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I’m hesitating as I start this post.
Not for the reason you’re thinking (which, I’m guessing, is the sensitivity of the subject matter). Sadly, recent news events have compelled me to write on this issue, and I know these words need to be written.
I’m hesitating because if you’re a parent reading this, I know you are already weary. I know you serve your kids day in, day out, with very little respite. You may be sleep-deprived, time-poor, struggling with the daily juggle of kids and work and home and everything.
I know you spend your life absorbing information about how to raise x type of kids, or how to avoid your kids growing up to be y type of adults. Every single person who fights every single cause will tell you the a, b and c of what you need to do as a parent in order to stop or reduce this atrocity in the future – whether that’s climate change, ending poverty, or gender inequality.
It can become quite overwhelming.
I do know that many social problems have, at their heart, a group of individuals whose problems began in childhood. I do know that we parents play an influential role in crafting our children’s value systems.
I also know that, as the LORD said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door” (Genesis 4:6).
All of our children, however we raise them, will battle temptation throughout their lives. They will not always make the ‘right’ decisions, the decisions we would want them to make, or even the decisions they themselves really want to make.
This is a hard blog to write, but I offer it to you in the context of the above, i.e. that sin is present in our world, and will be until Jesus comes again.
Please don’t see the following as a formula to raise sons who will never sin in this area. Please don’t feel burdened that you must do as I say in order to change this terrible cycle of gender-based violence. Please don’t feel that the monumental societal shifts we long to see are all dependent upon your parenting.
We are each responsible for our own actions.
I hope, however, that the following words raise interesting ideas and patterns to weave into our parenting – so that, by God’s grace, our speech and conduct in the home may become more glorifying to Him through how we treat each other.
1. Model it in the home
I honestly don’t believe that most mums are actively teaching their sons to disrespect women.
But I do believe that there will be more than a few families in which women are not respected in the home. Any boys growing up in that home are witnessing this, and it is affecting their world view.
So, if you’re a husband and dad, remember Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church” (v.25). You don’t need me to remind you what Christ did for the church, right?
Husbands/dads – are you showing self-sacrificial love to your wife (and/or the mother of your children)? Are you honouring her, serving her, helping her, championing her and respecting her?
If you are, your children will see this. They won’t have to undergo a course in how to respect the opposite gender, because this value system will be inherent in their being as they grow up.
Single mums/dads – you can still model this healthy respect too. Are your kids witnessing mutual respect when they see you communicate with other adults – whether family members, school staff or church friends? Are they seeing that you respect yourself enough to be treated with respect?
And, although I hope this never happens, if your child witnesses another adult disrespecting you, are you calling that out? If not to the other adult, then at least to your child? You can say, “What he/she said to me was disrespectful. That’s not how God wants us to behave towards one another. It’s not how I behave, and it’s not how I want you to behave”.
Framing a challenging situation like this turns a frustrating exchange into an important teaching point for our children.
2. Expect respect
Right from the moment our children learn to talk and walk, they are learning to be independent. And when they learn to be independent, they can also say ‘no’, or refuse in other ways to do what we are asking of them.
It is easy to turn a blind eye when a toddler says ‘no’, draws on the walls or refuses to get his shoes on. After all, these things can often be cute and funny, and we know that overall independence is a GOOD thing, as it helps us to not follow the crowd when the crowd is doing something dangerous.
But we must ALWAYS expect our children – boys and girls – to be respectful towards us. Not only are they learning to show respect to others, but they are seeing that we respect ourselves enough to expect it from them.
It is easy to argue ‘respect’ out of a child’s emotional vocabulary: “they’re too young to know…”, “they’ll grow into it…”, “they don’t understand what it means”.
But we are never too young to start learning respect. Failing to put in place healthy boundaries early on for our children to respect us, their siblings, extended family, friends and other adults will only make the job of doing this when they’re teenagers infinitely harder.
Do you want to be teaching your 6-foot 15-year-old son WHY you’re asking him to put his laundry in the basket or bring his dirty plates to the kitchen?
Now I’m sure when my sons are this age I’ll be making these requests daily – I’m under no illusion here. But I shouldn’t be having to explain myself when I do so. I shouldn’t be having to remind them to respect me, to respect the home, and to respect the others living here. That part should already be understood.
