There’s a huge focus right now about teaching boys about consent, sexual harassment and assault. Many people are blaming schools because it feels better to focus on one factor when the issue is so complex. But let’s not just blame schools – how about the parents?
As the mother of three teenage sons, two of whom are now officially adults (or ‘kid-ults’ as a friend calls them), I’m often asked how I raise my boys in an era where the spotlight is shining brightly on young men. It’s a nasty world at the moment and teenagers are plagued with self-doubt and uncertainty about their future.
Parenting teenage boys is wonderful but there are definitely some hair raising, gut-churning moments.
It’s so fascinating having twins because, even though you raise them exactly the same way at exactly the same time, each kid is an individual with unique emotions, dreams and attitudes. It makes you really ponder the question of nature versus nurture.
When you have teens you also look back at all those comparatively easy years when the biggest drama was a kid having a tantrum about a missing purple dinosaur.
By the time your kids are teens, you’ve seen it all. In our home, I’ll admit that sometimes we get things wrong. But there are plenty of good things happening too. We’ve managed to juggle a healthy balance of free expression in our family, but the world has some catching up to do. It’s not unusual to hear girls being showered with praise for being “as good/better than a boy”, while boys are steered clear of their gentler sides.
I’ve had many years on the sidelines of football games where boys on the verge of tears have been told to “man up”. Not me; when my boys want to cry, I don’t stop them.
I’ve told my boys it’s perfectly okay to show their emotions when they need to. If you bottle up your feelings, they will explode in a fury, possibly years down the track when you have a partner and/or kids of your own, frightening everybody, including yourself. Feelings can be frightening, we all know that.
There’s a great deal of pressure on teenage boys, particularly around sex and consent. Is it better if these lessons came from schools or parents?
Dipping into my nearly two decades of motherhood, I really believe parents are always going to have a much stronger impact on boys.
Parents are in the best position to take accountability for their sons’ behaviour. I’m fortunate to have a good, open relationship with my sons, who have a mother who is constantly talking, querying and communicating, often to the level of annoyance, but we’re a very loquacious family so that’s what we do.
And yet, according to Associate Professor of Criminology UNSW, Dr Michael Salter, we can’t always expect the parents to have a great impact.
The challenge is that some of the boys most at risk to violent or aggressive behaviour might not have parents who can have those sorts of conversations. So that is our challenge, how do we support boys, recognising they’ve got different levels of support at home?” Dr Salter said.
And when it comes to schools and lessons around consent?
“Workshops, workbooks and class exercises are great. I’m all for consent/respectful relationships curricula, but I don’t think boys force girls into sex acts because they ‘misunderstand’ consent.
“On the issue of co-ed versus same-sex schools, I do think teenage boys in co-ed spaces is healthier for them in terms of facilitating platonic relationships with girls – as we do see a lot of sexual harassment and coercion happening in the early teens. So schools do have a critical role to play in terms of what are the kinds of behaviour they support or enable. But, ultimately, it comes down to school culture.”
One thing I know about teenage boys: they don’t like being lectured and blamed. If you want to lose their attention, that’s the best way to do it. But, more importantly, they do not like to be shamed. The way parents speak to their sons is the key to getting them to listen, deeply.
This generation of fathers is quite different from 50-100 years ago, when there was much pressure on young men to be stoic, almost military-like figures. Many of the dads today are more emotionally confident than their own fathers or grandfathers might have been.
But, when it comes to the truly emotional stuff, many boys will still turn to their mothers.
“A lot of the emotional work in families still falls on women. Boys do have female role models, they don’t have to have role models that are the same gender as them. But dads can’t underestimate the effect they have on their boys just by being honest and authentic about their own feelings and their own interactions,” Dr Salter said.
“What’s really toxic for boys and men is shame and embarrassment around your masculinity. This is something that really shuts boys and men down very quickly and makes us afraid of being very honest with one another.”
So maybe the answer to all of this is the power of having a father who is open and authentic with his sons. Let’s call it a flexible masculinity. It’s a hell of a lot better than raising a very restricted young man who is paranoid, living in fear of what people think of him.
For people who might not have a very open relationship with their teenage sons my advice is this: talk to him, listen to him. He might surprise you.
For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14