By Kris Macomber, PhD
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As a parent committed to non-violence, I know that the first few years of my son’s life are a special, sacred time. I know that for a brief period of time, he will know only my version of the world—a world where peace, love, safety, and self-freedom overflow. A world where all forms of violence are non-existent and where cultural definitions of “masculinity” are relatively inconsequential for him. I am happy knowing that he will live in this special world, even for just a few years. I know that, eventually, the violent culture he was born into will show him a different version of the world—a world where domestic and sexual violence is normalized and widespread, and where boys and men are socialized to be complicit with it, or at the least, consider it unremarkable.
As a sociologist, I study and teach about things like childhood gender socialization, the construction of “masculinity” and “femininity” in mass media, and gender-based violence (including domestic and sexual violence). Although these may seem like distinct societal trends, it is my job to identify how patterns of daily life connect them. That is, if we place violence against women at the end of a continuum, we would place childhood gender socialization (i.e. telling a boy to “man up,” “stop acting like a girl,” and marketing toy guns to boys) at the beginning of the continuum. Then, from there, we would place many other patterns across the continuum (the sexual objectification of girls and women, victim blaming, the stigmatization of victimization, and homophobia and heterosexism, to name a few).
So, as a parent and as a sociologist, I am tuned-into this continuum and to how Kaden, my son, who is 4 years old, is experiencing and making sense of different parts of it. I am concerned about how he is confronted, again and again, with media images and other forms of consumer culture that depict boys and men as dominant and aggressive, while depicting girls and women as compliant and ornamental. We see this in everything from children’s books, to television shows, to advertisements, to movies, to computer games. This is the world he has inherited.
Raising Full Children
As Kaden navigates the world around him, I am concerned with how narrow gender expectations and the association between “masculinity” and violence will impact how he thinks of himself, of other boys and men, and of girls and women. If he learns that acting “girly” is supposedly one of the worst things he can do, what is he then learning about the worth and contributions of girls and women? Also, what will he think about people who don’t identify with our rigid gender binary? And perhaps the most important question, what is he learning about the relationships and connections between these groups of people?
I want to help my son develop his full human potential, not just the parts of him that match societal assumptions about what it means to be a boy. What does that even mean anyway, to be a “boy?” Shouldn’t we teach our children to strive to be good people, rather than “good boys,” or “good girls?” Doesn’t the latter limit all that they can be?
So, as a parent trying to raise a non-violent child in a violent culture, what do I do?
I do the one thing I can do. I ask questions. That is, I ask Kaden questions, lots and lots of questions. My hope is that by asking him questions, I can help him develop what I call social literacy—the ability to read and interpret the world around him. I ask him questions about the images he views, about the stories we read together, about the toys he plays with, about the interactions he has with people, and about the feelings he feels.
Developing Social Literacy: The Importance of Asking Questions
As parents, we help our children learn to do so many wonderful things. We teach them how to ride a bike, to swim, to read, to write, to count, to be polite and kind to others. We can also teach them how to make sense of the social world they live in, and how to think more critically about it. My hope is that if I keep asking Kaden questions, he will eventually start asking his own questions.
One thing that asking questions can do is help children develop media literacy skills. Right now, Kaden is young enough that I can monitor and control most of the media he consumes. However, this will get harder as he gets older and becomes more independent. He will be exposed to more violent imagery and to ideas that support the use of violence as a way to handle conflict, especially for boys and men. If he learns to ask questions about the media he consumes, and if he learns to see the media through a more critical lens, he might be better able to assess and analyze it, rather than simply accept it for what it. Some questions I have asked him are: “Can girls and women be superhero’s too?” And, “Why do you think the people who make movies always make a “bad guy” character?
Asking questions can also help nurture children’s emotional expression, which for boys is especially important because they will face pressure to suppress their emotions. I frequently ask Kaden questions like, “How does that make you feel?” And, “When she hurt your feelings, what was it that made you feel bad?” Being able to articulate their feelings is critical for children’s emotional development and well-being. It also takes practice. Asking questions is one way to help them practice
I also think it’s important to ask questions that nurture their capacity for empathy, which I try to do by asking him questions about how others might feel. For example, when we were at a playground one afternoon, Kaden was playing with a group of older children and one of the older boys said, “Let’s make a fort, but there’s one rule. No girls allowed.” I asked Kaden afterwards, “If you were a girl, how do you think that rule would make you feel?” He said, “It would hurt my feelings because it’s not very nice.” We talked about it some more and I introduced the concept of fairness to him. I wasn’t sure if he understood what I meant, but it was a start.
A few months later, a similar situation occurred. We were at the same playground and, again, an older boy said, “Come on, let’s go on the merry-go-round! Just the boys.” Kaden said, “That’s not fair. Everyone come on the merry-go-round.” I watched with pride as those children spun around in circles.
By holding space for him to engage his feelings, and by nurturing his capacity for empathy, I hope he continues to develop a vocabulary for discussing his emotions, and the confidence to do so.
Preparing them for the Riptide
When I think about the powerful influence that culture has on our children, especially media culture, the image of a riptide always comes to mind. The better prepared our children are to confront the riptide, the better their chances are of not being carried out to sea. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But, what I do have is a steady supply of questions.
I will continue to ask Kaden questions to help him cultivate good social literacy skills and to help him develop his full, human potential. It is my hope that as he grows older, he matures into the loving, peaceful, and empathetic person he is at this very moment.
Author Bio: Kris Macomber, PhD, is a sociologist who specializes in gender-based violence, childhood victimization, gender in the media, applied and public sociology, and community-based research. Kris earned her PhD from North Carolina State University, where her dissertation research examined men’s growing involvement in the anti-violence against women movement. Kris’s publications span a variety of academic and applied outlets, such as: The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe, Feminist Teacher, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Teaching Sociology. She is a passionate anti-violence activist and educator who loves teaching students about sociology and social justice issues. She is currently an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Meredith College, in Raleigh, NC.
Kris gives talks and presentations on the following topics: “Men As Allies: Mobilizing Men to End Violence Against Women,” “Male Privilege in Violence Prevention Work,” “Practitioner-Researcher Collaborations,” “Gender in the Media,” “Gender Inequality,” and “What is ‘Rape Culture?’
You can also visit Kris's Everyday Sociology Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Everyday-Sociology/245523538906269?ref=hl#