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How do We Raise Nonviolent Boys?

By Joachim Ostertag

I have worked with children and adults, girls, boys, women and men for over 40 years. Together with my partner I raised four children: two daughters and two sons.  My work with boys and men, and involvement in the Violence Against Women sector, continuously sparked my curiosity.  Why do we behave the way we do and why do men struggle to end violence against women?

When I reflect about myself, the men I know personally as friends, clients, colleagues and family members, I realize we have grown up in very different contexts and socio-economic settings.  But we share themes from our experiences of childhood, growing up and how we became the men we are.

Some of us grew up in homes where we were relatively safe, free from immediate dangers of war, famine, or greater social disruption. There were maybe struggles that we remember easily: moves, minor conflicts, changing schools, illnesses, some minor tragic events, parents arguing here and there, or not being emotionally available. But generally things went along fairly well.

Some remember more precarious homes – disruption, ongoing conflicts, feelings of rejection, parents calling them names, parents splitting up, tragic losses, poverty, racial discrimination, housing problems, many moves, and dislocation.  Others remember violence, dads abusing their moms and moms subsequently being hardly able to function as a parent, kids being neglected, kids protecting their parents, kids living in fear most of the time, dads and step dads sexually, physically and emotionally abusing them, witnessing their siblings being sexually abused and feeling guilty for not protecting them, parents struggling with alcohol, drugs and mental illness.  They remember failing at school as teens, feeling lost, hurting all the time. Some of our fathers struggled with trauma from wars and sexual violence, and some of our mothers struggled with the traumatic legacy of sexual and physical violence.  For many of these men that reality was not really talked about, even when that entire trauma was still painfully present and living in us.

The spectrum of men’s’ childhood experiences and backgrounds is broad.  Most men, even the lucky ones would identify with some of these experiences and reason, “yes, that’s just how it was”.  Some men would stay quiet or explain it wasn’t so bad, and their experiences didn’t matter because they did quite well anyway.  Many men believe they turned out all right, so it couldn’t have been so bad, or argue they deserved to be smacked every once and a while. They would add that their “old man had it just as bad or even worse”.  Men work hard to believe that their Dads worked hard and deserved to blow off steam and put their foot down at home.

As humans we need healthy attachment relations throughout our lives, but particularly during childhood in order to survive. The nature of these early attachment relations plays an enormous role in the ways we experience ourselves, build relationships, and conduct and see ourselves in the world around us.

Negative experiences, from the minor incidents to the severe, have a direct impact on a child’s attachment relationship with parents and caregivers that starts right at birth and carries through their formative years to adulthood. When distressing events are isolated and children experience enough care, nurturing, trust, and support in their homes they develop healthy attachments. And often other family or community members can help out when things go wrong.

Here lies an early fault line connecting how many of us were raised along gender lines as boys with how we continue to raise our sons.  When our children are upset, hurt, feel scared and anxious we need to deeply care for and nurture them, show empathy in order to allow their attachment relationship to grow.

However within our patriarchal culture we often deny boys this care, expecting them “to get over it”. When boys hurt and nobody listens, nobody picks them up, and they are told not to cry because “boys don’t cry” their emotional needs are not met. Boys learn that their gender role means they must be tough, suck it up, act and act like their stoic heroes.

When boys are not able to be ‘tough’ and don’t follow gender expectations they may feel like failures because they don’t act or turn out as expected.  They are stuck in a double bind – they are dependent on their parents’ love but don’t meet expectations.  The gender expectations for boys create a minefield for healthy attachment.  In our culture boys learn early in the “school of masculinity” the best thing is to follow the script they are given. Instead of showing feelings of hurt and pain they toughen up and make sure they don’t ‘act like girls’ by having emotion.  The risk is they will follow these ‘rules of masculinity’ for the rest of their lives.

We tend to praise boys for their physicality, competitiveness, aggressiveness, looking and acting like little men and soldiers.  When boys show anger and aggression it’s ok; after all, that’s how boys are.  We give them the massage, “violence is ok”. Boys will be boys. We praise them when they win fights and competitions. On the other hand, we tend to praise girls for being good, looking pretty, being helpful or submissive, and we envision them as future wives and mothers.  We dress kids as boys and girls so they know from day one what gender they belong to and what’s expected of them. Our kids see their parents, the world around, and popular culture performing gender and they try to fit in.

Eventually boys can give up noticing what really is going on inside because it’s just too painful and there is nowhere to go with those feelings.  They can learn to be self-reliant rather than emotionally trusting adults, friends and peers.  They face gender identity questions like, “am I a real man” in relative isolation. The fear of being found ‘not man enough’ is always around the corner, and boys run many risks when they don’t follow gender expectations.