3. High standards for boys
Have you ever heard, or used, the phrase “boys will be boys”? Sometimes it is said in jest or fun, when boys are doing what we think of as typically ‘boy-ish activities’ – perhaps hanging precariously from trees, jumping impossibly-wide rivers or playing with power tools.
But sometimes this same phrase is used to excuse the behaviour of our boys, and this is when these words become toxic, and need to be banished from our homes.
“Boys will be boys!” we exclaim as the boy snatches a toy from another child at toddler group.
“Boys will be boys!” we exclaim as the primary-aged boy causes havoc in a local park.
“Boys will be boys!” we exclaim as the secondary school calls us, yet again, to tell us of our son’s lousy attitude.
This phrase is toxic because the underlying sentiment it conceals is, “We can’t expect anything more from our boys”. When we use this phrase, we’re turning a blind eye to our boys’ behaviour, and expecting instead that they are barely capable of anything above eating and sleeping.
When we do this, we reduce our boys’ existence to something which is merely physical. Our boys simply ‘take space’. They do not (or cannot) think, feel, analyse or be reasoned with.
Let’s set high standards for our boys in terms of character. This is not about whether they achieve highly in academic terms, sporting success or artistic mastery. This is about how they develop as thinking, feeling human beings, and it’s important.
4. Empower our boys
This might seem like an odd inclusion to the list. Aren’t boys empowered enough in our society?
Yes and no.
Our society is still, in many ways, set up for men to achieve their goals more easily than women. We know this.
And yet so many men are aimless, bored, unsure of themselves.
Whether it’s the bored man on a crowded train who thinks it’s OK to feel a female stranger’s breasts, or the guy hanging around on a street who has nothing better to do than intimidate a woman on her walk home, many of these low-level incidences of intimidation and abuse could be avoided if men were empowered with their own sense of ‘being’, which didn’t require exerting their physical power over another in order to feel good about themselves.
This could be as simple as prioritising chatting with our sons over dinner, or at a set time each day, listening to their thoughts, ideas and dreams, and supporting them as they set out to achieve them.
It could mean encouraging our boys into healthy friendship groups, non-screen-based hobbies which will go with them into adulthood, social groups like church youth groups or Scouts or a football team where they can invest in themselves.
For us Christian parents, it also involves helping our boys root their identity more and more in Christ, so that they are sure of who they are, and don’t ‘need’ the attention (good or bad) of a woman in order to feel fulfilled.
5. Teach the sanctity of sex
Lastly, as Christian parents, it is important that we don’t shy away from teaching our boys about puberty and healthy sexual activity from a Biblical perspective.
I’ve found The Whole Story an incredible resource to use with my son in order to start these often-tricky conversations. It presents puberty and relationships from such a positive, God-ordained viewpoint, whilst giving all the medical know-how which, let’s face it, I would probably have to Google if I were teaching it on my own, Biology not being my forte.
Good puberty education will present the changes in our son’s body as being positive and exciting – but will also give space to understanding what is going on their sisters, female friends and classmates at the same time.
This begins an important understanding of a girl’s body. Knowledge is power, and without this knowledge, boys’ curiosity might lead them to inappropriate behaviour.
When it gets to sex, the Bible teaches that this is designed by God for marriage. We know that, very sadly, abuse and rape do happen within marriage – that marriage is not a guarantee of protection from terrible atrocities.
But we do also know that abuse within a marriage is far, far less common than abuse outside a marriage.
And whether or not our boys grow up to agree with a Biblical view of sex or not, teaching it to them as teenagers helps them to see that sex is not a game, and that casual touching is disrespectful and inappropriate. It teaches them respect for their own bodies, and respect for others’ bodies.
Reducing this huge and complex issue into five ideas seems a little ridiculous. At the same time, it’s good to know where to start, and perhaps us tired parents need something brief and accessible to get our brain juices flowing?
On that note, what would you add to the above list? Please comment below – as a mum of three boys I need your wisdom too!
A few years ago, following the #metoo movement, I wrote an article you may be interested to read next, as I guess it represents the other side to this one: #shetoo: Can I protect my daughter from being a victim?
I’ve also written How do Christians parent for gender equality? for parents of both boys and girls. I hope you like them – do leave a comment. I love it when others join the conversation, and endeavour to reply to every single one.
For more articles and resources like this, don’t forget to join my wonderful Hope Tribe mailing list. I send Friday night emails, plus a stack of family faith-building resources too!