During the week when my son Paul was born last year, social media was all abuzz about the Brock Turner sentencing. For those of you who missed the whole story, a quick recap. Turner was a 20 year old student attending Stanford when he was found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a dumpster in the early hours of the morning in January 2015. He was caught and ultimately pursued by two Swedish male students who have been heralded as heroes by the victim as well as by an extended community all over the world. Ultimately, Turner got off on a very light sentence of 6 months in jail and community service and was released after half of that time. This in turn caused widespread outrage across the globe, and led to heated discussions on the internet about rape culture. In the months that followed, and thanks also in part to Trump’s “pussy grabbing” admittance, I witnessed as friends and contacts on social media shared stories of their own assaults or near assaults, as well as stories of their young daughters sticking up on the playground to little boys who didn’t respect their personal space. Still in the early and hazy days of being a mother and establishing a bond with my newborn son (and spending countless and sleepless hours on the internet during feeds), I found it hard to ignore the outcry around this case. And as a new mother looking down on a beautiful and precious baby boy, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through Brock Turner’s mother’s mind while the entire world deplored her son. Don’t get me wrong. I too think what Brock Turner did was reprehensible. But a part of me empathizes with his mother who must mourn the loss of her once baby boy’s innocence and is left with the question, “Where did things go wrong?” And from her tragedy, I’d like to learn, so that someday, my own beautiful and innocent boy can grow into a man who if in a similar situation wouldn’t go the route of Turner, but would chose the route of our Swedish heroes.
Reflecting on incidents from my own childhood and adolescence, I realize that the culture of “boys being boys” and how young males relate to females, can start at a much younger age than the age Brock Turner was when he forever marked his legacy behind a dumpster at age 20. When I was around the age of four, I can remember an older neighbor boy encouraging me to lift my dress up at passing cars on the back alleyway behind our house. It seemed innocent enough and I don’t recall being too fazed or scarred by the act, but remember my mother being extremely disturbed when she learned of what had happened. About ten years later in high school, I was cornered by the class bully at my locker at lunchtime. Clearly wanting to impress a cheerleader who was caught in the awkward position of hanging out with him at that moment, he approached me and to then boasted without so much as an expression on his face, “I like to box and I’ll box your tits,” as he proceeded to box the air with his fists just inches away from my chest. I can recall the cricket silence after this as I really did not know what to make of his proclamation, nor did the other girl who was there to witness it. Throughout high school, I continued to witness Bully harass countless other helpless victims, both male and female, in the cafeteria at lunchtime, outside 7-11 after school and who knows where else? It was small-time bullying of the classic brand and I sigh in relief knowing he didn’t grow up in a day and age with the internet and social media. I heard he eventually finished high school at a military academy, much to probably many people’s relief. Thinking back on him 25+ years later, I wonder what kind of man he became and also about his own home situation as a child. Again, the question comes up, “What went wrong?” Did Bully have a strained relationship with his parents? Was there an absent father or mother? Was he reprimanded too many times for crying and not “being a man”? What kind of messages did he receive outside home and on the playground and in school? Somewhere along the way, Bully learned his atrocious behavior and clearly felt a sense of power from belittling others.
These interactions with Bully and the older neighborhood boy from my early childhood also raise questions not only of messages boys receive about respect and interaction with girls, but also about their sense of self and the definition of being a boy and man. For years, I have heard messages about girls and young women being denied opportunities, their voices, and access. Sadly in 2017 in many parts of both the developing and first world, girls have no say over their bodies, their education, nor their lifestyles. Yet for years, I never considered the struggles that boys and young men also have to endure. Having not grown up as a boy and man myself, I suspect that like girls, there must be so many messages that boys get from their parents, peers, teachers, community, and media about how they should be when they grow up, act, interact with other boys and girls, and which emotions they should demonstrate.
My first encounter with the realization that boys too face an unfair oppression came to me a few years ago when I worked with middle school age youth who grew up in broken homes and foster care. While I carried on my shoulders the heartbreaking stories of both the girls and boys with whom I worked, I was struck for the first time with the burden these coming of age young men felt with trying to belong, to feel acceptance from both peers and adults, to keep it together for younger siblings, while also navigating the rollercoaster years of adolescence. When I first encountered some of these boys when they arrived in middle school at age 11, many were still relatively sweet and gentle beings. But within a year, so many of them turned a dark corner as they began to grow from boys into young men. It was as if they not only began to struggle with their own new transformations, but they started realizing that they also had to navigate how they were being viewed by the rest of the world. So many of them wearing bold and tough masks and unrelenting in their cold and rough demeanor, I craved the moments when any of them might crack a tiny amount of their hard exteriors to reveal slivers of their former, gentle selves. With absent parents in their lives, I learned the important roles that female and especially male teachers, coaches, school counselors, support workers and community organizers helped play in setting these young men on the right paths in life while also enabling them to occasionally let down their guard and reveal their still underlying childish and goofy sides.
