Do parents intend to raise sons who will grow up to be sexists or harm women? Of course not! Most parents hold their little baby boy in their arms and dream of all the good he might do for the world.
But we can’t rely only upon our own dreams to help our boys grow into good men. After all, everywhere they look in society will be examples of how not to be a good man. They’ll see violence committed by countless men in the media and hear their favorite comedians make jokes that harm women. They’ll probably be told by at least one influential grown-up to toughen up or “be a man.”
But there are ways parents can raise boys who will actively combat the toxic masculinity they will witness throughout their lives. Here are a few easy tips for how.
For young boys (ages 1-6) …
1. Encourage him to understand a full range of emotions.
Too often, men aren’t allowed to be sad, hurt, or fearful. This expectation is really bad for our boys, setting them up for higher rates of suicide and other mental health issues. So hug and snuggle your son, and let him cry when he needs to.
2. Buy him dolls.
Sit down with your son and dress, cradle, and feed the dolls together. This is especially important for dads. It’s okay if dolls aren’t your son’s first toy of choice — their presence and your enthusiasm teach him that you believe nurturing is a natural and healthy part of being a boy.
3. Play house with him.
And let him play all sorts of roles. Ask him if he’d like to be the mommy, and you’ll be the child. Let him decide what happens in the action, and never make him feel bad for wanting to play the sister, grandmother, or any other traditionally female role.
4. Let him wear all the colors.
Debunk the myth that there is such a thing as a “boy color.” All colors are for boys and girls, and if you explain it simply, he’ll see how silly the traditional rules are.
5. As a dad, model healthy behavior toward women and girls.
Dads (and stepdads, older brothers, uncles, and grandpas!), keep your negative comments about women’s bodies or appearances to yourself, and obviously never disrespect or cause harm to a woman.
6. Arrange playdates with girls.
Make playing with girls a normal part of your son’s life. After all, he will be in a future workforce full of women and will probably have a woman for a boss, too. He needs to know that girls are his equals and not just romantic partners.
7. Teach bodily autonomy.
Start early by teaching him that his body belongs to HIM and that people need his permission in order to touch him. Let him know he never has to hug anybody he doesn’t want to and that he should not be touching anyone who hasn’t given him permission.
8. Show him diverse images of families.
Seek out books and media that shows all sorts of families, from same-sex parents to adoptive families to single-parent homes. Emphasize love as the central connecting factor that makes a family.
For grade-school boys (ages 6-11) …
Along with continuing the lessons above …
9. Teach him to deconstruct the media.
When he notices a sexy image of a woman or a beefed up photo of a man, ask him to talk about why the magazine or movie chose to have the model wear those clothes. Explain how photoshop is used to make these people seem “perfect” in a way that normal people simply cannot be. Ask him to think about whether the values being displayed match your family’s.
10. Point out healthy relationship dynamics.
Praise your son when he’s kind or thoughtful, and point out examples in the media of people displaying the kinds of friendships and romantic relationships you want him to strive for.
11. Let him express gender however he’d like.
It’s okay for boys to like nail polish or wear a tutu. Explain to him that other people might not understand his choices, but that you’ll always stand by him and his choices, and offer unconditional love.
12. Start teaching consent and healthy sexuality.
Talk regularly in an age-appropriate manner about consent, and teach your child the basics of healthy sexuality early on. Remember, if they don’t learn about sex from you, they’ll seek the information elsewhere.
13. Ask your son to be aware of his surroundings.
Explain to your son that everyone has a right to a good experience when they’re in public spaces. For instance, when he’s being loud in a restaurant, ask him to think about whether everyone else wants to hear kids yelling during dinner.
14. Encourage him to read books featuring strong women and girl protagonists.
From The Hunger Games to Mare’s War, there are thousands of age-appropriate books your son will probably love that will encourage him to see the world through a girl’s eyes, and exemplify strength and courage.
Adolescent and teen boys (ages 11-22) …
Continue with the age-appropriate lessons from their younger years, but try these tips, too …
15. Bust the myth that boys and girls are vastly different.
Sure, there may be common differences between guys and girls, but in general, people are the same. Explain that girls aren’t mysterious and that most misunderstandings between men and women happen as a result of poor communication, not because we’re from different planets.
16. Deconstruct porn.
Porn is a part of our kids’ lives, whether we like it or not. Along with setting boundaries for your son, ask him to think about whether he thinks the images are realistic and to examine whether they’re healthy for him, sexually, to consume. Ask him to consider how porn may harm women and girls, in some cases. For more on talking to your teens about porn, read this guide.
17. Set boundaries regarding sexts or inappropriate images.
Your child will also, eventually, come across a sext or an inappropriate image from one of his peers. Be very clear about what you expect your son to do when he receives one of these, and also teach him how to respectfully send sext messages to consenting partners when the time comes. For more on teens and sexting, check out my guide.
18. Explain clearly what you expect from his relationships.
Let your teen know that you expect all of his romantic and sexual interactions to be consensual. Teach him that asking for consent can be sexy and that nobody should ever be talked into or coerced into anything.