Helping young children become good people takes deliberate work. The unfortunate truth, though, is that thanks to our society's deeply ingrained culture of misogyny, a lot of that work needs to be targeted. So as a feminist mom of sons, you may find yourself on the lookout for learned behaviors that don't jive with your values. Since girls and women so often get spoken over and interrupted, I'm going to assume you'er trying to to think of ways to teach your son to listen to women. This is only part of the picture, of course, but the ability to truly listen is a vital part of becoming a compassionate, empathic, and sensitive person.
I get that some will assume I'm biased against boys. The very premise of the title of this piece implies that without being taught, boys would naturally veer towards not listening to women. (As a mom, I feel like kids of both genders have some trouble listening to their moms, but that's besides the point). As a mother who adores her two boys, I don't believe a tendency toward not listening to women is inherent. I recognize that there are cultural and societal forces that seem to be working against my greatest efforts to create the kind of loving, feminist, and respectful men I hope to raise.
I also know that besides the influence of outside factors, I'm part of the problem, too. Sometimes I let my sons order me around, sometimes I succumb to them climbing on me or touching me after I've told them no, and sometimes I let it slide when they are ignoring something I've said or asked for again and again. My being permissive, and not making them truly listen to the main female role model in their lives (ahem, me), sends a message to my sons that my voice is one that doesn't need or deserve to be heard.
So with that in mind, here are some ways I think we could all work on making things a little better for the girls and future women in our sons' lives:
Teach Him To Use Eye Contact When Having A Conversation
A cliché picture of a "basic bro" is the image of him looking at his device while his "chick" is trying to tell him something important. He simply nods his head, but he isn't truly "listening." I can't help but picture this scene when I'm asking my older son about what book he read at school that day, or if he wants more spaghetti, and he's completely tuned me out because he's too busy watching YouTube. Bad dinner habits aside (yes, we probably should ban iPads from dinner, but let's table that for now), the ability to listen well starts with looking at the person with whom you are having a conversation. I can't imagine women are the only ones who abhor being tuned out when they are trying to communicate. Doesn't everyone appreciate eye contact in conversation?
When people arrive or leave our apartment, I remind both my 6-year-old and 3-year-old to look at their faces when they are saying hello or goodbye, instead of shouting from another room. Looking into someone's face lets them know that they are your focus at that moment. According to Entrepreneur, initiating contact by focusing on the other person is one of six ways to show someone you're really listening to them. I hope my sons carry this lesson into all their future relationships, with men or with women.
Teach Him To Ask For Things Instead Of Demand Them
I don't know exactly when it happened, but at some point along their development of language, my sons created a shorthand for asking me for things. Instead of asking, "Can I please have some water with ice cubes?" they will simply shout from another room, "Water with cubes!" Like I'm some sort of handmaid. Sometimes I make the mistake of immediately getting my kids a glass, but most of the time (with my older son) I either ignore the request or ask them to repeat what they've just asked, but "in a different way." It only takes one time for my kids to catch themselves and say, "Can I please have water with cubes?" the second time.
God forbid I create my own version of Will Ferrel's Chaz, shouting for meatloaf from his offscreen mother, like in the movie, The Wedding Crashers.
Teach Him To Refrain From Using His Body To "Talk" Over Someone Else
The other day, when playing a board game with my older son, I noticed that he tends to flick my hand out of the way when he doesn't want me to do something. I noticed it again when he didn't want me to cut something with the safety scissors because he wanted to do it himself. It's a subtle move, not like a giant shove or anything, but it is aggressive nonetheless. The message is clear: "I don't like what you're doing, so I'm going to force you to stop doing it."
I've seen him use his entire body to shoulder his way ahead of a group of people, or to block his little brother from getting to a toy he doesn't want him to touch. What scares me is, his boy body is only going to get bigger. A Man Body shoving through a crowd, pushing people aside, and blocking people out of his way is a man that I do not want to hang out with. According to Everyday Feminism, men tend to dominate spaces around them by taking up as much physical space as possible, even subtly (like manspreading). So I'm working on bringing attention to what he's doing with his body now, and how it is "speaking" and helping him figure out how to use his words, instead, to accomplish a goal.
Instead of pushing my hand away from the figure on the board game, I'll suggest, "How about asking for a pause in the game so we could talk about strategy?" This is probably the hardest thing to do with a 6-year-old. Developmentally, they are very body-oriented. Still, it is something to work towards.
