In early 2009, I was ecstatic to find I would be a mother. We discovered I was carrying a baby boy, and tears of joy streaked down my face in the sonogram room; my sister had three girls, and I loved the idea of having a boy to add to the mix. Being a boy mom felt right to me, and I wanted to raise him to be the kind of man I would be proud to know.
I put a lot of pressure on myself, having been through both an abusive first marriage and sexual assault in my teens and 20s. I knew how much responsibility I had on my shoulders. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that teaching a boy to be a good man is complex and means a lot of different things to different people.
I asked around to get input: “What does it take to raise a boy into the kind of man who will be a good role model for generations after him?”
Some said strong male leadership and male role models are required. But what if his father has died or is absent, or his parents are two moms? I asked. That can’t be the heart of it.
Some said it’s a strong mother. My ex-husband grew up without a mother. It would be easy to say that not having a mother explained all his internal struggles, but that’s not fair to my male friends who are single parents or parent children with their husbands.
The basis of raising a good man, I believe, is not money, it’s not status, and it’s not one particular role model. It’s a blend of all of these things, I’m learning so far:
1. In no small part, it’s love. Not just love, but L-O-V-E with a capital L. It’s the love of someone important in his life; maybe his parents, and maybe it’s someone else. Or a village of someones. It's the kind of love and care that gives a young man the confidence to grow up strong AND kind.
2. It’s allowing boys to cry and feel and express themselves without telling them to “man up” or “tough it out” or “boys will be boys.” It’s giving them the gifts of compassion and kindness, and the knowledge that being kind and being a man are not mutually exclusive. We don’t have to assume that boys have impulses they can’t control, or that boys will fight and hit each other. When my son needs to cry, I don’t tell him to stop crying. I help him figure out why he’s crying and work through it together so he can identify it and discern the difference between sadness, frustration, and anger.
3. It’s showing kids that good relationships aren’t cultivated with power but with esteem. Last year, for example, a classmate came for playdate after school and spoke to my son with derision and a snotty tone. “No, that’s dumb,” he sneered to my son in the middle of a game. “That’s not how you play with that.”
I later talked to my son about how a good friend should talk to him and why less than that is unacceptable. Life is too short, I tell him regularly, to waste time with people who don’t value us.
On the flip side, my son recently hurt the feelings of a good friend of his by not standing up for him; the mother is one of my best friends, and she called to tell me about it. My son and I had a heart to heart about what it means to protect friends’ bodies and feelings, and what needed to be done. We drove immediately to that friend’s house, practicing his apology along the way. I told him that words and actions intended to cause harm are like nails in a board; even if you remove the nail, the hole remains. When he arrived, he told his friend he was sorry for not being a better friend. And then he asked what he could do to make it up to him; they hugged fiercely. He is learning that the wanton disregard of feelings is not OK, and he is responsible for his own actions.
4. It’s about respect. My son sometimes catches a snippet of the news, like when the football coach was fired for the sexual assault scandal at Baylor. I explained to him, as gently and appropriately as possible, that these men hurt women intentionally and violated their bodies. We talk about consent and responsibility; the most important word I practice with my son is STOP. He has been taught that his body is his own, and others have ownership over their own bodies. I fully expect that this lesson, side by side with lessons on kindness to all and respect for women, will result in a man who would never dream of pushing anyone past his or her physical comfort zone.
This means that even if I’m tickling him and we’re laughing and having a great time and suddenly he says “stop,” I stop immediately. If we’re wrestling and I ask him to stop, he knows he had better stop or he’ll get an earful. If he doesn’t, I make it clear to him what he needs to do and we role play it out. Sometimes I must remind myself that he’s only 8 and still learning so much. Things that seem obvious to adults are not necessarily obvious to kids.
5. It’s about boundaries, and I want my son to know that no one is immune to entering a dangerous and/or unhealthy relationship. It happened to me. It happened to two of my new friends: Christi Paul, an anchor for CNN, and Caitlin Barlow, actor and producer of the TV Land series “Teachers.” Christi told me that she teaches her daughters that name calling is not acceptable either. It’s a very slippery slope from name calling to verbal and even physical abuse. Showing kids what it means to set clear boundaries is an important way to protect them. And Caitlin says having her daughter gave her the strength to speak up. She wants her little girl to recognize the warning signs of a bad relationship, because it can start with small things that escalate into big things.
6. It’s cultivating a strong relationship with extended family and friends of all shapes, creeds and colors, because compassion is born through understanding people. When we are out, I make a point to compliment the young woman with the purple mohawk haircut for her individuality, and I speak to the woman in the hijab or the young black man with a hoodie at the airport. It’s difficult to hate people up close; exposing my son to travel and different cultures is crucial so he knows that humankind is complicated and beautiful in many forms. This, I know, I learned from my own mother and father and the ways they treated people.
7. It’s teaching boys that women are not objects, but respected partners. That message pairs well with teaching them that people are different, and we can recognize those differences without assigning them value in relation to others. I show him that I’m strong by taking care of myself, making my own health a priority, speaking up and helping the community. When we engage in imaginative play with his LEGO minifigures, sometimes the female characters save the male characters. The female is not always the damsel in distress.
Here’s to the next generation of men, with all of their feelings as humans intact. May they find value in kindness and know their strength is derived from community and not power over others. I can start with my son, and I hope his influence will inspire others to care for each other.
Kristin Shaw is a writer based in Austin, Texas. For more of her writing, you can find her at KristinVShaw.com for her essays and ThrillsandWheels.com for stories about positive, uplifting stories within the automotive industry. Her essay and video "I can still pick him up, so I do" has been seen by millions of viewers on the TODAY Parents platform.