges as a parent. Thanks for opening the minds of all us mothers out there, awareness and pro activity is surely better than sweeping this all under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t happen in our neighbourhood. Thanks for putting it out there!

    Reply

  15. Rob
    Apr 03, 2014 @ 8:54 am

    I have an 18 year old daughter and boys 16 & 14. It’s almost like we planned it. Anyway, since they were small I would ask them ‘which is the most important thing – for you to be happy, you to be rich, you to be good.’ The rest of their upbringing has been spent teaching what that means by example and by pushing them into and through experiences that will strengthen their character and provide the ability to be good and do good. One thing a lot of moms shy away from is teaching boys to fight. However, if you are going to make it their job to stand up to evil then you need to arm them with the right tools and that might mean knowing how to use your voice to intimidate, use your posture to create space and how to throw and take a punch. Consider Krav Maga which really focuses on using force to escape a bad situation – including an attack on others. Bad fighting is a lack of problem solving skills – good fighting is an important tool in having the confidence to show courage even when you are afraid.

    Reply

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