Raising Sons as Allies

Raising Sons as Allies

By Paul Kivel

While Race and Gender Wars Rage, What Can Parents Do On The Home Front?

FROM A VERY EARLY AGE BOYS ARE TOLD AND TRAINED TO “act like a man.” To illustrate what that feels like, the Oakland Men’s Project devised the “Act Like a Man” box on the opposite page. We know it’s a box because every time a boy tries to step out of it, he’s pushed back in.

There are many variations on this training, but the commonality across cultures in the United States is striking. Boys have various strategies for trying to survive in the box, or sneak out of it at times, but the scars from living within its walls are long-lasting and painful.

As parents we’ve been taught to pass on to our sons the importance of being in the box. Even though we may fervently wish they could escape it, we may reinforce their training in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

A major factor that keeps many of us from supporting our sons’ stepping out of the box is homophobia. We fear that our sons might become gay, or might appear to others to be gay if they don’t look, talk, and act straight. Underneath this fear is the assumption that all our sons are indeed heterosexual.

Some of our sons are homosexual or bisexual. Many more are confused about their sexual feelings for other people and may not become clear until later in life. For still others, their sexual orientation may change over time.

Buying into the “Act Like a Man” box in any form, and the homophobia that keeps it in place, makes all boys unsafe and leads to violence. All boys are limited by its strictures. Any boy, at any time, can be put down and forced to fight to prove he’s straight and in the box. Any leadership, any creativity, any imaginative acts can be immediately challenged and defeated by homophobic comments.

It is better that a young man be rebellious against his parent’s authority than floundering or in trouble for lack of guidance.

It is better that a young man be rebellious against his parent’s authority than floundering or in trouble for lack of guidance.

The women’s movement has produced much excellent collective thinking about the raising of daughters, and a whole generation of girls has grown up the beneficiary of their mothers’ actions and experiences. But with a few exceptions-notably Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the 80’s-the same collective conversation has not occurred about the raising of sons. Given our concern about the violence they are vulnerable to, and our concern about the controlling and abusive male roles they may grow up to inhabit, how do we bring our progressive feminist values to this challenge? How can all those of us who are raising boys-including stepparents, partners, family friends, and grandparents-guide them to manhood with their strength, creativity, caring, and lives intact?

In hopes that another generation does not grow to adulthood before that much-needed crosstalk takes place, here are some ideas about seven problematic issues that face everyone raising sons.


If a boy is white…
Demonstrating racial solidarity with other young males is often part of the condition for being accepted by them as a man. This can mean, for a white boy, demonstrating he has the balls to put down and abuse people of color. White hate groups are only an extreme example of this dynamic; many white young men affirm their manhood through white racist solidarity in less dramatic ways.

Children begin to notice racial difference-and the societal difference it makes-between the ages of 2 and 5. Throughout childhood they are bombarded with stereotypes, misinformation, and lies about race, and, if they are white, pressure to become racist in their attitudes and behavior.

It is crucial that we make teaching tolerance and the celebration of difference a priority when children are young. As they grow older we also need to give them a social and historical awareness of institutionalized racism and racial injustice. We need to assess the values they are learning in our home and family environment, and-as I explain in Uprooting Racism-we need to teach our children, by example, how to become anti-racist activists. This is particularly important for white boys, because it is they who are being trained to be the racist shock troops of the next generation.

Some relevant questions to ask are “Does a boy live in a multiracial environment at school and in the neighborhood? Does his family have friends of different ethnicities? (If not, why not?) What information and messages do the books, music, videos, pictures, and other images in the home convey about race?”

If a boy is Native American, Asian American, Arab American, Latino, African American…
One of the most devastating impacts of racism on young men of color is the internalization of racism into patterns of competition and violence toward other young men of color; self-destructive violence such as suicide, drug use, and high-risk activity; and violence toward young women of color. To counter this pattern we need to help our sons develop pride in their cultural and racial identity and to become grounded in their cultural history. In addition, we need to help them understand the dynamics of racism, and the prejudice and discrimination they are vulnerable to, so they do not blame themselves or others in their racial group for perceived failure. If they feel themselves part of a larger struggle to combat racism, they will see other youth of color as allies in that struggle rather than as competitors.


