I have a son and a daughter. There are many lessons I want both of them to learn, lessons that apply to all people regardless of gender, like work hard, be kind, and don’t put up with anyone’s bullshit. But because we still have a long way to go to reach gender equality in this country, there are some lessons that are even more critical for my son to absorb than my daughter.
The thought of my son’s future spouse hanging with friends and bemoaning how clearly my son’s mother (me!) must have done everything for him because he’s useless and dependent, or of anyone holding up my son as an example of toxic masculinity makes me almost break out in hives. Over my dead body will my son go out into the world as some privileged, entitled man-baby incapable of giving a shit about anyone’s needs but his own.
So here are the 5 lessons that my son must learn before he leaves my care:
1. If you made the mess, you clean the mess.
This seems like it should be an inherently obvious rule of being a human, and yet, based on my own life experience and the results of many studies, it seems far too many men manage to stumble into adulthood thinking that somebody else will clean up after them.
Of course, I think my son should help with after dinner cleanup and should be scrubbing toilets and doing laundry just as much as his partner. It seems obvious that you should participate in cleaning the place where you reside. And yet, according to comment threads on social media, too many men don’t even do that much.
I want my son to do his part around the house and then some. I want him to also clean up his figurative messes — to offer a sincere apology when he hurts someone (apology is an action, not a word), to make amends, to learn from his mistakes and do better. Regardless of the type of mess he makes, I expect him to clean it up.
2. What people think of you matters (but it’s not everything).
I want my son to have confidence in himself and not care what other people say or think. I want him to stand by his principles and act without concern for peer pressure or social expectations.
But I also want him to be aware that, especially with the prevalence of social media today, a person’s reputation can very much proceed them. I want my son to behave in a way that leaves a positive impression on other people. I want him to leave the energy of the room better than how he found it. I never want him to be the reason for a girl — or anyone — to feel uncomfortable in their skin. I want him to be kind and generous in a way that makes it hard not to like him. To do good for people without an ulterior motive.
I want him to understand that when no one can say anything bad about you, when the dropping of your name causes other people to smile, that this puts you in a position to have a happier life. A solid friend group, a reliable professional network, and people to call on if ever it’s your turn to need help.
3. It’s not a woman’s job to take care of you.
As recently as this morning, my son was looking for something … but not really looking for it. He asked me and his sister to help him look. I told him to look more carefully and to not expect a woman to do his looking for him. “If you want to find it bad enough,” I told him, “you’ll open your eyes and use them.”
The internet is filled with jokes and memes about how men can’t find anything and how women always have to be the ones to find things. This is ridiculous to me because it only happens at home. For hundreds of years men did just fine in the workplace without women around to find whatever it is they were looking for. My son will go out into the world fully capable of finding his own shit.
And he’d better also not succumb to the “man cold.” My teenage son already puts on the biggest show of anybody in the family when he catches a cold. No, dude. We all got the same cold. Take some medicine and deal with it just like the rest of us have done. I’ve told him he better not pull that whiny crap with his future spouse, either. Ick.
To be clear, I know I’m generalizing in heteronormative terms here, and that any relationship whether straight or gay could have one partner taking advantage of the other and becoming selectively helpless. But, statistically, past generations’ males have entered adulthood expecting their female partners to take on a mothering role. And that’s gross. I want my son to be an equal partner with whomever he ends up with.
4. Speak up, loudly, for the marginalized.
My son is privileged in many ways. He’s growing up in a financially stable situation, attends school in the top school district in our state, and has a vast community of family and friends who support him and want the best for him. He’s Latino, but as far as I know has never faced discrimination for this. He has nearly every advantage a person could want to get a head start in life. He is not in the margins. I want him to speak up for those who are. His privilege affords him the ability to lose very little by defending the safety and rights of others who don’t have the same privileges he does.
Speaking up looks like stepping in when he sees someone bullying or harassing a marginalized person, being outspoken when he witnesses someone else’s rights being threatened or violated, and showing up to vote. I want him to know that as a person with immense privilege, it is his duty to use that privilege to help other marginalized voices be heard.
5. Being kind and generous will get you far. (And if it doesn’t, you’re in the wrong place.)
This goes hand in hand with #2. I want my son to know that if he’s kind and generous, he’ll develop a reputation for it, and that positive reputation will come in handy when he needs connections or advice or help.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when someone is a shit human being, people tend not to want to work with that person. Yes, there are industries where being aggressive and cut-throat gets you success, but I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want the chase for financial success to eat away at his goodness. I don’t want greed to breed toxicity in his life. There is a way to be both good and successful, and I expect my son to find it.
I want my son to be strong and confident but also to understand his privilege and know when to de-center himself. I want him to be independent and to take responsibility for his actions. Basically, I want my son to be a good human being. And I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.
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