One of my favorite books by Richard Scarry is The Bunny Book. In it, family members of a baby bunny wonder what he will be when he grows up. Cowboy? Firefighter? Doctor? Farmer?
No, none of these. What baby bunny wants to be when he grows up is a daddy bunny who cares for his children. Rather avant-garde kid lit when first published in 1955, The Bunny Book is as relevant today as ever.
When my eldest son, Claude, was in kindergarten, I read The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein. A therapist, teacher and mother, Silverstein argued against the belief that mothers need to let go of their sons and that boys must avoid emotions associated with women.
We all know the clichés: Stop coddling that boy. Big boys don’t cry. Mama’s boy. Feminization of men is destroying the nation.
However, after working as a family therapist for more than three decades, the most common marital problem Silverstein saw was men who were emotionally disconnected. She determined that not nurturing the emotions of sons results in “lost boys, lonely men, lousy marriages, midlife crises.”
And, I would add, an increase in the dehumanization of women. If a man is emotionally disconnected, he cannot empathize with the feelings of others. Couple this with the vigorous patriarchy of our society and too often women become little more than objects, conquests to be taken either by charm or force, then discarded like a used napkin.
Anyone who’s been conscious this past month has heard about movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexually assaulting women. Also hard to miss has been the #MeToo campaign in which women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted are posting these two words on their social media accounts.
Men in powerful positions preying on women and getting away with it for years is a scandal that repeats all too regularly. And the sad truth is for every Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly, there are thousands of other predators who are never stopped.
My only daughter has Down syndrome. The rates of sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities, both men and women, are higher than for the general population. My plans to protect Lyra are the same as they would be for a daughter who did not have Down syndrome: talk openly with her about sexuality, what is appropriate, what is not and how to protect herself from sexual harassment and assault.
Yet until there is a wholesale change in how our culture views women and the men who violate them, I will worry for my daughter’s safety. As most any parent of any daughter does. It’s a second #MeToo that walks hand-in-hand with the first.
I have four sons who believe women are fully human, which makes them feminists. I recently asked the three big boys why they treat women as their equals, and why they disparage men who do not. What was it in their upbringing to make them different from the predators we hear about in the news and, horrifyingly, some of my sons’ peers?
Their answer? Nothing and everything.
Nothing in that there is no single thing I did or said that made my sons respect women as their equals. Sure, I’ve given them all the “No means no, even if first she said yes” talk. But that alone did not form their feminist beliefs.
“Because you’re our mom,” said 20-year-old Hugo, “that’s everything.”
My children were never forced into rigid gender roles. They had some superhero pajamas but others patterned with fish, stars or gnomes. When Claude was 3, he wanted to dress up as a witch for Halloween. Rather than tell him only girls can be witches, I bought him a pointy hat, a small broom and a wand.
My boys played with Brio trains and Matchbox cars, but they also had stuffed animals and, yes, dolls. For boys, just like girls, may one day grow up to be parents.
As for girls, Hugo also pointed out that all three of my big boys have maintained friendships with girls starting in toddlerhood. While many boys and girls start to self-segregate by gender around the fourth grade, my boys did not.
Claude’s best friend for years was a girl he met in the first grade. At Miller South School for the Arts, Hugo studied art and musical performance, concentrations with more girls than boys. As for Jules, who looked like a girl until he cut his long blonde hair at age 12, he is drawn to people who are thoughtful, curious and nonaggressive. Some are men, more are women.
Letting boys be fully emotional when they are little should be easy. Don’t shame them for crying when hurt or for telling you when they are scared. I hug my boys and tell them I love them every time we part. As adults, they do the same not only with Max and me but also with each other.
Many adults find emotional teens difficult. They are physically big and verbally articulate. It’s hard to always remember with a teenager that there are no wrong emotions; emotions just are, and need acknowledgment. Even if the teen is telling you what an awful parent and person you are. My advice? Buck up and lean in.
One day when Claude was 15, we were driving with his brothers and Max to a swimming spot in the Chagrin River. Claude didn’t want to go and refused to speak.
“Claude won’t talk because he’s mad I made him come with us,” I said after a question from Max had been met with stony silence.
Still looking out the car window, Claude said, “Shut up,” then paused before saying, “you bitch.”
I told Max to pull the car over. He parked and I told Claude to give me his cellphone and get out of the car. Two hours later when we returned to Max’s locked-up house, we found Claude, drained of both anger and energy, drinking from the hose in the backyard.
At the time, I was two years into my 39-month divorce. Divorce is hard for kids. Claude, who was angry with his father in general, felt guilty when he was angry with me over everyday stuff and held it in.
“Look,” I told him, “you are allowed to be angry with me; I can take it. Don’t bottle it up until it explodes and then you say things to me that you will never, ever say to me again, understand?” We talked for over an hour in Max’s basement that afternoon.
Two days later, as I drove us home from a school event, Claude spoke of his deeper fears and emotions. It was dark when I parked in our driveway where he and I stayed and continued talking for two more hours.
The manliness of my sons is in no way diminished for their emotional connectedness. It is enhanced, as they are able to be fully present for women, men and themselves.
If, as a society, we are ever going to make significant progress toward ending the pervasiveness of men harassing and assaulting women, it will be when more families have the courage to raise men with the full range of emotions, not just anger and a sense of entitlement.
This essay was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 5, 2017.