Kavanaugh hearings were your moment as parents of boys
As Christine Blasey Ford entered the Capitol for her testimony in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh last week, she was dragging a lot of baggage: her own experiences; a confused, partisan political process; a president who sees sexual assault through an admittedly skewed lens; a nation of women divided in their opinions … and a whole lot of worried parents of teen boys.
Ford’s allegations of teenage sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh, and the reactions that have followed those allegations, have afforded us yet another view of the fault lines that underlie our society’s attitudes toward women, including behavior that starts in adolescence. It’s hard to escape the sense of systemic rot and — if you’re parenting teens — the sense that the responsibility for starting to fix that rot might just lie with you.
Yet, some experts on teen psychology and behavior see the Kavanaugh hearings not as a cause for parental panic, but as one of the great parenting opportunities of our age.
“I think it’s important for parents to have conversations with kids around these issues right now,” says Ana Houmayoun, nationally recognized counselor and author of parenting books such as “Social Media Wellness” and “The Myth of the Perfect Girl.”
“It gives them an opportunity to start a conversation around current events and get kids to think about their own values and what’s inappropriate and appropriate behavior. Now parents can just ask questions that start with ‘What do you think about this?’ When we do that, kids get to think about the people they are today and the people they want to be as they grow up in the world.”
The talking points, in other words, are there for you. But to help you take full advantage of the moment and the opportunity to inoculate your kids against what Houmayoun calls the “bro culture” that produces aggressive attitudes and behavior among boys and men, she has identified four things that matter:
Create a broad-based environment
“The first thing I often say to parents is that it’s important that kids, regardless of where they grow up, have a diverse set of experiences. They need to experience different people, different activities, different ideas. Because a lot of times this bro culture develops out of a singular set of notions about culture and a narrow definition of social success. The more kids can experience a wide range of people and activities, the less likely they’re going to feel a sense of obligation to go along with the social norms that are part of bro culture.”
“Parents need to encourage their kids to have conversations around expressing feelings and emotions for boys.” Though parents might think that the “boys don’t cry” culture is a thing of the past, active and open exploration of emotions for boys is still lacking in society and in our discussions with them as parents. Empathy is key, Houmayoun says, “because bro culture celebrates masculinity at the expense of empathy. Boys and girls need to know that feeling empathetic is powerful in our culture.”
The good news, she says, is that most kids do make solid moral judgments. “I think kids who are 17 are still developing, and I think that kids who are 17 do still know the difference between right and wrong. Most kids have good values and understand when something is hurtful.”
And, because of their training around social media and digital footprints, most kids also realize that their actions leave a permanent record — they’re not as surprised as we are that bad behavior would come back to haunt an adult 30 years later.
Explore their influences
“The things parents don’t realize is all the messages kids are getting that are not coming from them,” Houmayoun says. “They’re getting an almost constant flow of information that often parents are completely oblivious to.” It’s important to understand those influences — and also to approach that learning in a way that doesn’t feel like surveillance or judgment.
“The best thing parents can do is become more curious,” Houmayoun says. “And to have conversations with them about what they’re seeing, talking about what kinds of behaviors look appropriate, healthy and safe.” Stay curious, not punitive, when you (inevitably) see or hear something you don’t approve of. “Come from a place of curiosity rather than a place of anger and judgment when they are watching or participating in or expressing something that may be problematic. Often times we react angrily when it may just be a kid who is simply at the beginning of figuring out what he’s seeing. We have to provide a space in which they feel comfortable talking about it.”
Though the spotlight on bro culture highlights its pervasiveness and tenacity — yes, something many of us hoped was being eradicated by teaching kids about consent and women’s rights is still out there — it’s also a reminder that the burden of combating it doesn’t fall exclusively on parents.
“It really does take a village to help counteract these notions of bro culture,” says Houmayoun. “It’s not just parents, it’s family, friends, it’s coaches, it’s administrators. We need to look and see how boys talk to each other, to friends, to members of their community and talk about these issues so they can make choices about how they want to be.”
Participation in bro culture, she says, is prompted by a basic need to belong. “If we don’t have these conversations, kids who you wouldn’t worry about can feel like they’re less than if they don’t fit into a bro culture that they are exposed to elsewhere. They can often start to feel like what is popular is what is appropriate.”
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