In the wake of the midterm elections and Judge Kavanaugh controversy, there has been a lot of rallying for women’s empowerment…and a lot of man-bashing. There have also been a lot of articles about how to raise better boys, and many of these articles seem to have a slightly defeatist implication: that boys, if not given the right tools, are naturally inclined towards becoming sexual predators later in life. As a mom of two very different boys, I don’t see this as being so cut and dry.
I do not believe that there is an impulse in boys that lays dormant for years and that awakens in their adulthood in the form of a desire to sexually assault someone. I believe that some people (regardless of gender), despite the good intentions of their parents, and the influence of their “villages”, make bad choices. I believe some people (regardless of gender) have a bad moral compass. But at the core of these bad choices, and where I think the moral compass goes astray, is a lack of empathy.
I think one of the reasons we, as parents, feel so strongly about teaching empathy to our sons, specifically, is not because they’re missing an “empathy gene”, when compared to girls — but because boys are not typically exposed to or led towards empathic play. To this day, toys, television, even classroom play, are all things that are still very much divided by boy/girl.
My older son is what you might consider stereotypically “boy.” He likes his shooting video games, plays pretend games in which there seems to be very little talking and a lot of bombs going off, and generally is harder to draw out when it comes to talking about feelings. He likes to run and wrestle; and he doesn’t quite know when to stop when someone says they don’t want to be tickled anymore. He’ll talk my ear off about a topic that is interesting to only him, and when I tell him I’d like to talk about something else, he ignores me and keeps talking about what he wants to talk about.
My younger son, however, is naturally drawn to the kinds of toys and the kinds of play that people typically associate with girls. He often pretends to be in the caregiver role when playing with dolls and playing “family” with his friends. He loves babying his stuffies and plays dress up — perhaps one of the greatest ways to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. He will sit down across from me at the table and ask me questions about my day or my favorite movie; and he will stay with the conversation, following it to its end and measuring my responses before he chimes in with his next comment or question.
Though research found that the overwhelming majority of people who committed homicides were male (Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (2001), science seems to nod in the direction of the importance of teaching empathy to boys, as well. Certain risk factors have been found among men who have committed sexual assault: heavy drinking, a perceived pressure to have sex, the idea that no means yes, and even peer groups who use hostile language to describe women. But those same risk factors can be mediated if that person scores highly on measures of empathy.
So how do you go about teaching empathy to boys? Ted Bunch, chief development officer of the violence prevention organization, A Call To Men, suggests caregivers acknowledge boys’ feelings and help them fully experience their emotions. And yes — Bunch also notes — one should also pair this with teaching empathy and talking about how other people are affected by one’s actions.
My husband and I feel strongly about teaching empathy to our sons. We strive to do this with both of our sons and work especially hard to help our firstborn refocus and be aware of other people’s feelings. We tell him to look at our faces when we are talking, and ask him, “While you’re telling us this, do we look like we are enjoying this conversation? Can you tell that your brother was trying to tell you about something else that happened today?” If he hurts someone by accidentally running into them, I have him pause and think about how they might feel, even if he only did it by accident (in addition to saying he is sorry, or taking him out of the situation).
Our work appears to (maybe, possibly?) be paying off. A few weeks ago, when we walked by a homeless man whom I see on a near-daily basis, my son came up with a plan: he would write a letter to him every day, and I would pack the man a lunch. We talked about what it must feel like to not have a bed or a home. My son asked me a lot of questions about the man and went on to write him a daily note — a tradition that has continued (maybe not every single day, but several times a week) for weeks . This just showed me that the ability to think about things like what it must be like to be on that bench, and to be hungry, is there, in my son. It just needs to continue be cultivated.
With the exception of true sociopaths, I don’t think we have good or bad qualities that operate on their own devices. We are shaped by a combination of genetics, biology, culture, and environment — many factors that are outside of the home and out of the parents’ control. That’s a terrifying thought — and that’s why we write and read so many articles that make us feel like we are at least trying to be proactive in our fight against them. Like we have some modicum of control.
The best thing we can do, as caregivers, as moms, is to instill in our boys a strong sense of empathy — and to give them an ability to work outside of social and cultural pressures, so they can reach across the room into how someone else is feeling. If they are strongly attuned to their own emotions and confident as individuals and secure in their own bodies, perhaps they won’t need to dominate someone else’s body or control or abuse another person’s emotions.