Ending Sexual Violence by Raising Better Boys

How to teach even the youngest sons to respect girls and understand boundaries—and themselves.

A black and white photo of a young man with blue eyes
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

As a woman and a mother, I’ve experienced the past few weeks on a handful of levels. I’ve been reminded of the dark experiences of my youth—even those of us who were never raped or assaulted still remember close calls or unpleasant encounters. Hearing Christine Blasey Ford’s story, I thought of my 4-year-old daughter and the ways I can prepare her to survive in this misogynistic world. But most pressingly, after witnessing Kavanaugh’s and Trump’s outbursts, I’ve considered my 7-year-old son. What can I do to shape him into a respectful man—one who doesn’t assault women, most importantly, but who also doesn’t make lewd jokes, grab butts, mock victims, or generally treat women as if they’re inferior?

Before the Kavanaugh saga, that was not a question most parents usually pondered. The language of sexual violence prevention largely revolves around what we can teach girls about staying safe. Some protocols to prevent sexual assault in schools and on college campuses have involved educating only women, too. Isn’t this kind of ridiculous? Aren’t the people best positioned to prevent sexual assaults the people who usually commit sexual assaults in the first place?

I think so—and many researchers who study sexual violence, and who understand the social and emotional dynamics that fuel it, think so too. Luckily, research suggests that there’s a lot that parents can do, even with young boys, to foster respect and empathy for women in ways that will reduce the risk they’ll be sexually violent later in life. And most of it doesn’t even require you to utter the word sex. “We are all teaching our children sexual respect, or lack thereof, in the smallest things,” says Emily Rothman, a community health scientist at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Here’s what I’ve learned about some of those things.

Strategy No. 1: Make your boys feel as comfortable as possible experiencing and discussing emotions. This is countercultural, because American parents tend to frown upon emotion in boys. We tell our crying sons to buck up or even (cringe) to stop acting like a girl. Yet casting boys as stoic and physical and girls as weak and emotional sends the message that one sex has power and competence and the other does not. “Parents need to understand that what we might think of as a benign statement can set the stage for the legitimization of violence against girls and women—and it can start as simple as with, Don’t be a pussy, or Don’t throw like a girl,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist at the University of Florida. In addition to sending sexist messages, these kinds of insults prime boys to act out in ways that “prove” they are traditionally male: Research suggests that boys who are made to feel emasculated are more likely than other boys to perpetrate sexual violence. (For more on how these kinds of gender stereotypes fuel sexist behavior and what parents can do about it, read this column I wrote last year.)

Denying boys emotional freedom does damage in another way, too. “If they can’t recognize in themselves that they feel uncomfortable or that they feel upset by something, they’re going to have a harder time recognizing that in somebody else,” explains Poco Kernsmith, a violence prevention researcher at Wayne State University. “It puts them at a disadvantage for learning empathy.” Instead of telling boys to toughen up, then, we should do the opposite: acknowledge their feelings and try to get them to talk about and understand them, because this helps them control their feelings and, ultimately, makes boys less physically aggressive. Say things like It sounds like you’re angry right now, or Let’s talk about why you don’t want to go to school today. Discussing emotions with your son might seem awkward, but a growing body of research suggests that it’s the men who’ve felt the need to suppress their emotions who are most likely to become violent adults. Men with emotional-regulation problems are also more likely to use and abuse substances, which is independently linked with sexual violence, too.

Strategy No. 2: Teach your kids to set and respect physical boundaries. Let’s say Grandma arrives for a visit and you instruct your kids to give her a hug. Sounds innocent enough, but doing so teaches kids that it’s OK to force or be forced to embrace someone. (A few minutes after writing this, I heard myself telling my daughter “I need a hug” from her. D’oh!) Instead, you can request that they hug but not require it. “What feels most comfortable to me is when people say, I would love a hug from you if you’d like to give me a hug,” Kernsmith says—but reassure them it’s fine if they don’t want to.

