By Anna Orso
Dr. Elizabeth Robinson always told her four sons to wear their coats even when they didn’t want to, to clear their plates when they insisted they weren’t hungry, to wear something to school that wasn’t pajamas.
But Robinson, whose kids are now ages 16 to 22, has changed her parenting philosophies over the years.
Now, the pediatrician tells the parents of her patients not to force a kid to eat when they’re not hungry. Let ’em wear those worn PJs to school, as hard as it may be. It’s about teaching kids to listen to their own bodies — bodies they should learn they have control over from a young age.
“We can only be their bosses for so long,” said Robinson of Center City Pediatrics in Bala Cynwyd.
Robinson says these lessons can make conversations about sex and consent easier down the line. And as the #MeToo movement has brought forth a flood of conversations about sexual harassment and misconduct, experts have suggested the best way to reduce sexual harassment in future generations is to start better educating boys now.
Kathryn Stamoulis, an expert in adolescent sexuality, said while parents should have conversations with both boys and girls about consent, harassment, and rape, “we are doing our kids a disservice if we pretend this issue isn’t gendered.” According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 91 percent of victims of rape and sexual assault are female.
Stamoulis said parents should address consent with boys to tamp down on “male entitlement.”
“We have to teach kids, while intimacy is nice,” she said, “no one is entitled to it, and no one owes anyone it.”
Experts agree the best way to teach kids about boundaries is by “modeling.” Stamoulis said parents should respect their children’s physical space, be mindful of intimate and physical relationships at home, and call out harassment they observe.
Below is a look at age-appropriate lessons you can give your boys.
From preschool to early elementary grades
Brandi Davis, a Philadelphia-based parenting coach, said lessons about respect can start at ages 2 and 3. Stamoulis added that in early childhood, “teaching consent is about respect and body autonomy, not sex.”
1. Teach boundaries.
Robinson said parents can start with lessons like “we don’t invade other people’s personal space unless they say it’s OK.” She said children should learn to ask for permission before they embrace a playmate. On the flip side, it’s important kids understand their own boundaries. They don’t want to kiss Aunt Sally? They don’t have to. This, Robinson said, is about “honoring their personal space.”
Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, a sex-ed training organization housed at Rutgers University, said for young boys, these lessons provide a foundation so that as a child gets older, parents can apply them to romantic scenarios.
2. Help them cope with rejection.
Robinson said children should learn the sanctity of two words: no and stop. For example, if your son asks another child to play a game, and that child says no, tell your son: “She doesn’t want to play that right now. What is her face telling you? Why don’t we pick another game? She’s not enjoying that game anymore.”
She added that there should be clear-cut consequences for children who don’t listen to “no” and “stop.” Robinson said she often sees children bothering their mothers, and after the mom says “stop it,” the kid will continue, and the mom will eventually give in.
“Use consequences that are clear, so when you say ‘If you do that again, we’re not going to Disney World,’ be prepared to not go to Disney World,” she said. “And hope they mess up. You want them to mess up when they’re young so that they understand that, yeah, this is real stuff.”
3. Use anatomical language.
Davis said it’s important parents use anatomical language when referring to genitals. It ensures children can clearly communicate if they were sexually abused. It also socializes children to feel comfortable using that language. Cushman said it’s also important to talk with boys about what girls’ bodies look like to satiate their curiosity with information.
“We can nip certain behaviors in the bud by being up front and honest,” she said, “and not being secretive about it and not shaming them.”
Late elementary school to tween-age
This is when harassing behaviors start, Cushman said, often in the form of teasing that crosses a line. Annie Fox, an educator and online adviser for parents and teens, said middle school is the “golden time” to start talking about “flirting and hurting,” or helping their sons to understand the difference between playful banter and harassment.
1. Address misconduct during conversations about sex.
Experts said open lines of communication about boundaries should continue through elementary school, but by late elementary school or middle school, parents should talk with their children about sex. Robinson said she tells parents that one of the best ways to start a dialogue is by purchasing their child a book tailored to their gender about sex and puberty, and telling the child they can ask any questions they’d like.
“While we may not feel like we’re ready for a conversation,” Cushman said, “we have to combat unhealthy narratives in the media” that show men getting rewarded when they persistently pursue women.
2. Talk about being a bystander.
Fox said boys “love the idea of being a super hero,” making it easier for parents to talk consistently about how they would respond if someone they knew was treating another person poorly.
Davis said she recommends parents use TV shows and other media to teach sons about how to be a better bystander. She recommended saying something like: “Does she look comfortable? That boy was speaking to her in a disrespectful way, and his friends were laughing. What would you do in that situation?”
Teenage-hood and beyond
Before boys head to their first jobs or off to college, it’s important they know and understand the law. Robinson said they should also know that alcohol and consent don’t mix.
1. Teach affirmative consent.
Stamoulis said most children are exposed to sexual messaging in their early teen years, and this is when conversations about “yes means yes” — the idea that all parties in a sexual encounter are consenting — should begin.
“We want young people to know that hooking up or having sex should be very wanted by both parties,” Stamoulis said.
“Consent should be about checking to make sure your partner really wants to hook up, not just being OK that they aren’t saying no.”
2. Identify adult confidantes.
Teenagers aren’t known for being open with parents about sex. Robinson said parents should make sure teens know other adults they trust — another family member, a counselor, a pediatrician — if they have candid questions.
3. Consider telling them about your harassment experiences.
But only if moms are comfortable, and if they’re certain the conversation won’t make the boy feel like he needs to tend to their emotions.
“Moms have a really powerful opportunity to speak as women who are often the recipients of unwanted attention,” Cushman said, “and use that to create empathy in their boys.”