Monday, October 30, 2017

I Won’t Tell My 4-Year-Old Son to ‘Man Up.’ Not Now. Not Ever.

I won’t tell my 4-year-old son to “man up.” My male neighbor, however, seems to think differently. He not only thought it, he decided my son and I should know it.

My son had taken a tumble off his bike and was on the sidewalk, crying. It was only a minor flesh wound, but I was holding him. I know my son. When he’s really hurt, he cries. When he’s not, he bounces back faster than a Mega Requasa Pokemon card. While he was crying, kindly neighbors were emerging, offering ice and sympathy until one man said it. “Stop crying. Man up.”
A four-year-old? Man up? Was he serious? Apparently, he was. Time flowed in slow-motion while I pieced together the words he had said . . . and then we were back to real time.
“He’ll stop crying when he’s done, and not a moment before.” Inside I wanted to pull out a flamethrower and torch him. “And he’s four. He’s not a man.” And even if he were, how was he supposed to “man up”?


Would it help if he were five, at the beginning of his school career, at the tender age when some kids have begun to bully and use aggressive behavior to intimidate other kids? Maybe that’s too young. Maybe not now.
What if he were a tween, on the cusp of a massive dose of testosterone? A teenager’s testosterone levels are among the highest that will occur throughout his life. And, we all know how key testosterone is to developing and maintaining male attributes. It’s what physically makes a man a man.
At that point, when my son is going through puberty, beginning to show male attributes, is that the moment he can at least begin to “man up”?
When he “mans up,” what does that mean, exactly? He should shut down his emotions, stop crying, act impervious to pain? In this study, researchers found suppressing emotions may convey risk for earlier death. What parent would want that for their child? I don’t. Not ever.
Perhaps, you might argue, during the teen years, until he is 26, his prefrontal cortex is pruning itself. This impacts planning, working memory, organization, and judgment. After that’s over—thank God!—he’ll be a reasonable enough individual, a true Mensch, that he can certainly “man up.”
Or when he’s finally in his thirties or forties or fifties. There’s no doubt that he should be able to “man up.” Except that men from 45-65 have the highest rates of suicide over any other category of people in the United States. They commit violent crimes three times as often as women. They are less likely to report being sexually assaulted. That’s not the life I want for my son. Not ever.

And that’s why I will never need my now 4-year-old son to man up. Not now. Not when he’s a tween or teen or young man or middle-aged. Not ever.
Instead, these qualities are what I hope for my son:
An internal compass to find his true north
I want him to be able to internally reference when he feels lost. This doesn’t mean he’s a lone isle in the Pacific, but it does mean he’ll know when others are engaging in wrong-doing and not participate. He’ll know when he’s on purpose and directed there.
Knowing how to lead and how to support
No project works when there are too many leaders and too many supporters. I want my son to know the time to stand up, take risks, and take charge. Conversely, I want him to be able to discern the moments he needs to get behind someone else’s vision and support the heck out of it/them.
Emotional intelligence and literacy
I want my son to feel all the feels, know what is happening to himself on an emotional scale, and be able to see it in others. This also means discerning when he’s projecting onto others, but also having the wisdom and sensitivity to read others.
That he might know what is right for himself and his body beyond what is simply available. I want his yes to be a true yes – only as good as his no. I want him to ask for consent and learn to do so with honesty – and frankly, the sexiest way possible (when appropriate).
Fearless learning

I want my son to hurl himself into the educational abyss and know he’ll come out all right. Fear of failure won’t stop him. He’ll step boldly into the unknown and keep an open mind to the possibilities that await him.
I want my son to learn flexibility, so while a change in the journey might knock him on his ass, he’ll know how to get up again.
I want my son to notice the spaces he’s walking into, take stock of what’s going on, and calibrate. He won’t be the man to yell in a library (unless there’s a fire) or blast everyone with his presence (unless it’s karaoke).
I want my son to stand up for himself and his ideals and to fight for them. The same with others. It’s not enough that he has privilege. I want him to use to benefit those around him.
Radical healthy inclusion
I want my son to be inclusive. Not to the extreme. But to notice those he keeps out of his circle and those he surrounds himself with. Does he play safe? Is there a time to do so? Is there a time to widen his social circles and reach farther?
Those are the things I want my son to learn as he moves from boyhood to manhood. And when anyone tells him to man up, he’ll know what the means to him. Not the antiquated version that has men censor themselves to fit into a narrow man box, but a vast experience where my son will have true agency and expression.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Problem with Men Saying #Metoo

