RAIS­ING BOYS:

Male roles are chang­ing, so is it time to change the way we par­ent our sons?

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Lisa Witep­ski

Our hus­bands, and their fa­thers, were raised by men who were con­fi­dent of their place in so­ci­ety. It was their job to have a job. Their wives could have one too, if they re­ally wanted, but it was up to Dad to bring home the ba­con. That gave him nat­u­ral author­ity: he was con­sid­ered the head of the house­hold, and he had a su­pe­rior po­si­tion in so­ci­ety.

But things aren’t as sim­ple for their sons. Men’s role as the sole pro­tec­tors and providers of the fam­ily has been chal­lenged: not only have women en­tered the work­place in fields pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered ‘not for them’, but they have also ex­celled there. Fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence has sparked in­de­pen­dence in other ar­eas too. Ac­cord­ing to a May re­port in the Huff­in­g­ton Post, women now file for di­vorce more of­ten than men do.

It’s not just mas­culin­ity that has been chal­lenged. As par­ent­ing ex­pert and au­thor Nikki Bush points out, the value of mas­culin­ity it­self is be­ing ques­tioned.

‘Move­ments like #Me­Too have left our boys feel­ing em­bar­rassed. They may not be the tar­gets of the cam­paign, but they’re guilty by as­so­ci­a­tion. And they’re an­gry about it,’ she says. Add to this the pres­sures fac­ing ado­les­cents in the cur­rent cli­mate, from on­line bul­ly­ing to the threat of crime, and you have a mi­lieu that is par­tic­u­larly tough for boys to nav­i­gate.

‘Our cul­ture used to cel­e­brate the ma­cho man, but the take-no­pris­on­ers guy who had the world at his feet a few years ago may feel like a mis­fit in an era where com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key,’ Nikki ob­serves. That makes boys feel pow­er­less and, in turn, low­ers their self-es­teem – which is the cat­a­lyst for many a chal­lenge.

DIS­CARD­ING THE PA­TRI­ARCHY

So what does this mean for us as par­ents?

‘Our boys must be pre­pared for a world that is more in­clu­sive and less pa­tri­ar­chal,’ says David du Toit, prin­ci­pal of St Stithi­ans Boys’ Col­lege in Sand­ton. ‘We need to en­sure that they do not have an at­ti­tude of en­ti­tle­ment, that they un­der­stand that our world is now more par­tic­i­pa­tive and, as a re­sult, more com­pet­i­tive.’

They’re more likely to suc­ceed in this new world if they let go of old stereo­types and adopt new be­hav­iours, David adds. Boys need to lis­ten more, to re­spect oth­ers, and learn to un­der­stand and em­brace (rather than ac­com­mo­date and tol­er­ate) the beauty of di­ver­sity. They also need to take time to em­pathise and to know that it’s okay to be vul­ner­a­ble.

BUILD­ING SELF-ES­TEEM

Joan Tin­dale, prin­ci­pal of Green­park Nurs­ery School in Parkhurst, says that if a boy is re­silient, he’ll be able to han­dle any ob­sta­cle that comes his way. De­vel­op­ing a pas­sion is a sure-fire way to build re­silience, be­cause we tend to be­come good at the things we love – and be­ing good at some­thing makes us feel good about our­selves.

Joan adds that shared ac­tiv­i­ties, es­pe­cially floor-time when they’re lit­tle, is an­other con­fi­dence booster, be­cause your child blos­soms when they feel they’re so im­por­tant that you’ve set aside time for them.

Nikki notes that while shared ac­tiv­i­ties are key to build­ing a bond, it’s vi­tal that they’re based on your child’s in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests. Rather than im­pos­ing your own hob­bies on them, find out what makes them tick, and nur­ture this. While you’re at it, try to iden­tify your child’s love lan­guage – what makes them feel most ap­pre­ci­ated: phys­i­cal touch, qual­ity time, gifts, acts of ser­vice or words of af­fir­ma­tion? And, says Nikki, if phys­i­cal touch isn’t a prime need for your son, it’s still a good way for you to con­nect with him.

‘Young boys love rough­hous­ing. It gives them an out­let in a safe en­vi­ron­ment. Plus, it helps them build the be­lief that they’re strong and ca­pa­ble.’

‘The take-no­pris­on­ers guy who had the world at his feet a few years ago may feel like a mis­fit in an era where com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key.’

THE QUES­TION OF CON­SENT

While the Har­vey We­in­steins of the world have cast a shadow over

so­ci­ety’s per­cep­tion of mas­culin­ity, the fact is teens to­day are get­ting mixed mes­sages about what part­ners want from them. Nikki ob­serves that women’s roles in re­la­tion­ships have changed: where once many were con­tent to be pur­sued, they’re in­creas­ingly be­com­ing the pur­suers. Or they might en­joy ro­man­tic at­ten­tion but with­out com­mit­ting too much of them­selves.