Whenever you need to invade your child’s personal space, it’s also wise to “make a big underlined point of asking them for their consent,” Rothman says. Is it OK if I lift up your shirt to look at your boo-boo? Mind if I give you a snuggle? This may sound over-the-top, but showing your kids that you respect their body autonomy and personal space affirms that it’s OK for them to take ownership of their bodies—and that other people’s bodies are their own, too.

Expanding on this idea, emphasize and respect the notion of privacy. If you’re a family that’s generally comfortable with nudity, that’s fine, but still signify that being naked is something that some people do in private. When your kid waltzes into the bathroom while you’re getting into the shower, maybe say, Just so you know, you are in my bathroom and I’m naked, and that’s OK with me, but next time could you knock? This kind of acknowledgment “shows that you have boundaries, and that you know how to assert your boundaries, and that you want them to respect your boundaries,” Rothman says. The more your son encounters and navigates boundaries, the more comfortable and accepting he’ll be down the line when he meets a young woman who asserts hers.

If your son is mature enough, you may also want to talk more specifically about sexual consent. Make sure that he understands that “it’s not just that consent is assumed, but that it’s actually discussed and voiced,” says Kristin Moilanen, a developmental psychologist at West Virginia University. Here’s a resource for parents on that topic that includes a video for boys aged 11 to 16, and one more about talking with kids about sex generally that includes information sheets on various topics.

Strategy No. 3: Model respectful behavior and regularly engage with your kids about what that means. “Kids tend to notice what you do much more than what you say,” says Mark Van Ryzin, an educational psychologist at the University of Oregon. Boys learn a lot from watching how Dad treats Mom and from how conflicts are resolved within the family. “If boys are living in households where there’s verbal hostility displayed towards their mothers or sisters or towards other women, they’re going to learn those attitudes or values themselves,” Moilanen says. So to the extent that you can, set the family expectation that everyone is respected, listened to, and treated fairly. This includes your own respect for your kids: The goal is to engage in “really thoughtful, purposeful, child-responsive parenting,” Moilanen says. Research suggests that regularly yelling at and domineering your kids increases the risk that they’ll act aggressively toward dating partners, while setting clear limits and being supportive has the opposite effect.

How should you handle it if your son does something you consider aggressive or disrespectful? Rothman says that it’s a good idea to call it out in the moment and say something like The way that you’re touching your sister right now is inappropriate, but that you should also bring the topic back up later, when everyone is calmer. “Reassure them that you love them, so that they just don’t crumple,” Rothman says, and then go on to say something like Usually you treat your sister so well and so respectfully, but yesterday, you did something that did upset me. It may help to talk about consequences, too, Rothman says—that if he were to grab someone at school that way, he might get sent to the principal’s office, or that this kind of behavior as an adult is illegal. Discussing consequences also underscores the notion of personal accountability, which is crucial to instill in boys, too—including that “there really is nothing that mitigates responsibility,” Moilanen says (including alcohol).

And if you observe your son saying something sexist—I once heard mine announce that he and his friends don’t play soccer with girls because they aren’t as good and cry too much—then admonishing isn’t necessarily the best approach. Instead, it can be smart to engage with him more thoughtfully. “A well-meaning parent will say, That’s not fair, you should let the girls play too,” Rothman says (which I’m pretty sure is what I did at the time). However, then your kid will hear that he did something wrong but won’t have any reason to reconsider his opinion on playing with girls. Instead, it would have been wise for me to ask questions and start a broader conversation. As Rothman explained, I could have asked why he thinks girls cry more than boys and then talk to him about social norms; or I could have asked what he thinks would have happened if he had let them play, and why it might have felt good to be inclusive.

Ideally, parents should have conversations with their sons about these kinds of issues whenever teachable moments present themselves. Don’t just formally sit your kid down once a year, but make it a casual and regular part of family discussions. That’s not just because your kid will better absorb things that way, but because he’ll also feel more comfortable talking to you when difficult or confusing situations arise. And if your son is old enough to follow the news, use what’s happening to get the conversations going—there are plenty of opportunities these days. Did he hear about Trump mocking Ford? Ask your son if he thinks that’s OK and talk about why you think it’s not. If we’re going to be continuously bombarded with bad examples, we might as well use them to raise better kids .