Getty Images

Originally published on The Good Men Project on October 24, 2017

The roots of sexual assault are deep and complicated.

Me too.
Summer camp.  I was 15, she was 18.  There was no consent.  She held me down.  She didn’t listen to my no’s. Haven’t told anyone. I’m outing myself.

This was my male friend’s post on Sunday, October 15, 2017.  It was met with support, belief, more conversation. He was lucky. Not all male victims of sexual assault have received such support.  I witnessed men being shut down, told to go elsewhere, told their timing, their message wasn’t the right moment or place.  It has been painful to see these posts (all of the #metoo posts, in fact), but overall, I’ve come to understand #metoo is simple and complicated, tangled up in a history of sexism, desire for solidarity, and pernicious silencing.  And perhaps, it is simply a Gordian knot, forever tied, but I have to hope there is something better out there for all of us: men, women, and everyone on the gender spectrum.

I get it, though.  I understand why women don’t necessarily want men to be part of such a vulnerable and volatile space. For some women, men make the space less safe, and frankly, they have good reason.

Women in Public: Interruptions and Anger Perception

In short, men are more apt to interrupt women than women are to interrupt men.  In this 1975 study researchers followed conversations between men and women, documenting interruptions. Guess who won?  Men.  And, in this more recent study (less rigorous, but still significant), Kieran Snyder found men interrupted women three times more often than they interrupted men. It is no wonder then that some women simply don’t want men to be in the same space and especially the vulnerable space of sharing experiences of harassment and assault.  

In a study done by Yale called “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead?” it was systematically proven that men who participated in the study “conferred a lower status on angry female professionals than angry male professionals.” The same holds true in another study carried out by Arizona State University.  Women became less  influential when they used anger in an argument; men became more.

With this in mind, it is totally understandable that women would want an uninterrupted man-free zone to express vulnerability and anger.  The question remains: is there space in that movement for male victims of sexual assault?

Male Assault Victims in Solidarity

Yes.  It is possible.  I have witnessed people be infinitely more accepting of a man sharing in #metoo when he added his own experience in solidarity.  Instead of calling out his gender, desiring to change the meme, or calling attention to himself, he added his history. He didn’t interrupt the shares by women.  He didn’t co-opt the space.  He didn’t judge any woman.  He didn’t wave a flag announcing his presence.  He joined in - as the personal story above - with a heart-rending experience.

For many people, myself included, this occurred as a movement of solidarity.   Like the man above, other men have finally found a place where they can share their experiences, be part of something (unfortunately) greater than him.  And this is beyond gender.  

Still, the terrain is rocky.  

The Silence Paradox

Men sharing #metoo doesn’t always work; herein is the paradox.  On the one hand, there is no paradox, just evidence and the lack of evidence. Statistically, one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen. One in sixteen men are sexually abused on a college campus (same source). Rape is massively underreported as approximately 63% of assaults aren’t reported to police. Statistics relating to the number of men who report rape are scant.  This lone source from 1982 claims 90-95% of men don’t report rape. However, in 2013, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) surveyed 40,000 households about rape and sexual assault, finding 38% of incidents were committed against men.  

Male victim rape and sexual assault is clearly neglected and under-reported, so #metoo gave some men a safe space and enough momentum to share their experiences.  The paradox is this: if women experienced #metoo as a safe space, free from the interruption and judgment, then some of them - rightfully - didn’t want perceived male intrusion.  Given the lack of information, shaming, and beliefs towards men vis-a-vis sexual violence (not as affected by rape, cannot be raped, must have enjoyed it, etc.), it becomes exponentially more difficult for men to speak out.

