The treatment of women by high-powered men this past year has left much to be desired when it comes to role-modeling for our children. Recent headlines have featured a movie executive whose conduct while meeting with young actresses to discuss potential film roles led to accusations of sexual harassment and rape. This summer, similar exposés focusing on the mistreatment of women in the tech and media industries also came to light.
           
Certainly, for parents of girls, such topics can create fear for our daughters’ safety. But if you’re the parent of a boy, these situations make you consider the importance of ensuring that you’re raising someone who shares your values about the treatment of others, including the opposite sex.
           
Here are a few strategies that may be helpful to give parents, in the words of writer and therapist Olga Silverstein, “the courage to raise good men.”
 
Teach empathy from infancy by showing it to your child. Long before children can speak, they are already learning about whether the world is a safe place. When a parent picks up a crying baby and comforts him, the child is learning that people can be trustworthy. When a parent sets a limit with a toddler and firmly, but kindly, says, “You are so frustrated I won’t let you dig up the plant! Let’s go dig in the sand box instead,” that child learns that his feeling of frustration is tolerable, and there is a dependable adult who will help him learn how to name and manage intense feelings. Empathy is essential for raising compassionate kids.
           
Allow children to express a range of emotions. Boys shouldn't be shamed for crying or showing sadness, nor should girls for showing anger. Encourage thinking about the feelings of others. Point out ways of “reading” people’s feelings through body language and facial expressions: “Look at Sarah’s face. I think she’s sad that you grabbed her toy. What do you think might help her feel better? Let’s ask her.” Certain themes in children’s literature also provide a great way to discuss the feelings of others and encourage prosocial behaviors.
 
Avoid physical punishment. Research indicates this actually can increase aggression in boys.
 
Help children recognize boundaries, including their own. Don’t force them to hug or kiss well-meaning relatives and also help them recognize when other children do not want to be touched. Whether you’re raising a son or daughter, or both, think about how you want to teach assertiveness. Being able to say aloud, “No, I don’t like that,” is an important tool for self-protection.
 
Talk about the role of the bystander. As children move into elementary school, and discussions begin to emerge about bullying, many children will be neither the aggressor nor the victim. But most people have been a bystander and watched someone be emotionally or even physically hurt by another. What’s the right thing to do? Acting out a few typical situations may help your child learn a strategy to help someone else who is being mistreated.
 
Think about what you are role modeling for your child. Do you make frequent judgements about others’ appearances? That attitude can be confusing for children if we’re also trying to teach the importance of inner character. Do you make a lot of generalizations about the sexes? That can inadvertently lead children to make assumptions about other people that are not always accurate.
 
Pay attention to the depiction of masculinity and femininity in movies, television and video games. The media plays a huge role in shaping children’s attitudes toward one another. Know what your child is watching and watch with him or her. If you don’t like what you see, say why and try to have a discussion about it. There might be eye-rolling and exclamations of “Oh, Mom/Dad!” but your words will linger long after the devices have been shut off.
 
Being intentional about raising children of both sexes who are respectful of the needs and feelings of others, and who can articulate their own, may be one of the greatest challenges of parenting. But certainly, it is one of the most important.
 
Lisa Phillips is a Parent Educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information, call 504.896.9591, visit theparentingcenter.net or email [email protected].