By the time you reach your 40s, you’ve figured out a few things about life and relationships. And parents my age have also seen some pretty momentous changes in gender roles and what it means to “be a man.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just download our experiences to our kids’ brains, saving them the trouble of figuring out these things for themselves? Unfortunately, flash drives haven’t evolved that far yet, so we’re going to have to have some conversations—conversations that are delicate, not in that they’re awkward or necessarily embarrassing, but because they’re nuanced and complex. Below, nine talks I’m planning to have with my sons.
1. You have to pay attention to what a girl is saying, even if she’s not saying it out loud. Girls and women are socialized to keep the peace, avoid giving offense, and politely deflect men’s advances without bluntly saying so. Every woman I know has a story of a man “not taking the hint.” Don’t be that guy.
2. You also have to be clear about your boundaries. Teen boys and young men can be coerced into sexual encounters they don’t want, just as girls can. It’s a common stereotype that boys and men are always up for sex, no matter what, and I don’t want my sons to be pushed into something they’re not ready for because they think that’s what “real men” do. Just like girls, they have to be mindful of their boundaries and limits and be prepared to enforce them.
3. Blessed are the peacemakers. “Stand up for yourself” is a message that boys absorb early on—and I believe that message, taken to the extreme, erodes their diplomacy skills. The best lesson I’ve gotten on negotiating was from a dear friend who is an MBA and a successful entrepreneur. “The secret to negotiating,” she told me, “is that everyone leaves the table feeling like they’ve won.” I’ve known too many men who think that winning means crushing the opponent, whether it’s in the workplace or at home. Learning how to smooth out a disagreement rather than escalate it is a valuable skill.
4. Doing anything “like a girl” isn’t an insult. Feminism is generally framed as a women’s movement, but in teaching my boys about feminism I hope to underscore that they don’t have to behave in traditionally masculine ways either—that they can be indifferent to sports or have a passion for homemaking, and that’s fine. How girls do things (or some girls, because all girls are different!) is worthy of respect. Traditionally feminine pursuits are also worthy of respect.
5. Don’t interrupt. As this article points out, it is far more likely that a girl will be interrupted or talked over than a boy will. Boys need to be mindful of conversational dynamics—not only so that they are not rude and dismissive to girls, but also for their own sakes: Girls have things to say that are worth listening to!
6. If you are attracted to a girl, it doesn’t mean she necessarily wants your attention. Some men believe they have the right to comment or make advances on a woman based on how she’s dressed. I’d like my boys to understand that even if they take notice of how a girl or woman is dressed, she might not want any attention for it. And even if a gal is working a certain look to get someone’s attention, that person may not be you.
7. Don’t fight with professional fighters. Occasionally I find myself drawn into a conflict with someone who clearly spends most of their life in conflicts—they’re used to it, they like to fight, and they won’t hesitate to go in with full guns blazing. Strange altercations over parking spots come to mind. If you’re generally a calm, peace-loving person, these kinds of awful people can take you by surprise. While it’s tempting to try to “win” the fight, you can’t, and it’s best to just step away from the crazy. I believe men are more tempted than women to go up against these professional fighters—for women, safety is usually their first priority. Fighting with people who are always fighting is a terrible idea—you’ll never win.
8. No one wants to be told what they’re doing wrong. Some people want to solve problems—and while that’s great, sometimes other people just want to vent. It’s important to understand that the purpose of a conversation can be for the speaker to get comfort and affirmation, not to be told precisely what they “could do better next time.”
9. They enjoy a privileged position. My boys, by virtue of being white, male and middle class, are playing on “life’s lowest difficulty setting,” as the writer John Scalzi has said. Deserve is a loaded word in our culture, and I don’t want them to think they don’t deserve something when they work hard for it. But they also need to recognize that they have fewer obstacles to overcome than other people, and that part of being a responsible citizen is doing all you can to reduce inequality.
Boys have unique challenges, and what it means to “be a man” has changed radically over the last few decades. Like any mother, I want my sons to be well-equipped for adulthood. Oh, and also: not to fight with crazy people in parking lots.