Male victims are told not to speak out in a women’s space (#metoo) because of historical sexism, but they should continue to speak up for women and women assault victims.  They experience monumental hurdles speaking about their experiences in the first place and are then shamed by speaking up.  

No Easy Solutions

Where does that leave us?  With the following: this is a volatile complicated space.  Understanding the layers is pivotal to healing.  This means:
Do your inner work.  Get support.  Find a way to safely tell your story. Call RAINN after sexual assault.  Find a local group or therapist to help you work through the layers.
Listen and then listen again.  To men.  To women.  To any gender.  False accusations comprise 5.9% of all sexual assaults, so believe the person who is telling you what happened. Find a person who believes you.  
Eliminate sexist language from your speech.  Call others out who use it.  
Call others out who denigrate men who have been sexually assaulted. Add to that women, trans-people, any person.
Talk to younger men in your life about consent.
Make a plan of action about how you can support gender equality, stop violence (sexual and otherwise) against all genders.

This is not a finite list, and how could it be? The roots of sexual assault are too deep and complicated to cover everything.  After all, the first codified punishment for rape was circa 1780 BC in the Code of Hammurabi.  In it, a father could claim property damage against the man who raped his virgin daughter.  You can already see the problematic nature of sexual assault, and this was just through the written word.  The list above is the beginning of a journey to support one another through what so many of us have experienced. Simply put, the problem with #metoo isn’t men.  The problem is #metoo simply isn’t vast enough to hold all of our trauma.

Monday, October 23, 2017

When Children Explore Their Bodies Behind Closed Doors

First published on The Good Man Project on October 15, 2017

Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

When Children Explore Their Bodies Behind Closed Doors

When young boys play 'butts and penises,' what are parents to think? 

“They’re playing ‘Butts and Penises,’” my husband answered.
My son and his friend had just disappeared upstairs into his bedroom, and I was wondering where they were.
“Yeah. They want to take a look. I said it was fine.”
I contemplated what that meant. It seemed innocent enough.
“I’m going to check on them,” I said and strode upstairs. The door was locked. I also considered what that meant. Clearly they wanted privacy. I felt okay with that but also wanted to see what was going on.
I knocked on the door. Casual, I told myself. Very casual. I announced my intentions. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay. They said it was. I think my son’s pants were down near his knees.
“What are you two up to?”
“Nothing.” I paused. Considered.
“Oh,” I said, “I heard you two were playing ‘Butts and Penises.’” They nodded. I could tell they were waiting to hear if the other shoe was going to drop.
“That’s cool. Just make sure you’re both a yes, and wash your hands afterwards.”
“Chris was playing my butt like a drum,” my son offered. Chris was grinning from ear to ear but closely examining my face.
“Very silly,” I said, “Sounds like fun.” And then I shut the door.
Later that day, I checked in with my son about this game. He told me Chris’s penis looked different from his own. It was circumcised; my son’s is intact. We talked about how my son shouldn’t force back the foreskin. It would eventually retract, and he’d see the head of his penis, just like his friend’s. We talked about anatomy. We talked about enthusiastic yeses. We built trust. I became clear about many things.
Play between children of a similar age that doesn’t emulate adult sexual acts is normal.
My son and his friend are six and seven years old, respectively. Checking each other’s body’s out is normal. Some touch is normal as well, as long as it’s not emulating adult sexual behavior. Curiosity is normal and healthy. What my son and his friend were doing stemmed out of natural curiosity.
Take a look at the guidelines if you’re concerned that what your child is doing is out of the norm.
My son and I were building trust.
After my son told me about his friend’s penis, he went on to mention he’d seen a different friend’s penis. We even went on to discuss his testicles and how they move away from his body when it’s hot and retract when it’s cold. I could see him hesitate, talk slowly, gaze at my face for a response, and once he found I was positive, he continued to speak. We are building a foundation right now, brick by brick.
How do you build trust around bodies and sexuality with your child? 
Anatomy lessons are normalized. 
I teach my child correct anatomical names for his and other genitals, so he can talk about them without being cute or ashamed. There’s time enough to give genitalia nicknames, but for now, he knows what’s what. He understands more and more about what’s normal in his body and for other bodies. My hope is that this normalcy will continue as he gets older. He’ll be armed with knowledge, not half-truths and shame.
What names do you give your child’s genitalia? Can your child talk about his without shame? What internal work do you need to do in order to let go of shame?
What is privacy in your family? Open door, closed door, or locked door policy?
I know some families only have an open door policy. The door may not be closed, nor may it be locked. I never grew up that way, and I want my son to know he has privacy. This includes privacy as a kid and privacy as a teenager. I trust him to tell me what’s going on and to be safe. If that changes, we’ll talk about it. I never needed to hide things from my parents because I knew there was a safe haven to talk about what was going on. I knew my parents trusted me and disappointing them was stronger than misbehaving.
What standards do you set around privacy in your family? How much do you trust your child? 
Enthusiastic consent.
My son and I talked about his friend being a yes to showing his penis. A big yes. Both of them need to be a big yes. I also told him to think about how his body feels if someone isn’t really yes, but they say they are. If he ever feels strange sensations in his own body which run counter to a person’s answer, he should listen to the sensations. Some people don’t tell the truth; they want to please.   He needs to tune in and go from there.
How do you model consent in your family? What do you do when your child isn’t a big yes to hugs, kisses, and tickles?
We haven’t had another round of “Butts and Penises” since then, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. We humans are very curious creatures. We like to look and touch and compare. It’s normal. Certainly there is behavior that’s out of the norm (look at link above).
In the meantime, I’m teaching my son how to explore in the healthiest way possible: with trust, consent, and a generous dose of curi

