A baby’s sense of himself and others starts right from birth and the most important teachers are his parents. Raising a respectful son who respects girls and women should begin with expectations about how he should treat his mother (and other important females in his life). Therefore, it is important for caregivers to set firm limits about behavior, including personal boundaries, egalitarian beliefs and respect.
Let’s start with establishing personal boundaries and teaching about consent. Some mothers feel rejecting if they are not a human playground for their child and available at all times for visual and physical contact. But this sends the wrong message. Kids are often allowed to put their hands all over Mamma: pulling her hair, grabbing at her face, slapping her butt. At home the flimsy boundaries continue with kids strolling into the bathroom while mom is doing what’s done there, and sharing mom’s bed while dad is relegated to a guest room. We cannot expect our sons to exercise good judgment with girls if mothers do not define and defend their own personal boundaries. He must learn to ask before he climbs on board, and wait for the response. This teaches that Mommy has separate feelings than he has, which he is expected to respect (empathy). He also learns that he is not entitled to everything he wants—a lesson in humility.
Teaching our children to be humble sounds almost Victorian by today’s standards. Current parenting trends have pivoted toward elevating the child’s self concept and efficacy as priorities—which is good. But it has gone too far. We do children a disservice by over inflating their egos (especially boys). Many believe that narcissism is not only on the rise but is an admirable attribute among success-oriented males. But narcissism is not conducive to positive interpersonal relationships. Nurturing an egalitarian orientation in our boys requires that they learn everyone has equal importance (which is also the definition of humility). This is not learned by little boys who believe they are the chosen one. It is good for children to have to wait, be told no, or lose. These are humbling experience that will teach him to be accepting and respectful of himself and others.
Respect is learned gradually by a child’s experiences. Unlike the external features of courtesy, or manners which are strictly social skills, respect is a moral quality which evolves (or devolves) throughout one’s life. It’s based on a child’s self perception and the way he thinks about others. Respect and empathy go together. Creating opportunities for your child to think of others first is a good plan—reading, watching movies and listening to music about feelings are strategies to advance empathy. Put the tech devices down and practice the art of conversation DAILY with your child. Talk about things from your own perspective including feelings; encourage him to do so. This builds his emotional vocabulary as well as his communication skills. Relieving boys of the “false macho” expectation is liberating. Remind him that it’s okay to cry.
Finally, mothers have an important opportunity to model the positive attributes of women in society today. Assertiveness, independence, and self esteem are all good things to put forward. Moms should be careful about how they describe other women and themselves (watch out for descriptions such as pushy, bossy, power driven, fat). Mothers who show that they respect themselves by putting themselves first sometimes and saying affirming statements about themselves will prime young sons to be respectful of women. This is also a good lesson in self regard and self esteem.
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.