My husband sat near me as we went through the details of the day, a rare uninterrupted moment in our loud and full life. As we talked about schedules and family logistics, he looked at me and said, “I have wanted to ask you, when we had a chance to talk, about what it’s like every day for you.” He clarified, he wasn’t asking me as a mom of five, trying to clone myself and get all the things done as we moms try to do. He was asking me as a woman.
We have been together since college and have talked through everything what seems like ages ago, but his question was different, he was asking me what it’s like to feel uncomfortable and threatened even, in the daily strides of my life. I recounted walking through a parking garage recently. There was a man behind me, who held the door for me, and yet walking to the other end of the dark and isolated garage my instinct kicked in and I realized he was walking closely, directly behind me. While his car may have been near mine and his gesture genuine, in that moment, my mind began making exit plans. I was relieved when I saw another man getting out of the car next to mine, putting on his jacket over his scrubs, humming as he took his things out of the car. I explained to him how there is always a lingering question of intent.
The past few weeks have been marked with a significant revealing, peeling back the layers of abusive and revolting behavior by powerful men in our society. In the wake of the revelations a movement grew, #metoo, and voices started to bravely rise above the noise. As we often do, we look inward at our own families, at our lives, and we do one of two things:
We try to rationalize why it won’t happen to us, how we are doing all the things right, or
We try to determine why it did and is still happening and what we can do to help make it stop.
My thinking falls in the latter. While we may not have a link to Hollywood scandals, as moms, who were once young girls, and as women, I can say with somber assurance that we all have stories. And with our stories, if we have vulnerably shared them, we have also felt a burden of proof beyond reasonable. The silence we have kept by either the fear of not being believed or the shame of who we are being judged and questioned.
I have wanted to join the conversation, and thought many times of all the things my boys won’t do, and how because of me, they will know how to respect women. How they will be the boys and men who will help, not hurt. And while, I know my husband and I both have major roles in this, and I want to believe we can have this kind of impact, I know this even more—we won’t have an impact on their lives unless we first have their hearts.
And we impact their hearts by giving them an understanding outside of themselves. When we run PR campaigns for our children’s skills or athletic abilities, when we don’t have them own what they say and how they act, when we can only be concerned when it happens to our child but not another, we are assisting the negative behavior. No, we are not likely creating a predatory Hollywood mogul, but let’s not easily dismiss the bully down the street, the boy who takes advantage of the passed out girl at the party, the husband who demeans his wife, the everyday instances that have created #metoo. The value of self above all else.
The antidote to self-absorption, to pride, is self-awareness.
The very thing that will set them free is the opposite of what would enslave them. My husband, when he asked me that question stepped outside of himself, outside of what he knew, to gain a better understanding. And no, he cannot understand completely, but his intention to want to, is an honorable one.
So, how do we talk to our boys? We begin with a question that invites them to step outside of themselves. A conversation we frame to be important, and one that is asked with devices off, face-to-face. Proactively, one that builds the narrative-changing lens of self-awareness. A question that gets to the heart of every issue that stems from putting self above others.
How do you treat the people around you? at school? on your team? in your family?
And I hope you will receive this with an open mind, but we do not know the entire answer to this question without talking to our sons.
Who are you away from home? What kind of friend are you?
Follow it up with other questions, have you been in a situation where you have hurt someone?
How do your friends talk about girls?
If your son is used to little or no conversation, this will be more difficult at first, it will seem strange and odd to him, but trust that it’s better to have the conversations now. If they shrug it off, give you the answer you want to hear, make a joke, dig a little deeper. It’s a direct question and it will be uncomfortable if the answers are truthful. A genuine response is important, even if it’s not what you expected. You may need to give examples or scenarios depending on how often you talk about these things in your own home.
This is how we begin to change the narrative. And eventually create a level of comfort with these conversations, so there is no shame or pride, just honesty and truth, and it will take time to build, but it is so important.
An equally relevant question is about being the bystander in any awful situation. Maybe they aren’t actively seeking to hurt, but are they willing bystanders? Do they understand this is the same? Talk about it.
Do you not get involved? Do you add to the fire?
Often times they don’t want to become the target, so they shield themselves with another person, a friend even. The statistics are staggering on the lack of involvement with bystanders. The lack of a backbone, the lack of loyalty to what is good instead of what makes me cool. The attitude of not caring. With bullying, eighty-eight percent of the time it happens in front of other people and only twenty percent of the time does the bystander get involved. When they do, they are effective in helping end it, but they first have to do something. How do they know what to do? We have to help them, coach them, talk through scenarios with them, and actually give credence and importance to it. We can no longer accept the excuse, “well I didn’t’ know what to do.” We give our boys the tools and confidence to know what to do. We share our own brave moments. And we stop downplaying everything or pretending we are experts on life outside of our own. We truly have no idea and need to stop acting like we do because they are watching.
A child’s natural instinct is to speak up, and it is only through our cues that they learn to remain silent when they shouldn’t.
We have to open up dialogue with our sons that being aware of how we interact in the world, not how the world perceives us, but how we conduct ourselves, how we take care of others, these are the true marks of a good man, a good person. In the end our athletic skills, our academic achievements, our accomplishments while worthy, won’t hold any weight to who we are.
For every boy or man who has hurt someone, it continued because someone let it go, someone refused to call them out. And all too often that someone was a parent.
We are afraid to talk with our boys or think it’s unnecessary. We deal with the fire and not the spark. Or we fuel it with our own words and actions, “how did he make the team? the honor roll? homecoming court?” I know of a family that evaluates everyone their child plays on a team with and if they are “good enough.” Teaching their child to evaluate and judge and put their worth above another’s. Or a parent whose child can do no wrong. We put out there that “we want to know if our boys are being jerks,” but that statement leaves the ownership on the village. While we lean on the village and they can be a beautiful support system, it is up to us to dig in and do the heavy lifting and have the hard conversations. It is up to us to know who are sons are and what they are capable of both good and bad.
Empathy is the key to self-awareness.
Statistically children today have less empathy than the generations before, and if we are seeing the effects of those generations play out now, just what will happen moving forward? It seems we are more concerned with our boys being overlooked and fitting in than we are concerned for their hearts. And this hurting, weary world right now, needs our boys to grow into our men who will use their voice and take action, to create a new narrative, a new definition of what it means to be a man.
And for the moms and dads who are doing the hard work now, do not give up. It can be hard to remain steady. It is difficult to see your son hurt or have to grow up more quickly that you intended. Take heart, as I sat with God before writing this piece I asked him for a verse. Here is what He gave me. Be confident in the One who is taking note of it all.
Of course, your former friends are surprised when you no longer plunge into the flood of wild and destructive things they do. So they slander you. But remember that they will have to face God, who stands ready to judge everyone, both the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4-5)
Two great resources for parents to read and watch and start the conversation :
Masterminds & Wingmen by Rosalind Wisemen
The Mask You Live In on Netflix by The Representation Project