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Mama, They're Not Like Us

Revision of an earlier version, found on:

We’re in the girls’ locker room at the YMCA.  I feel uncomfortable. My five-year old son is staring at the bottom of a ten-ish year old girl standing close to us.  At his height, his nose is pretty much ass-level to most older kids and adults, so he has developed a fascination for butts.  At the same time, I want to be respectful and continually call his attention back to me.  The locker room is fairly quiet, and I don’t feel up for getting into a conversation about staring at that moment.

  1. I lean into the uncomfortable. I make mistakes.  I forget my tools.  I return back to the discomfort.
  2. I resist the impulse to lecture and get curious instead.  By asking my son questions, I’m able to figure out what he’s actually noticing instead of projecting my own history and racism on to him.
  3. I notice differences.  So does my son.  We talk about it, but we don’t judge it.
  4. I don’t shy away from the difficult conversations. We talk about race.  We talk about privilege. We talk about who police officers pull over.
  5. I continue to read and learn.  In this awesome and practical article about racism, I learned about how I describe people around me – to myself and to my son.  Is race a defining factor?  Is it defining when I speak of white people?  I observe myself and make changes.
  6. I look at the privilege I have and how I can be an ally. Who is safe? How can I be an ally and teach my son to be one?  How do I stand up for injustice?
And then I’m reminded of a time a few months ago when we were in a cafe.  My son turned to me and a white guy we were sitting next to.
“Look at those guys over there.”  He nods to two black guys at a table.  “Do you know how I know they’re friends?”
The breath sticks in my throat.
“How?” I say.
“Because they’re sitting across from each other, talking.”
I heave a sigh of relief.
It is a continual reminder that I must face more of my own baggage. Whatever I bring to the table.  My own failings.  The way I pick  myself up off the ground and how I return to these conversations.  My discomfort.  My son’s innocent curiosity.  My knowledge and privilege.  His privilege, naivete,  and learning.  It is humbling, and it is ongoing.

7 Reasons Women Don't Want to be Called Sexy (And 3 Ways to Know if She Does)

Embed from Getty Images -- Originally published on The Good Men Project. In the age of #metoo, how do men handle random interaction...