Teach Him That Speaking Louder Doesn't Mean He's Automatically Right
In the same vein as the pushing and shoving, I've noticed my son use the decibel of his voice to talk over anyone in the vicinity so that he can make a point. If anyone disagrees with him, he just talks louder. In most instances, my son is the loudest kid in the room and, honestly, it is obnoxious. As often as possible, I tell him to notice the volume level of everyone else in the room, and to match it. When kids do this, I don't only think this a problem of asking them to use their "inside voice," but that we need to teach them that speaking louder than everyone else doesn't make their opinions automatically more meaningful than anyone else's.
Sure, a young boy talking loudly is probably just a young boy who is excited to share his idea with the people around him. But that young boy might grow up to be the jerk at your conference table at work who keeps interrupting you by talking over what you were saying because he has a louder (i.e. "better") idea. According to The New York Times, "women make up 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executive officers and 19.4 percent of Congress this year. About a fifth of board members in Fortune 500 companies in 2016 were women." A 2014 study found that women are more likely to be interrupted (by both men and women) than men are. A separate study published in the same year found that "men interrupted others twice as often as women did and were nearly three times as likely to interrupt a woman as they were a man."
Teach Him That When Women Say "Don't Touch" It's Not Up For Negotiation
My older son has become endlessly curious about my body this year. He wants to know if my breasts have milk (sorry, not anymore)and he wants to know why I don't have a penis. I'm happy to answer all of his questions, but when he asks if he can touch or see my private parts, my answer is no. Ever the negotiator, he starts trying to reason with me: "But you've seen my private parts," he says. "Can't I just see it? Why can't I see it? Please!"
It is crazy weird to feel bullied by your 6-year-old about showing your private parts. Which is why it is especially important to be firm, and hold your boundaries around the topic of your private parts with your sons (and daughters). You need to communicate to your son (without aggression or malice) something like, "My answer is no. My private parts are private, and yours are private. When I say no, that's the final answer. And the same goes for you with me if I make you feel uncomfortable."
No one is owed a viewing or a touch of our private parts, and that goes for parents and kids alike. By modeling that behavior as the parent, the hope is that your sons won't grow up to expect that when women say no when it comes to touching their bodies, that they don't need to listen and instead start negotiating with them.
Keep Him In The Company Of Women Who Are Listened To
I imagine it would be hard for a young boy to understand what it looks like when a man listens to a woman if he has never seen it happen in real life. My family is lucky. My husband comes from a very matriarchal family, the epicenter of which is one of the most resilient and heroic women I've ever met: my husband's grandma (a Holocaust survivor). She is at the head of the table at family gatherings. The men in the family do not treat her as a fragile flower (at least not emotionally, she is 91). She is one tough cookie and so are her daughters; women who raised their kids as single moms and built careers at the same time. My sons are growing up with these role models and, my older son especially, witnesses how the men in the family go to opinionated, strong women for advice, for help, and insight.
If you don't have a family like mine, then find a chosen family. Grab those inspiring women in your life and the men and women they inspire, and show your sons what that looks like. Or bring them to a female artist or public figure who commands a room of people of all genders, so your sons can see women leaders whose voices get heard.
Model Actual Listening With Your Son
To teach our sons what an engaged conversation is — in which both parties are volleying thoughts back and forth and thinking about what the other person is saying — we women have to have those kinds of conversations with our own partners in front of them. I'm pretty sure in the first year of my first son's life, my partner and I spent a lot of time staring at our phones or just trying to get daily tasks done around the house. After all, moments when we weren't tending to our baby's needs were so scarce. Now that we each have more agency, we have time to talk when we are both home. We do a pretty good job of policing each other to put down the phone if one of us gets caught up in a wormhole when we could otherwise be interacting. We've also put a lot of work into learning how to communicate better in our marriage. I hope our kids see the fruits of that labor.
If we want our sons to learn how to listen to women, they need to see what conversations look like between loving partners where at least one of the partners is a woman. Our children aren't taking notes on what we do, sure, but they are absorbing it on some level. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Parents, found that "the quality of a child's parents' marriage had as much influence on his or her future mental and physical health and wellbeing as his or her own relationship with either parent." So the bursts of laughter? The fast-paced talking when we get excited about something? The quiet whispers between two loving people? Our kids can hear if we are truly connecting or if we are just trading notes on our day or assigning tasks. These are the things that get filed away in their brains that eventually shape the tableau of their future interactions with their own partners.
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