Raising Kids in a #MeToo World


I recently saw a newspaper headline that asked, “How should dads talk to sons at this #MeToo time?” Two things about this headline caught my eye.

First of all was the reference to the #MeToo movement. Are you telling me that prior to this movement, parents were not concerned about teaching their sons it’s wrong to assault girls? That’s ridiculous. Responsible parents did not need #MeToo to tell them assault is wrong.

Second, the headline only mentions dads and sons. I guess the message here is that moms have nothing to offer, and that raising girls in the #MeToo context is irrelevant. Just teach them to cook and everything will be fine.

The headline is typical of subtle, implicit sexist messages that denigrate women and assign them second-class status compared to men. The subliminal message is that only dads can provide their sons with the special attention needed to protect themselves against accusations from girls.

As usual, psychology has a lot to tell us about how to raise children. With respect to #MeToo, we can go back to the 1970s and Sandra Bem’s work on teaching children to embrace a variety of emotions and characteristics.

For instance, Bem says we should certainly teach our sons that they will find themselves in situations when they should be forceful, tough-minded, competitive, assertive, and dominant. “You need to be tough, kid! Man up! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”

BUT, we must also teach boys that they will often find themselves in situations when sensitivity, caring, sympathy, emotionality, and empathy are more appropriate expressions. If we do not teach them that it’s OK to show those traits and emotions, and that doing so does not destroy their masculinity, then they will be lost when in such situations; their coping skills will be severely limited because they will be bound by chains of traditional tough-guy masculinity, and unable to participate in a broader range of productive interactions with others.

By the same token, Bem argues we certainly must teach our girls how to be nurturant, supportive, and understanding. BUT, if we don’t teach them that in some situations they need to be assertive, competitive, forceful, and decisive, they will be dominated by those around them and find themselves ineffective and frustrated. Most importantly, we must teach them that standing up for themselves in no way sacrifices their femininity. In fact, failing to do so will sacrifice their self-esteem and their ability to interact respectfully and effectively with others.

I find the question, “How do dads raise sons in the #MeToo atmosphere?” insulting to women on many levels, and therein lies the problem that spawned the movement. We’re not talking rocket science here, folks. We’re talking about living together with mutual respect and striving for empathy when conflict arises. Girls should be taught to be caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, to be aggressive and competitive. Boys should be taught to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, to be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. And here is the key: Both can show this flexibility without compromising their respective identities and self-esteem as being feminine or masculine.

One final thought: In the wake of the #MeToo movement and seemingly endless accusations by women made against abusive men, some are saying the whole atmosphere puts tremendous pressure on men (“Am I doing something to offend? Will I be taken to court?”), and makes their world a scary place where avenging women are out to get them. These analyses are pure nonsense, kind of like saying the world is a dangerous place because there are cops all around ready to pounce if you break the law. In truth, the only ones worried about the cops are those seeking to break the law; law-abiding citizens do not walk around worried if cops are watching them.

There’s nothing new here, folks. During the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s, the same cries of alarm came from men. Hugh Hefner called the “libbers” man-haters. Men whined they were scared and complained about stuff like, “Do I call her Miss, Mrs, or Ms? I’m walking on eggshells. Can I compliment her without being accused of harassment?” Guess what? Young men survived, learned to respect women, got married, helped raise the kids, and even (gasp!) did the dishes now and then. Don’t buy into the scary-world warning, unless you’re up to no good.

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