What we teach our sons
Updated: May 3, 2022
In writing romance and women’s fiction, I try to create heroes who are everything I’d want in a man. Men who are like my husband. Men like my father and grandfathers.
And I’ve always loved being the mother of a son. Dearest was so different from his sister, who is of course also delightful. But this little boy who learned to run an hour after he learned to walk, who sat in mud puddles for hours, who loved construction equipment and bugs, collected bent nails and screws and would go to great lengths to pretend he brushed his teeth…he was utterly surprising. He was such a boy. So wriggly and fast-moving, so cheerfully grimy and scraped up from climbing trees and kneeling in gravel.
When Dearest was about six, the school bully—a boy named Sam—stole the eyeglasses of a girl with a learning disability and threw them across the cafeteria. My son ran to get Caitlyn’s glasses, and he cried when he told me about the event. “I hate Sam,” he sobbed. “I hate him.” That moment confirmed what I already knew—my boy understood decency. He would act in the face of a bigger, stronger bully. And even at six, I knew girls could count on him.
McIrish and I have done our best to teach both kids to respect others based on their character. Not who is the fastest runner or the best quarterback. Not who is the most popular or drives the coolest car or lives in the biggest house.
But in recent weeks, we’ve had to have other conversations, and they hurt my heart, because I always hoped that some things go without saying.
I’ve had to talk to my son about how to treat women. Not just people in general, but girls. Women. Females of all ages, sizes and races. Because all of a sudden—after fifty-one years on earth where I’ve assumed that this goes without saying—disrespect, crudity and even violence against women in particular—is being normalized. And I cannot let my son, my boy whom I love with all my heart, to even consider the idea that this behavior is normal. That all guys do this.
I’ve had to tell him, specifically, what to do and say when he sees or hears a woman being victimized, threatened, or mocked. I told him about my friend’s son, who was uninvited to join a fraternity because he called out a fellow student on being predatory with a girl who’d already turned him down, a girl who’d had too much to drink.
“When you run into that situation,” I said to my son, “and you will—think of that girl as your sister. As Hayley or Maddie.” Girls he grew up with, girls who have been his friends since before he could remember meeting them. “You look after every girl that way, even if she’s a stranger. You protect her. She is your responsibility, and you have to be the one to do the right thing. Are we clear, Declan?”
“Would you expect me to behave any other way?” he asked, rightfully indignant, and again, my heart hurt.
“No,” I said. “But it has to be said just the same. Not all boys are like you. Not all men are like you. There are men are out there saying it’s normal to talk this way and do these things, I have to say this out loud. It’s not normal. It’s not okay. And because you’re the one of the good guys, it’s on you to be the protector.” Be like your father, I tell him. Be like Mike, the Princess’s boyfriend, who is gentle and kind but has shoved a boy against a wall when my daughter was threatened. Be that guy.
My son is not quite 18. I’ve given him a charge he will never be able to fulfill. Protect all women. See the predators, the haters, the bullies. Intervene, even when being honorable could lead to getting hurt, being bullied, being victimized yourself. Do it anyway.
I don’t want my son, the boy with the big heart and quiet ways, to live in a world where his female friends can be felt up or insulted or raped because a man has an ugly urge. I don’t want him to live in a world where his sister is vulnerable all the time, simply because she is female. Where my son has to be on alert, always, since he is one of the good guys.
But this is our world today, and this is the burden he carries.