Raising A Non-Violent Boy In A Violent World

Last year I wrote a piece on raising a girl for HelloGiggles. Raising a girl has always been something that has scared the crap out of me. It’s an endless worry of mine…. As mother I find that worry is now my middle name. For my beloved girl I fret over how to raise her as strong, confidant, empowered. I worry about how she sees girls represented in the media and larger culture. I endlessly wring my hands over the message I may send her with my love for feminism, but also for glamour & femininity. I worry, I worry, I worry…

I am also the mother of a beautiful, sweet boy. Granted, he is young, still a toddler, but I admittedly worry less about the messages he receives from popular culture. I worry less about his empowerment and sense of self. I worry less about who his role models will be or what his toys look like. I worry less because I imagine that as a white, privileged boy, he has the world at his fingertips. Too much so. I worried less until last Friday. With the Newtown massacre, I was hit with the harsh reality that our boys are in trouble. That I’ve been essentially living in total denial about what it means to raise a boy in our society. That messages being sent to him are as equally crippling as those being sent to my daughter… and possibly more dangerous.

This weekend, a fact was haunting me. For the most part, men generate violence. Yeah, this is a sweeping statement, but wholly true. And one real, active, thing I can do as a mother is use every fiber of my being to raise an gentle, non-violent, feminist man. Aside from this personal mission, it seems that it is high time to resurrect a movement for non-violence.

The advertisement for the weapon used by Sandy Hook perpetrator shows a picture of a semi-automatic gun with the quote “Consider Your Man Card Reissued”. This is what we are teaching our boys. To be men, you have to be tough, violent, gun-toting. To be a man, you have to engage in violent acts. Gun regulation and better health care for mental illness is an enormous step in ending gun violence, but until we acknowledge that the bulk of this violence is at the hands of men, we are not seeing the entire picture.

I know that I’m writing this as part of processing my own emotions about the mass shooting in Newtown, and that I don’t have too many (if any) answers. I do know that the best we can do to honor the children and lives lost is to take our sorrow, heartbreak, confusion and anger and transform into action. We have to do more than pray, send good thoughts and sign petitions. We need to have a national conversation. We need to take to the streets in non-violent protest. We need to hold our representatives feet to the fire. We need to come together as families, as neighborhoods, as towns, as cities, as a country, as a planet.

My heart hurts for the burden we place on boys. My heart breaks for my sweet boy who loves dressing in his sister’s clothes as much as he loves trucks. I ache for him and hope he can balance his absolute devotion to his big sister and her dolls with his devotion to Thomas the Train. My heart breaks to think that his freedom to show his emotions now will systematically be stolen from him as he is told that it’s not okay to cry. “When the only emotion that a man can legitimately express is anger, how can we be surprised that many men turn to violence in response to emotional issues?” – Crates & Ribbons

It’s all connected. Violence is bullying, it’s rape, it’s war, it’s media, video games, it’s violence against women, it’s poverty, it’s education, it’s anti-gay sentiment, lack of social services, it’s racism, it’s how we treat mental illness, it’s health care, it’s prison culture, its films, TV and video games, its personal, it’s political and the onus is on all of us to agitate, take to the streets, talk and listen.

As Cara Hoffman puts it so succinctly, “If we are genuine in our desires to find solutions, we need to develop a system of screening that will identify potential problems in boys early enough to help them and to save the lives of others. We need to teach empathy in our schools. We need to use common sense when it comes to exposing children to attitudes and images that equate power and masculinity with violence and killing. We need to help men transcend the cultural and biological burdens of their gender or resign ourselves to paying in children’s blood.”

In the great tradition of Non Violence Activism, I hope to see peaceful protests on the street, a day of action, a march on Washington, whatever it takes to keep current the momentum and energy we are seeing now, and translate it into legislation, change and greater love and tolerance for one another.

A few great resources on the topic: (please add to this list in the comments section)

A Great Documentary on the subject: “Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity”

Peace and Love,

Sarah Sophie

PS: Special thanks to my awesome feminist man friend Nathan Larson for bringing Cara Hoffman’s article to my attention!

Image via Shutterstock

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000659021496 Tess Milom

    People still wonder why I don’t force my son to conform to gender stereotypes.

    If we force our sons to reject the feminine, they’ll not only think they are better than females, they then fear being female-like. That is the motivation behind violence against women, and ultimately violence against other men too. A man desperate to believe these roles and conform and surpass them will cling to the messages of violence being dominance being masculine. There is nothing in the extremes of the male gender role that can bring a person happiness, only self-repression, pain, and violent, private misery. I don’t wish that for my son.

