Say a little boy throws a book at his sister or hits back at mom when he doesn’t want to put down a toy and come to dinner.
“Well,” says someone in his life, “boys will be boys.”
All of the above may seem like nothing. But over time, if boys’ disrespect or aggressiveness is too often explained away as “just boy” behavior, guess what? That child may grow up never learning how to behave properly in relationships, in social settings or even professionally.
“My three-and-a-half-year-old is pretty rambunctious,” said Dr. Christopher Drescher, who also has a 2-month-old son. “But while it’s OK to play rough at times, it’s not OK to hit or be aggressive. You have to have consequences, and it’s important not to let those things go by without comment or the child learns that it’s OK to behave this way.”
Like anything, says Drescher, prevention is better than intervention, and it starts early: Children actually start noticing gender differences when they’re as young as 1.
“The child is going to first look at other males in his life and see how they are acting and treating other people they interact with,” he said.
Both words and actions by male role models make a difference. Sexist “jokes” like “Get into the kitchen and make my dinner,” or actions like being reluctant to help clean the house or do laundry teach children one way to act. So do quietly buying groceries and making dinner or saying, “Hey, I’m so proud of you for your promotion at work”—even if that promotion makes a spouse the primary breadwinner.
Then again, as with most things, it’s important to directly talk about how we treat other people, including women, said Drescher—“not just hope a child gets it through osmosis.”
Media—like books or a show that may come across as sexist or may reinforce gender roles that don’t align with family values—offer great teachable moments. “It’s not, ‘Burn this book—let’s not look at this again,’” said Drescher. “But ask, how was this character treated? What do you think this means? Should we treat people in real life like this? Would you like it if someone treated you this way? It’s an opportunity for a conversation.”
As a child grows into a teen, you may feel like it’s time for a conversation about how to treat other people, including women, but say you feel awkward about launching into a sit-down discussion about it. So, don’t sit. Instead, try to bring up the topic naturally during an activity, whether that’s playing basketball, taking a hike, or on a drive. A good way to start is to say, “Hey, now that you’re getting older, I wanted to hear what you think about different people.”
But, just as you would likely correct a young child for hitting, if you notice your child or teen making a sexist comment or treating someone of another gender negatively, you have to call that out, said Drescher. “It’s not about making them feel ashamed or coming down harshly,” he said. “But you do want to say that’s not a comment or an action that I am OK with and here’s why. It’s important not to let those things go unnoted or that could be seen as tacit approval.”
According to one study, the average age for parents to stop hugging and snuggling with their boys is when those boys are just 6 years old. Instead, boys are often taught to be “strong” or “tough.” Boys also tend to get less reinforcement for expressing softer, “female” emotions like sadness or anxiety, but more for expressing anger.
All of that, says Drescher, should be the opposite. “It’s important for parents to continue to express affection, including physical touch, to their boys and girls,” he said. And letting boys express these so-called “softer” emotions helps them learn how to manage them.
When it comes to emotions, one thing parents can do is to help name them, which allows children to process and regulate emotions, and helps them calm down. For example, if you notice that a child seems withdrawn or upset because their friend had to go home, you could say, “I might feel sad if my friend couldn’t stay. I’m wondering if you’re feeling sad?”
“That validation,” says Drescher, “can help build their emotional vocabulary and overall emotion regulation skills.”
Why This Is Important
“I do think that many of the things traditionally associated with being more feminine are actually really valuable in society,” said Drescher, “both by organizations and by individuals in their relationships with people.”
That includes being empathetic, being able to listen, being able to work toward compromises when there’s a disagreement. When men can express a wide range of emotions, that’s both appreciated and welcomed.
Ensuring children benefit from a wide range of positive role models from different backgrounds takes this idea even further. “When we are positively exposed to people who are different from us—from different racial backgrounds for example—it increases our liking and empathy toward those groups,” said Drescher. “It makes us have more positive attitudes toward people of diverse backgrounds.”