If a young man is sleeping with, or about to sleep with, someone…
The prevalence of sexual violence and harassment, and the high incidence of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, makes us all wary of young people’s having sex. However, they do have sex, at earlier ages than when we were young, and we need to remember that there can be much joy, loving, intimacy, and fun in sexual connection with another. If a foundation has been laid in the family for respecting the bodies, feelings, and privacy of others, a young man will most likely carry that over into his sexual relationships.

Even before a son is about to have sex, a parent should buy some condoms and give them to him. One should not assume a son is having sex with someone-nor should one wait until being sure he has before talking with him.

I don’t recommend Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which she says she has used with her daughter. Nevertheless, an adult planning to ask a son about his activities should have in mind a clear reason to do so-to offer him support, for instance, or to make one last attempt to urge him to practice safe sex.

Assuming the boy has been talked with years before about safe sex and he is moderately well-informed, a relaxed time can be picked, when parent and son are hanging out together, and he can be asked directly: “I see you and are spending a lot of time together. Are you having sex, or are you thinking of having sex?”

If he expresses embarrassment that the subject was brought up, that’s OK; next time he’ll be less embarrassed and perhaps more able to talk about it.

If he seems angry or feels defensive and says it’s not the parent’s business, one can say something simple about caring about him and about his relationships and leave it at that.

If he answers directly and describes what’s going on with him, one should listen and support him without offering advice unless he asks it.

Even if he says nothing at all, we can offer him some condoms, say something about the joy of sex between two consenting people, and let him know that anytime he has any questions, we will be there for him and ready to talk.


If boys make homophobic remarks around the house…
Boys bring home homophobic remarks in two (or sometimes three) phases.

The first phase is between the ages of 6 and 9 when they come home saying words like “fag” and “queer.” They often don’t know what the words mean, only that the words hurt. Talking about the use of those words, what it means to be lesbian, gay, and bisexual, and why the words are hurtful usually ends the behavior, especially if there is a general practice of respect toward others within the family.

If one is not lesbian, gay, or bisexual oneself-and if one doesn’t have close family members or friends who are (why not?)-this is the time to introduce the boy to some books (such as Heather Has Two Mommies, Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, Daddy’s Roommate, A Day With Alexis) and to talk more about the variety of ways adults love each other and create families based on their love. A parent who has any hesitation or questions about doing this might talk with other adults first to get clear about what to say.

Another phase generally comes when boys are in junior high school and know somewhat more about homosexuality. They have picked up negative value judgments from other adults, peers, and the media. They may also be experiencing their own sexual confusion, wanting to make sure they pass as straight. The pressure on teenage young men to be heterosexual, tough, in control, and unfeeling is so great that many wear a protective coat of homophobia to cover their insecurity.

Ongoing discussion, information, videos, and books help defuse some of this kind of homophobia but are no substitute for a parent’s personally knowing and respecting a diversity of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Discussions within a family about politics, justice, equality, and multiculturalism should not leave out issues of homophobia. If a boy has a social-justice foundation that includes issues of sexual orientation, this phase will pass quickly.

Another phase occurs for some young men when they become so heavily involved in anti-gay subcultures-such as sports, religious groups, gangs-that all one can do is come to an uneasy truce about what is acceptable language and behavior in the house. This phase is not necessarily permanent but can be very painful because the main source of these boys’ identity, plus the external adult support they receive for it, is based in part on a deeply rooted and constantly justified homophobia. It helps to be clear with a son about our values and expectations of his behavior within our presence, but we shouldn’t expect to have a major impact on his attitudes during this phase.


If a boy is involved in a highly competitive sport…
As parents we may want our sons to participate in organized athletics to develop skills, teamwork, and self-confidence. At the same time we may have qualms about the competitive, anti-female, anti-gay, and semi-violent atmosphere that is still all too prevalent in the boys’ locker room and on the playing field.

The challenge is to help our sons think critically about the messages and training they are receiving. It helps to point out and discuss specific incidents we notice, whether it’s on the Little League team or in the NBA. Our sons are often very insightful in seeing and understanding the values they are exposed to when asked to reflect on them. The sorts of questions we ask can include “What did you think when the coach said, ‘Anyone who loses is a wimp’? How do you feel when someone is carried off the football field in a stretcher? Why do you think girls’ sports are not covered or supported as much as boys’ sports are? How important do you think it is to win? What would help you learn more and develop your skills in playing on this team? What would make it more fun? Have you been noticing that many athletes have been involved in sexual-assault and domestic-violence cases recently? Why do you think that is? How healthy do you think it is to play when you’re injured as an athlete?”


