Talking with boys

Boy and girl in historical costume from Boston Public Library
Boy and girl in historical costume from Boston Public Library / CC BY 2.0

I recently read an interesting book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.” In it, she gives her friend who has just had a baby girl 15 ideas for how to raise her daughter to be a feminist.

It is full of important ideas and comments about such things as the value of education for girls and women, the wonders of romance and love, the importance for girls of having a strong sense of identity and the gendered minefield of marriage. The book would make a great baby gift compared with much of the pink and blue highly commercial fare that shows up at many baby showers.

As I read the book, I was reminded of a column by Anthony Wolf that appeared in the Globe and Mail several years ago. Wolf is a clinical psychologist who is worried about boys abusing their girlfriends and wants parents to talk to them about this.

He writes:

They [abusive boys] constantly want to know where their girlfriend is. Usually they do this by calling or texting many times during the day or night. They don’t want their girlfriend to hang out with friends on their own.  . . They give them orders as to what they should wear. They subject girls to verbal put-downs.

He also makes it clear that no behaviour on the part of the girl, no matter how “aggravating and nasty” it might be, excuses abuse by the boy. “No matter what they do to you, women never deserve to be abused. What you can do instead is leave or end the relationship.”

I have a son and a step-son, both now adults, and I remember how challenging it was to talk to them about these issues, to help them understand that feminism offered liberation to them as well as to their sisters, to make them feel valued and good about themselves first as boys and then as young men.

I often found this much more difficult than talking to my daughter and step-daughter about the very same issues. Somehow, it seemed easier to talk to the girls about the possibilities that feminism opened up for them and to warn them about the potential for male violence than to try to make sure that the boys would not become the men I was warning the girls about.

Mostly, I remember how hard it was to compete with the very different messages all the kids were receiving from popular culture, the education system and their peer group.

Now, I am a grandmother. All 4 of my grandchildren are boys and, as a feminist grandmother, I am very concerned about what kinds of men these boys will become. I know their parents expose them to feminist ideas and values, and I know they see their parents playing non-traditional roles in their families. But I also know how powerful peer and social/cultural pressure is, especially as children become adolescents and teenagers, and I feel much less confident about that.

I also want my grandsons to be able to explore and choose who they want to be, free of socially defined constructions of gender.

We need books like the Feminist Manifesto for girls, who need to know that their gender does not have to limit who they are, that they have a right to be treated with respect and to live lives free from abuse and intimidation. But we also need a companion book that sends the same messages to boys.

Who wants to write that one?

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