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Raising boys against the grain

Good girls are raised to be quiet, dainty and accommodating. Real boys are raised to be competitive, successful and tough. Girls can cry. Boys cannot. Girls are soft-spoken. Boys are boisterous. 

I’m a mom to white little boys who will grow up to become white men. In America, white men have it pretty easy. They have both privileges that are institutionalized in our society. 

White. Men. 

It would be simple to let life unfold with little intervention other than common motherly traits such as love, nourishment and financial stability. I could offer those three things and my boys would probably turn out OK. 

The problem is, while I’m raising my children inside the home, the world is raising them outside. And the world has a clear story about what it means to be a “white man.” 

But as a woman who doesn’t routinely follow the status quo, I don’t want the world raising my boys. I don’t want them thinking it’s wrong to be tender, compassionate, sensitive and curious. Or that it’s OK to be brutal and to use white male privilege to get their way, whether intentionally or unintentionally. 

Turn on the news at any moment and there’s a story about a white man in charge doing this or that. It’s always the white men in charge who make the decisions for everyone. If my boys grow up to be white men in charge, I want them to be strong, kind leaders and good human beings. I want them to be changemakers and proud to be part of a new generation that’s inclusive. 

Systemic racism and patriarchy are clearly causing issues in today’s society. But for many, these are elusive influences stemming from generations of lessons taught and lessons learned. The current state of America is causing people to reevaluate collective and individual biases. Where did they come from exactly? Why have they sustained for so many centuries? How can we change something so heavy and laden with history? 

We have pieces of answers to each of these questions and thankfully, many are ready to take whatever steps necessary to create a more just and merciful world. 

While we bat around answers to the big questions, I am well aware of the answer to a different question. 

What kind of men do I want to raise? 

Feminism is a bold noun with a solid definition. Webster defines it as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” There’s not a word to describe an act of advocacy to make men less domineering. For mothers who want to raise boys who oppose society’s definition of a man, we have to forge our own way. 

I’m reading a book called Untamed by Glennon Doyle, author, mother and activist. She has two daughters and one son. A recent chapter inspired this column. 

Doyle begins by describing the types of daughters she wants to raise: “I wanted my girls to know this. You are a human being, and your birthright is to remain fully human. So you get to be everything: loud quiet bold smart careful impulsive creative joyful big angry curious ravenous ambitious. You are allowed to take up space on this earth with your feelings, your ideas, your body. You do not need to shrink. You do not need to hide any part of yourself, ever.” 

Later in the chapter, after Doyle had watched a string of media clips about a 15-year-old male school shooter, members of a lacrosse team charged with gang rape, a college boy killed in a hazing accident, a middle school gay boy who hung himself and a 35-year-old decorated veteran who succumbed to PTSD, she writes this: 

“Oh my God. This is what it looks like for boys to try to comply with our culture’s directions. They are not allowed to be whole, either. Boys are in cages, too. Boys who believe that real men are all-powerful will cheat and lie and steal to claim and keep power. Boys who believe that girls exist to validate them will take a woman’s rejection as a personal affront to their masculinity. Boys who believe that open, vulnerable connection between men is shameful will violently hate gay boys. Boys who believe that men don’t cry will become men who rage. Boys who learn pain is weakness will die before they ask for help.” 

When I finished reading this chapter, I sat in the quiet, stunned by the truth of her words. Women’s marches and racial riots get a lot of press. Meanwhile, typical white American boys exist idly.

Mothers and fathers of boys must be intentional to undo the effects of traditional American influence. I want my boys to be creative, caring and empathetic. If they grow up and marry a woman, I want them to revel in her awesomeness. I want their egalitarian relationship to serve as an example to other married couples. I want them to be dads who change diapers, drive kids to school, cook meals and love their sons and daughters fiercely and openly. 

If they grow up and choose not to get married, I want them to be confident in that decision and not shamed they didn’t follow the traditional path into fatherhood. If they discover they are gay, I want them to be proud of who they are and fight for their rights. 

I can attempt to help my children understand patriarchy and racism, but to an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old who live in a homogenous demographic, it’s hard for them to truly experience injustice. What I can do is nurture them with a river of love and understanding, a current so strong, they will never feel they have to be someone they are not. In doing that, I hope to raise men who respect others for who they are and not for their gender or skin color. 

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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