Mothers are the first defense against toxic masculinity

How moms can teach young boys about healthy boundaries and respect for women

With his tightly-sprung energy, frenetic percussion, and proclivity for chirping, buzzing, and clicking, my 10-year-old son drives me bananas. And yet, the love I have for my firstborn is impossible to measure. When he was an infant, our relationship was nothing but yeses; yes to every bit of sustenance and care he needed from me, with me, of me. With that kind of precedent, saying no — or even identifying the proper boundaries as he grows — well, it's a challenge. I think many mothers can relate.

We've just secured tickets to our first mother-son dance and suddenly the arcane Oedipal-ness of it all begs acknowledging. The mother-son bond is the first opposite-sex relationship for a boy, the first testing ground of what is okay, such as mutual appreciation, courtesy, and love — and what isn't. As I imagine dancing, perhaps a bit awkwardly, out on the floor with my son, I can't help but grieve the end of a simpler stage and glance over my shoulder at the infant — 10 short (and long!) years ago — who nursed all night and cried when he needed me. Now, he needs me less and less. And as he progresses inexorably toward adolescence, then dating, then adulthood, my husband and I must teach him how to have healthy relationships with girls and women.

It only takes a quick glance to see that we're still living in a time when some men — particularly cis, straight, white men — feel entitled to take from women by harassment, abuse, or assault, or by the eschewal of all emotional labor. And while I can't picture my son — who is still profoundly innocent and whose closest friends have long been girls — growing into the kind of man who takes from women, I know that deliberate guidance is more powerful than my hopes or imaginings. In our house, therefore, teaching respect for women is both a personal and political act. Small steps to make the world a better place.

Truth is, the cultural fallout of the patriarchy isn't just oppressive for women and girls; it's unhealthy for men and boys, too. As documented in Peggy Orenstein's new book, Boys and Sex, American boys are breathing an atmosphere of toxic masculinity many of them find nearly impossible to escape. Adolescent boys, says Orenstein, feel cut off from their emotions and struggle with mental health and relationships as a result.

For me and many other moms, the questions here revolve around teaching healthy boundaries and instilling the kind of respect for women we want our sons to have, and to do so with utmost love. We want our sons, and our daughters, too, of course, to enjoy the full range of human experience. And while fathers absolutely have a role here, I wanted to know what I can do in my daily interactions with my son. So I asked a number of parent coaches and therapists about walking the line between love and good boundaries.

Instill that no means no, stop means stop"Find small and practical ways to teach that 'no' and 'stop' are words that require a boy's immediate response," parenting coach Shelley Jefsen told me. As an example, tickling should stop the moment the ticklee says so — even if that person is laughing or otherwise seeming to enjoy themselves. In Jefsen's house, siblings must also stop asking one another for play or story time if their request is refused — closing the door on the kind of begging, whining, cajoling, or demanding behavior many families know well. And "no," coming from a parent, requires the same prompt behavior adjustment. In other words, the parameters of how to interact are clear between siblings, and between parents and children.

Be consistent with boundaries, as well. Raffi Bilek, a licensed clinical social worker with the Baltimore Therapy Center, says that teaching sons about respect by scolding or lecturing is far less effective than firmness, consistency, and follow through. "Parents," he said, "are the best teachers — but only when they don't act like teachers."

Make knocking mandatoryAlong the lines of teaching "no," and "stop," Jefsen suggests training even young children to respect privacy. When parenting little ones, it's so easy for the would-be natural boundaries of household fixtures such as doors to fade entirely; I've heard more moms than I can count complain that they no longer remember what it's like to use the bathroom or dress alone, and I've been there, too. But it's important to teach kids to knock and wait for permission before proceeding. Such a simple thing, really, but one that makes a certain kind of sense if you see home and family as the training ground of respect in future relationships.

Teach self-acceptance and self-kindnessWe can rely on little else in life besides two things: the constancy of change, and our own numerous imperfections. Those physical flaws, those missed golden opportunities, those tasks that utterly flummox us — those are human things we don't have to hide from our kids. And yet, attitude matters and word choice is crucial. I hope to show my son that, though I struggle from time to time, I'm content as a perfectly imperfect person. And I wish for him to one day find a partner who shows the same kindnesses towards themselves.

Tackle challenges Daring to do something just out of your reach is an incredible opportunity to feel strong and capable and to model for sons that women can do the hard stuff. "I love that my boy has seen me build a barn, train animals, run an online business, keep the house clean, cook dinner, bake an amazing chocolate cake, and always greet him with a big smile and tight hug in the morning," Jefsen said.

Model healthy adult relationships According to Karyne B. Wilner, a psychologist practicing in Newtown, Connecticut, adult relationships provide a kind of blueprint because the treatment a boy sees his mother accept from her partner — male or female — will inform his future relationships. Indeed, research shows that boys who grow up witnessing abuse are as much as 10 times more likely to engage in abusive behavior themselves. More than "mini-lectures or discussions on how to treat women," says Wilner, it's the way mothers set healthy boundaries with men in their lives that does the talking.

Nurture your bondShow interest in his interests, even — or especially — when they're not yours. Tell him you love him. Listen to his stories. Learn about his favorite band. Talk about his shows and friends and movies. Go out on mother-son dates. As boys move toward adolescence, a loving mother-son relationship teaches them to recognize and validate feelings, and to understand the give and take of a good conversation. Love and acceptance form the bedrock of a compassionate self-image — which, as we all know, helps us treat one another better, too.

By reflecting and talking to experts, I learned that, while there is a gendered component to all of this, teaching boys respect for girls and women is, truly, teaching humans respect for other humans. I'm reminded of the quote by scholar Cheris Kramarae that has graced many a t-shirt and coffee mug: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings." Indeed. We are all human beings, inherently deserving of the good things in life: love, respect, and healthy boundaries.

Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.


6 stunning houses of glass

6 stunning houses of glass

Most Popular

Tom Brady's 'gentle' roast of Trump at Biden's White House: 'Deeply vicious'?
Tom Brady, Joe Biden

Tom Brady's 'gentle' roast of Trump at Biden's White House: 'Deeply vicious'?

How sociology shows 'policy makers have been looking at vaccine refusal all wrong'
COVID-19 vaccination.
the coronavirus crisis

How sociology shows 'policy makers have been looking at vaccine refusal all wrong'

Arkansas governor admits he regrets law banning mask mandates
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
hindsight is 20/20

Arkansas governor admits he regrets law banning mask mandates