I guess I always assumed that if I had kids, I’d have girls.
For a little while now, I’ve been taking mental notes for them like, “Maybe don’t date guys who teasingly call you a ‘slut.'” Little gems that I’d gleaned through experience, to pass on so they’d avoid so many of the pitfalls I’d encountered. And who knows, maybe eventually I will have a daughter and she’ll suffer through my passionate, anecdote-fueled diatribes.
But, right here and now, I have a son. While that difference alone makes some of my stored up words of wisdom useless (I’ll save that tip about bra shopping), some of it just takes a different, before-unconsidered twist. I still have to worry about instilling correct perceptions of beauty and sex and women, but from an altogether different perspective than originally planned.
It’s not just about my own journey, littered as it is with sexist experiences. When reading about things like Steubenville and Maryville (and all of the other villes that undoubtedly occur unpublicized), I find myself shouting along with everyone else, “Stop telling our girls how to avoid rape and start telling our boys how to avoid raping!” And then I realize, oh right, me. I have to do that.
Being in that position now, I realize just how simultaneously simple and complex it is to raise a man with respect for women. I mean, he needs to value people as individuals with differences. To respect other human beings, full stop. That part is simple and straightforward, whether we’re talking about gender or race or religion or orientation. Don’t Be a Dick is the shorthand title of my parenting philosophy book, if I ever write it.
But I’m not naive enough to hope to parent within a vacuum. No matter how clearly articulated my Don’t Be a Dick philosophy, I recognize it’s coming up against a whole host of socially accepted messages about sex as end goal, masculinity defined by violence, and woman being no more than the sum of her parts. My presentation has to be a bit more nuanced and focused if it’s going to come out ahead of all that noise.
Basically, I want him to know that stereotypes and assumptions dehumanize people, and that remembering that everyone else is human, and as a result valuable, is primary. A piece of that means, I want my son to know that there are all sorts of beautiful women, and not all of them look anything remotely like the cover of a magazine. But also that their beauty isn’t the only thing that matters, and women are valuable for far more than how they look. That sex is important, but not for any of the reasons people show in movies or TV. In fact, movies and TV get it wrong a lot. That people of all kinds are smart and capable, and differences, instead of making others less-than, evidence that others have things to offer that he does not. And that’s not just okay, but wonderful and sort of powerful. I want him to know that strength is manifested in different ways. That he’s not defined by his physical urges. That he’s no pig or wild beast that needs to be tamed. I want to teach him that blaming his actions on his body or on someone else is debasing, insulting to his own intellect and character. That sex isn’t some mysterious, murky thing that you figure out through subtle cues and hints, but instead is something to be handled with honesty and discussion and forthright requests.
So, alright, those are just lovely ideas when all written out. Maybe I’ll crochet a pillow. But how does one practically, in real life say to a three year old, “Hey, buddy, all humans are worthy of respect no matter their genitalia. Now finish up your applesauce, it’s time for a nap”? It doesn’t naturally arise in conversation. The other day, my husband compared it all to teaching the alphabet (at which my son excels, in case you were wondering, and I know you were). Right now, we start with just some building blocks. The A-B-C’s. The “be kind to everyone, no matter who they are” part. Eventually he’ll progress to spelling, and then building sentences, and then using those sentences to write meaningful thoughts all his own. How to apply and use the alphabet is the important part, but for now, just the A-B-C’s are enough. For now, just the, “everyone is valuable” is hopefully enough.
Meanwhile, I still try to do what I can. I make sure to point out beautiful women when I’m out (actually just something I do anyway, but now it seems sort of purposed, I guess). I reframe my comments about myself. No longer, “I’m so fat,” but instead, “I feel so fat.” I’m particularly lucky to have a husband who is, himself, Not a Dick and says things like, “Doesn’t mom look pretty today?” when I’m in sweats and un-mascara-ed. We both encourage our son to ask before hugging or touching someone and make it clear that he, too, cannot be forced to hug and touch, even with those well-meaning grandparents.
It seems such a big task. But if I can just break it into chunks—just focus on the A-B-C’s for right now, maybe I can handle it. Maybe it won’t be so hard to raise someone who treats people with respect and dignity, especially if I can hope that there are other parents out there trying to do the same.
Photo: Vivian Chen