When a boy gets to be as big and strong as his parent…
It can be intimidating to think about disciplining a son. Limit-setting may trigger his rebelliousness and his need to assert independence. We may think he doesn’t listen to us or need our approval.

It is easy to get into a battle of wills-or arguments that degenerate into name-calling, sarcasm, putdowns, and the temptation to hit. But we know that such responses don’t work; they just breed defiance, fear, anger, and the belief that force solves problems. There are other forms of leverage we have as adults, even over our teens. They want our attention, trust, and approval. We control the money and access to family resources that young people depend on.

We should not manipulate their needs, but we should not shy away from exerting our authority when their behavior is inappropriate, agreements have been broken, or family relationships have been violated.

Regardless of young men’s age or size or their contesting of parental authority, they need limits set and appropriate discipline (from mothers and fathers) when they break the rules. It is particularly important that we respond firmly, without a personal need to blame our sons for being male and without any vested interest in breaking their wills or subduing their rebelliousness.

We need to involve our sons in family decision-making, expect them to take responsibility for their actions, and use our parental authority when we say, “I have decided to [demand that your homework be done before you can leave the house, work out an agreement about grades, lower your stay-out time, institute a mandatory check-in call every night you’re out at P.M., ground you].” It is better that a young man be rebellious against his parent’s authority than floundering or in trouble for lack of guidance.


If a boy is buying and/or using pornography…
In part because schools and parents have so failed to provide our youth with realistic and respectful information about human sexuality, pornography today has become the major form of sex education for young men. If a boy has not already been introduced to it by an older male relative or his peers, he will almost certainly discover it on his own.

The first thing a parent might do would be to talk with another adult to get clear about one’s feelings. One may be angry about pornography and about adult men who use it. Transferring this anger to one’s son will not help him think about what he’s doing. Talking to another adult can also help clarify whether this is a situation in which to say that one categorically does not want it in the house or, perhaps instead, to tell a son how one feels about pornography but to let him decide what to do with the magazines or videos he has access to.

In either case, it is important to find out what he feels about pornography. He may know little about the pornography industry, the exploitation of women in its production, or the effects of its consumption on women and men. It might be useful, if one has the stomach for it, to look through some with him and talk about it together.

A third option would be for all family members to have a discussion about the issue and come to a family decision about the presence of pornography in the house. This process might raise other questions: What if the women and girls in the household don’t want it around but the men and boys think it’s a question of free speech and there’s really no harm in it? What weight should the women’s voices be given in this process? What responsibility do the men have to find out more about the effects of pornography and respond to the issues of respect and safety that the presence of pornography raises? What if there is disagreement among adults in the household as to whether it’s a big deal? These questions are important to work through. Although one’s first impulse might be to say, “Throw the stuff out and never bring it in here again!” that response only conveys to the son that the adults have authority to make house rules. He will continue to use pornography, try to hide it better, and probably be thinking, “Just wait till I have a place of my own.”

It is easy for young men to hear anti-pornography statements as anti-masturbation because boys often masturbate to pornographic images. I agree with Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders, the surgeon general dismissed by President Clinton, that masturbation should be included in our nation’s sex-education curricula. We need to reassure our sons that masturbation in and of itself is a perfectly normal part of human sexuality. We also need to help them think critically about the images they are being sold and how those images are produced so that our sons do not become part of the consumer audience of the pornography industry.


If a parent wants a son to participate in an initiation ritual…
Many religious, ethnic, tribal, fraternal, and spiritual traditions and organizations conduct ceremonial initiations to mark a boy’s transition to manhood. Some people are trying to revive or create new such rituals. To the extent that these observances help prepare him for participation in the adult community, they can be useful. However, almost always, they perpetuate gender inequality and traditional gender roles unless they are carefully rethought and reconstructed. Relying on male archetypes or male-only leadership-or using language that stresses male roles or masculine identity rather than human archetypes and roles-promotes the patriarchal values we desperately need to move beyond. The best way to ensure that rites of passage or other ceremonies are progressive is to have feminist women involved in designing and implementing them.

PAUL KIVEL, a cofounder of the Oakland Men’s Project and father of two boys and a girl, is author of Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart (Ballantine) and Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (New Society Press). Also coauthor of Helping Teens Stop Violence (Hunter House), he has developed and conducted hundreds of workshops for teens and adults about racism, sexual assault, and alternatives to violence. He welcomes correspondence at [email protected].