I recently saw a newspaper headline that asked, “How should dads talk to sons at this #MeToo time?” Three things about this headline struck me.
First 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 do not need #MeToo to tell them assault is wrong.
Second, the headline only mentions dads and sons. Is the message that moms have nothing to offer, or that raising girls in the #MeToo context is irrelevant? Just teach them to cook and everything will be fine?
Third, 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 dads need to provide their sons with knowledge to protect themselves against accusations from girls, but #MeToo makes this teaching difficult.
Psychology has a lot to tell us about how to raise children. Consider Sandra Bem’s work in the ‘70s on teaching children to embrace a variety of emotions and characteristics. Bem said parents should certainly teach sons that they will find themselves in situations when they should be forceful, competitive, and dominant. “Man up, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”
But Bem also said parents must teach boys that sometimes sensitivity, caring, and empathy are appropriate. Teach boys that showing such traits does not destroy their masculinity. Don’t tell them that they must always show tough-guy masculinity, because then they will be unable to participate in a broad range of productive interactions with others.
Bem also argued that parents can teach girls to be nurturant, supportive, sensitive and understanding. But parents must also teach them that sometimes they need to be assertive, competitive, forceful, and decisive, or they will find themselves dominated by those around them. Plus, girls should be taught that firmly standing up for themselves in no way sacrifices their femininity.
#MeToo boils down to living together with mutual respect, and striving for empathy when conflict arises. Sure, girls should be taught to be caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, they should be aggressive and competitive. Likewise, boys should be taught to be dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, it’s OK to be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. Our kids should be taught that having a range of emotions and actions available does not make them less of a woman or less of a man.
One final thought: In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and seemingly endless accusations by women made against abusive men, some men complain that the whole atmosphere puts tremendous pressure on them. Men grumble about anxious concerns – “Am I doing something to offend? Will I be taken to court?” – that make their world a scary place where avenging women are out to get them. What nonsense!
There’s nothing new here, folks. During the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s, the same specious cries of alarm came from men. Hugh Hefner called the “libbers” man-haters. Wimpy men whined, “I’m scared. Do I call her Miss, Mrs., or Ms.? I’m walking on eggshells!” Others moaned, “Can I compliment her without being accused of harassment?” Guess what? These spineless comments notwithstanding, the vast majority of young men survived. They learned to respect women, got married, helped raise the kids, and even (gasp!) did the dishes now and then.