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