Reflecting on the bumpy roads of adolescence and the personal turmoil my own son may someday have to encounter, I try to savor every moment of his innocent years. But while it still may be several years until he’s pressured into showing a tough exterior or “being a man”, I realize very little time remains before his gender shapes his identity. In his first year, I could cradle and adorn him with kisses, baby him with a ridiculous, cutesy, high pitched voice I reserve for him alone, and not worry about smothering him with too much love. Also, I could enjoy him as a new person, and not even feel burdened by him wearing second hand pink girl onesies. I could block out worries about the kind of boy and man my son would someday become, because in the early days, it was all about getting by day by day and establishing a bond with my little person. But now as a one-year old, he’s now grown from a little baby into a little boy. While he may not have an understanding of gender identity yet, he is discovering parts of his anatomy. I too am starting to see him differently. I no longer buy second hand girl outfits for him, and I even get a little wary when he plays with his female friend and if he inadvertently touches her face in a rough way. I still smother him with kisses and profess my love to him every fifteen minutes, and secretly delight in his excitement in seeing me after a few minutes of separation. But for how long can I continue to shower him with such affection and love? When do I need to find new ways to demonstrate my love for him? Right now he cries if he falls or hits his head. Is there a point though when it’s no longer acceptable for me to console him and allow him cry out in despair?
Paul will grow up in New Zealand and I feel confident he will be raised in a safe, child friendly country, free of the gun violence and turmoil that affects so many communities these days in the US, where I mostly grew up. Yet even here, in a country regarded greatly for its progressive values, high levels of well-being and happiness, and gender equality (after all, it was the first country in the world where women got the right to vote!), I don’t think boys and young men are immune to the pressure and expectations set out for their gender. I have yet to learn through my son’s own experiences as he grows older whether there is a rampant push for boys to act tough, never cry, and keep their emotions in check. I still have a long road ahead to experience and examine how my own actions may play into his self-identity and how he relates to others. Looking at my little baby boy, I want to hold onto this precious time when he can still cry and before his gender starts to become part of his identity. I want him to know when he grows older that it’s ok to cry and my hope will be he can grow up to be himself (whatever that may be) and that he’ll be compassionate to all humans- females and males alike. In a day and age of so much digital coverage and rhetoric about assault, sex, body image and stereotypes, I know these kind of discussions with our children, local communities and wider community in the world will be so critical.
Recently, I heard a TED talk and interview with Sue Klebold, the mother of 17-year old Dylan Klebold, who with another classmate named Eric Harris, perpetrated one of the worst acts of public violence in a mass shooting spree at the their high school, Columbine, in April 1999, and then they ultimately took their own lives. Just as I have wondered what may have been going through the mind of Brock Turner’s mother, Sue Klebold has had to answer for years for what she may have done wrong in parenting her son. Her hardest struggle has been forgiving herself and looking back and questioning whether she could have done something differently to save him. While others have judged her, she’s been led down a path of deep introspection where she’s searched for answers, knowing in her heart that she tried to be loving to her son, but also wondering whether there could have been magic words said or interventions that could have been made. Looking back to the time before Dylan’s death, she realizes she did the best she could for him and never wanted him to come under any harm.
Perhaps the lessons I can learn from such great tragedies, my own strange encounters with boys when I was growing up, as well as my interaction with adolescent boys a few years ago, is that nothing I can do may stop the forces of the direction my son may take. What I do know is that as a parent, I won’t ever stop listening to and loving my son. Sue Klebold has taught me that it’s worth it to never stop trying to reach out to him, through all his walks of life. I also believe in that old adage that it takes a village to raise a person. And while I may blindly hope my and Paul’s father’s love for him will set him on the right path in life and allow him to become a happy, empathetic and responsible human being, I won’t be afraid to have dialogs and reach out for support with other people in his life and community.
I hope by candidly writing about my experiences and fears that I can help raise awareness on how families and communities near and far can come together to help raise our sons to be happy, healthy people who don’t need to hide behind masks. In the meantime, I’m going to continue doing what I do best, which is unconditionally loving my son.
Further Links and Resources:
Ehrmann, Joe. (2013). Be A Man. TEDxBaltimore 2013. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVI1Xutc_Ws
Klebold, Sue. My Son was a Columbine Shooter. This is my story. TED: November 2016. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/sue_klebold_my_son_was_a_columbine_shooter_this_is_my_story
Man Up: One Bloke’s Mission to Save Aussie Men. Retrieved from http://manup.org.au/
The Mask You Live In. Retrieved from http://therepresentationproject.org/film/the-mask-you-live-in/
Reiner, Andrew. (June 15, 2017). Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/well/family/talking-to-boys-the-way-we-talk-to-girls.html
Reiner, Andrew. (October 14, 2016). The Fear of Having a Son. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/well/family/the-fear-of-having-a-son.html?action=click&contentCollection=Well&module=RelatedCoverage&
Remembering Celia Lashlie. (2015). Rhema Media NZ. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S45Dj_HTFho