As I wrote about in earlier posts looking at the #MeToo campaign and consent education, many social problems we face have roots in early childhood. Addressing them can be challenging for adults, since it means changing long-held and early-learned patterns and behaviors. But the good news is that we CAN change how we socialize children and create changes that will ripple forward.
Think about attitudes that we, as a society, teach boys about gender: on the playground, we teach them that they should be stoic and not show emotion:
"'But we were just having a good time!' my son wails. I am being unfair. I have stopped his fun. I point to his brother, blotchy with embarrassed tears. 'HE’S not having a good time,' I say. Another parent in the schoolyard chuckles. 'Just boys being boys,' she says airily. There is assent from the crowd. 'They’re just playing.' 'Things just got a little out of control.' 'Everyone’s fine—no harm done.'" But we can do better by our boys. Just as I teach my daughter about consent using Halloween candy, we can teach young boys about consent through helping them to navigate playground roughhousing in a way that feels safe and fun to them.
A recent Pew poll teases out some of these attitudes, as the New York Times article on it reports:
"The survey results also shed light on some root causes of sexual harassment and discrimination. Nearly half of men, and 57 percent of men ages 18 to 36, said they felt pressure to join in when other men talked about women in a sexual way. Sexism was described as widespread, and baked in from a young age. The belief that society placed a higher premium on masculinity than femininity was reflected in views of how to raise children: Respondents more often approved of teaching girls that it was acceptable to be like boys than the other way around."
The sociologist William Goode notes an odd paradox in that "oppressed groups are typically given narrow ranges of social roles, while dominant groups afford their members a far wider set of behavior patterns, each qualitatively different but each still accepted or esteemed in varying degrees" (25). In his assessment, boys have more options than girls. He argues that many men do not abide by the restrictions of gendered social norms, and many of them get away with flaunting these ideals. I see his point, but have to add some nuance: first, his work is from 1980, so it predates the 1980s backlash to feminism, which had its own influence on gendered social norms. Second, and more importantly, as gender equity gains have accrued over the past few decades, regressive attitudes have correspondingly strengthened.
Charles Blow offers this insight: "society itself has incubated and nourished a dangerous idea that almost unbridled male aggression is not only a component of male sexuality, it is the most prized part of it. We say to boys, be aggressive. We say to our girls, be cautious. Boys will be boys and girls will be victims." Maybe banishing that phrase -- "Boys will be boys" -- is the best first step we can take to changing a culture of toxic, aggressive masculinity that so severely restricts and defines what it means to be a man...
There are important implications in this conversation about socialization for how we raise our daughters as well: teaching girls to feel confident about their ability to express and hold to bodily boundaries means respecting their efforts in all settings. As the holidays approach and extended families gather, many children will hear, "Give Uncle So-and-So a hug" or "Let Grandma kiss you." I understand an impulse to help develop close relationships between your child and their relatives. But this is one of the first opportunities that children have to practice bodily autonomy. If we want girls to know that they control their own bodies, we have to let them practice this control.
I keep coming back to the Pew poll finding that "Respondents more often approved of teaching girls that it was acceptable to be like boys than the other way around." How sad! Sad for our daughters, that they're growing up in a world where "like a girl" is still an insult... and sad for our sons who are told they only have access to have the range of human emotions and actions if they want to retain our respect. Goode's work can help us understand this: he distinguishes between occupying the "center of the stage" (as men traditionally have) and being the "center of attention" (as women often are). There is a difference here in location between the active stage and the passive focus of attention; there is also a difference between "occupying" and "being" an identity. We see this impulse to attract attention in how some women behave in the public sphere. We see this fear of "being like a girl" playing out in the way that some male allies have responded to the #MeToo movement, as I will explore in my next post.
As we look ahead to 2018, I hope these reflections inspire us all to more carefully pay attention to the messages we send children.
About the Author
Exploring women's issues in search of a world that more equitable for everyone.
* frac·tal FRACTALS ARE USEFUL IN MODELING STRUCTURES (SUCH AS ERODED COASTLINES OR SNOWFLAKES) IN WHICH SIMILAR PATTERNS RECUR AT PROGRESSIVELY SMALLER SCALES (Google dictionary)