Before the second Iraq war, one of our sons quietly carried a little sign on a small stick at high school, stating, ” War is not the Answer”. His refusal to be a part of the ‘school of masculinity’ script meant that he was ridiculed in the hallways, and physically attacked by students to the extent where he had to find safety at the office.

The intersectional assaults on boys and men include physical violence, threats, homophobic and racial slurs, locker room talk, put downs based on race, appearance fueled by masculine toxicity. Even if boys and men are “lucky enough” not to be direct targets of violence, they are aware of the potential to get hurt. Within patriarchy there are endless ways of not being man enough, being told to man up, and not being able to talk about it. This is also a recipe for mental health problems, including depression as men choose not to reach out for support.

When boys don’t have their attachment needs met by parents, families and caregivers, they may shift their attachments to peers.  If the peer culture is one of misogyny and sexism then violence, particularly against women and girls, easily becomes the glue that connects them. Attitudes, behaviours, and narratives of entitlement, male privilege, supremacy, anger, and power over girls and women become commonplace.  And pornography often adds another layer to the toxicity of masculine identity as it connects dominance to sexuality.

Some boys step away from gender stereotypes.  If they are not successful and popular enough they may find some relative safety as ‘geeks’.  Some boys end up being targeted and are bullied and harassed,  or are drawn into bullying behaviour themselves.  Their early trauma and losses have not gone away, and new trauma is added.   Nobody wants to talk about any of this, and nobody wants to listen, and for boys it may be too scary to disclose their confusion or the complexity of their feelings. That strict definition of masculinity can be a lonely place for boys and men.

When boys start dating and get into relationships with girls and women, they yearn for attachment and intimacy. But they may carry layers of pain and unresolved trauma, and rigid gender attitudes that clash with their hopes for healthy relationships and supportive friendships. Viewing gender through a narrow lens of hyper masculinity and male privilege does not allow vulnerability, softness and empathy.  It encourages attitudes of power and control over women instead if supporting equal and caring relationships.

Some men may see themselves in these narratives, and for most of us it is a struggle to understand what being a man means today. The belief systems and attitudes that go with masculinity in a patriarchal system are the air we breathe.  Even if we have been raised to respect women, and reject violence, men still may act from a place of male privilege, which like any privilege is invisible to those who hold it.  As men we need to build a new understanding of our power and privilege and find the words to describe what is happening within ourselves and in our relationships.

How do we raise boys to be non violent and truly respectful towards women?

We need a rethink about parenting so the wellbeing of our kids really becomes the center.  This means parenting responsibilities and the care of children needs to be shared equally between men and women.  When men and women share equally, there are many more opportunities for providing safe and caring relationship with children.  And this is not just an issue of individual parents; it is an issue of collectively overcoming patriarchal values and adopting true equality for women in their homes, their workplaces and society.  Boys and men can and need to learn how to be nurturing and caring parents, and how they can work with their partners as a team.  It makes it possible for men to no longer be the person in charge of a family, but a part of the family.

Parenting boys outside of the rigid gender lines of patriarchy is a real challenge, especially when parents are expected to “do it all” (have careers, be good partners, be caring/available/nurturing and raise children with feminist values) while often facing existential issues like poverty, work stress, health and mental health challenges.

We need to go beyond our concept of the nuclear family, which is based on patriarchal principles that still define the roles and positions of power for men, women and children in families.  The nuclear family needs a support network, especially when the family faces stresses.  Raising our children more collectively with likeminded people, friends and community will allow for shared responsibilities and more supports for all family members when it is needed.

One important way to break out of harmful and gender norming parenting for boys is by making space for them and by responding to their emotional needs.  When they get hurt, we are fully available with our empathy and care, and allow them to feel, express their pain and “let it out” however they want to, temper tantrums and all. We particularly recognize the importance of nurturing attachment with our sons combined with consistent messages of equality. Even when attachments get “dented” at times we make sure that our boys can still rely on us, they know where they belong, they continue to be treated with care, and they don’t have to suck up and be tough to know we love them.

Boys that grow up in a caring environment with secure attachments develop basic trust and will be able to recognize and articulate their thoughts and feelings. Fathers and male caregivers that value positive attachments, and adopt feminist values of equality, treating their partners with respect, allow boys to feel secure in relationships.  They don’t need to rely on a hyper masculine peer culture or power and privilege to be strong.  Boys who feel strong in themselves as loved and respected people and who experience themselves as part of community are less likely to be violent towards women or anybody else when they grow up. Let’s raise boys like that.
Joachim Ostertag is a community member of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce


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