    In the future, he might be teased for playing with “girl” toys or for doing “girly” things. But he’ll know better than to rape someone, that violence won’t end his problems, and that his sexual orientation isn’t his most important quality. That is what I wish for my son.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1664456142 Teagan Taylor

    You really hit it on the nose. The violence perpetrated in our culture has so much to do with power, masculinity, and how gender roles are perceived in our society. It is a vicious cycle and will continue until we change the institutions that promote violence and keep men in that “box” of masculinity . Great article Sarah.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=540050362 Hilary June

    Great article! The violence that (mostly) boys see and play especially in video games is shocking. I was a nanny to a 9 year old and the way he talked about killing people and the shooting/war video games he played (and how LONG he played them for) were disturbing. The sound of gunfire constantly on screen drove me crazy and his parents didn’t care whatsoever. He was 9 years old. 9!! A little child playing the role of a ‘soldier’ shooting and killing people for hours and hours on end nearly every day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=648138927 Denise Linville

    Wonderfully put Sarah Sophie. Your son will be just fine. Now that my sons are 21 and 22 I can share my recipe and turn in my results.

    I started with the idea (somewhat selfishly perhaps) that it would be much more interesting to let the boys tell me who they were than to tell them myself, so I took a deep breath and stood back and waited for them to introduce themselves.

    I watched, bit my tongue, and had to turn around and hold my stomach so they wouldn’t see me laughing. It was AMAZING! One of my sons thought he was a dog until he went to kindergarten. This meant he wore a leash, rarely got up off all fours, barked at strangers, and slept in a cage at nap time. He also thought he could breathe through his eyes and that for some reason this would make it possible for him to breathe under water, hence the ridiculousness of the notion that he take swimming lessons.

    The other one refused to leave the house without his pink chiffon cape tied around his neck. He paired this with a flowered headband that was not to my taste but that’s the burden of motherhood. We called him Pricilla after the character in “Pricilla Queen of the Dessert”. No little boy ever wore a cape so well.

    We did not have television. They did not have video games. Period. It wasn’t the inane content of television that put me off it, it was the advertising. I don’t need anyone coming into my living room creating a culture of need and then tricking my kids into thinking that their stupid plastic toys can actually “fly”. That’s shameful, and shame on me if I allow it. Consequently, my kids could keep themselves amused for hours with a stick, a rock, and an empty coke can.

    When prop. 8 was being discussed on a radio show “Pricilla” asked me what it was about. When I explained that people were talking about whether girls could marry girls and boys could marry boys he said, “Mom! Boys can marry boys.” like I was an idiot.

    I tried to explain…”well technically they can’t…” He was SCANDALIZED! I realized I had raised a little conservative! He said, “Are you trying to tell me that AUSTIN’S DAD’S AREN’T MARRIED?” Once again I had to pull over onto the side of the road and turn my head so he couldn’t see me convulsing in laughter.

    On the first day of high school the Priscilla kid came downstairs in pink socks, a pink feather boa, and pink sun glasses that Elton John would go mad for. I looked up from the sofa and said, “sure you want to get beat up for your first day of high school?” He just laughed at me and hopped onto his long board and skated off to school. We lived in Colorado for god’s sake! But here’s the deal…..the “gift of Pricilla” isn’t the gift you give YOUR kid, it’s the gift you give the OTHER kids. By raising a son who didn’t really get it that other kids might give him a hard time in decking out in what was now his signature pink, it gave the other kids an opportunity to accept him. By raising a kid who was so completely centered and comfortable with who he is (whatever that might be at any given moment) you are giving other kids permission to do the same. NOT ONE KID GAVE HIM A HARD TIME. Am I proud of my son. Hell no. I’M PROUD OF THE OTHER KIDS! As a filmmaker would say, “Never underestimate your audience.”

    No one is all male or all female, not even close. Even my son who used to be the dog/fish now wears a dress while playing sports. I recently saw a photo of him on fb (I only “got to be a friend” because he was going away to college in Switzerland and that was my present) Anyway the kid (cringe but we must constantly be vigilant to be honest) is tough as nails and loves to fight. He also loves to save old people and children and volunteer at orphanages. We are all very complicated. Masculinity is not bad and he is a boy who loves being male. But I see a picture of this girl in a really cute sailor dress playing a ball game with the boys….there is a montage of photos and she is even barefoot while lurching sideways through the air to steal the ball from the boys…I am thinking OMG this is SO COOL! I love it when girls can do this shit. Then I start scanning the background of the photos because I am thinking, “I hope dog/fish/boy is seeing this cool girl kick ass!” but I don’t see him… I start to scrutinize the photos more carefully and I notice a familiar tattoo on the cute sailor dress girls chest and I squint and realize that it is my dear little dog/fish/boy all grown up at last!

    So Sarah Sophie, you are doing everything right! And by giving your little boy permission to be just exactly who he is you are giving all the other little boys in the world permission to do the same!

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