At the same time, says Cape Town psy­chol­o­gist An­drew Ver­ri­jdt, so­ci­ety is send­ing teens mixed mes­sages.

‘Boys go from watch­ing the hero steam­rolling over ev­ery ob­jec­tion in an ef­fort to get the girl to a life ori­en­ta­tion class where they’re told that men and women are equal. Adding to this is the pernicious na­ture of pornog­ra­phy, most of which has a sex­ist, if not misog­y­nis­tic, slant.’

The re­sult: a gen­er­a­tion of con­fused boys who feel they aren’t al­lowed to do any­thing they are sup­posed to do (ac­cord­ing to so­ci­ety) to be manly. For these teenagers, the stereo­type of a ma­cho man – who can do any­thing he wants – holds ob­vi­ous ap­peal.

This is why it’s cru­cial to teach kids about con­sent from an early age, An­drew stresses. That, he says, should start with ac­cept­ing that if they don’t want to kiss Granny or hug the un­cle they never re­ally warmed to, they don’t have to.

‘And strive to nor­malise girl-boy re­la­tion­ships,’ he adds

– so no jokes about ar­rang­ing mar­riages for kids of dif­fer­ent gen­ders who hap­pen to share a spe­cial bond. Teach them, too, that re­jec­tion is not only nor­mal – it’s okay.

‘One of the rea­sons men and boys phys­i­cally or sex­u­ally abuse women who re­ject them is be­cause

‘We need our boys to know that em­pa­thy, con­ver­sa­tion, open­ness and the abil­ity to move be­tween cul­tures are strengths.’

we haven’t taught them that it’s okay for some­one not to want you.’

Fi­nally, try to cul­ti­vate the kind of re­la­tion­ship where your child feels com­fort­able shar­ing ev­ery­thing with you, and strive to lis­ten with­out show­ing judg­ment.

HE SAID, SHE SAID

Your re­la­tion­ship with your son is one thing; your re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther is an­other – but both are equally im­por­tant. Joan says that one of the big­gest par­ent­ing mis­takes is made even be­fore cou­ples get mar­ried: they fail to dis­cuss their own par­ents’ style, how this im­pacted them and which as­pects they wish to adopt or dis­card.

‘It’s vi­tal that you jointly de­cide what you’d like to achieve for your chil­dren, and iden­tify a path to help you get there,’ she says. This may help to re­duce con­flict and re­sent­ment in the home – and that mat­ters, be­cause the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween you and your hus­band is the ex­am­ple upon which your son will model his re­la­tion­ships.

Xolisa Luthuli, prin­ci­pal of Fu­ture Na­tion Schools, Fleurhof, sug­gests that one of the best ways to raise a son who val­ues gen­der equal­ity is to let him see that as par­ents you’re jointly re­spon­si­ble for fam­ily and house­hold du­ties.

Equal par­ent­ing is cru­cial for other rea­sons, too. Ac­cord­ing to Nikki, all chil­dren – not just boys – have a strong need for val­i­da­tion from their fa­thers. With­out it, they ex­pe­ri­ence a ‘hole in the soul’, a void that they may try to fill through reck­less be­hav­iour, whether that takes the form of ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs or risky busi­ness de­ci­sions later in life.

It also takes a uni­fied team to cre­ate the kind of en­vi­ron­ment where David’s con­cept of a ‘health­ier ver­sion of mas­culin­ity’ can thrive.

‘We need to em­pha­sise that be­ing a male is to be cel­e­brated, es­pe­cially in the face of neg­a­tive mes­sag­ing about mas­culin­ity. We need our boys to un­der­stand that be­ing male is not a bad thing.’

But how do we make them realise that be­ing fe­male is also some­thing worth cel­e­brat­ing? The key is to have con­ver­sa­tions about what it means to be a man or a woman, says psy­chol­o­gist Cindy Aren­stein.

‘Ask your son if he be­lieves that cer­tain jobs are for men or women only. Ask him what he thinks it means to be a man. When you see an ad that’s of­fen­sive to ei­ther gen­der or that en­forces stereo­types, ask him what makes it of­fen­sive and how it could be im­proved.’

Xolisa sug­gests that nur­tur­ing an in­clu­sive mind­set starts with be­ing in­clu­sive. En­cour­age your son to mix with peo­ple of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and re­li­gious and cul­tural back­grounds; show him that di­ver­sity is what makes life beau­ti­ful. David agrees.

‘We need our boys to know that em­pa­thy, con­ver­sa­tion, open­ness and the abil­ity to move be­tween cul­tures are strengths,’ he says. Teach­ing our chil­dren to re­spect them­selves and to re­spect oth­ers has al­ways been a par­ent­ing goal, but per­haps now even more than ever be­fore.’

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