On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail talks to Maria, a mom of two boys who’s trying hard to raise good men. She wants them to be able to express their emotions, stand up to bullies, and respect others’ boundaries—but she’s not quite sure where to start. Shehnaz, a fellow mom and a restaurant owner, shares her insights from raising her own boys. This transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Shehnaz: I definitely think that allowing your children to have emotions, like crying, like empathy and compassion, [is] very, very important. If you can cement those things and remove the shame attached to it because they’re males, I think that’s the first step in moving away from the direction where males can feel like “these emotions are set for women” or “these are set for males.”
There’s another thing that I’d like to talk about, which I think is really important. It’s a deconstruction of power. I think that power has been constructed in all societies, whether you look at through government or through families. It’s very patriarchal. It’s very male. I didn’t work. I went to school, most of my married life and raising my children. But I did things like if there was cooking involved or if there was kitchen work involved, everybody was involved.
When my kids were 12 years old, I taught them to do their own laundry. And I told them: “You can’t take advantage of me just because I’m female. I’m not going to do your laundry. Forget about it.” So I think just breaking down these gender roles and making it inclusive to everybody in your household is very important. That should be the norm. This will extend itself outside. You want them to go into the locker room and say, “This is not right”? Then that’s where you start. You start at home.
Maria: Yeah. And I am trying to. Like you said, you have to start with yourself. I am working to show vulnerability, to show my kids when I’m wrong, when I’ve acted out and maybe I regretted it, and I say sorry to them. And I work with my relationship with their dad and make sure that we treat each other with respect. So I try to do all these things. Now I’m just very happy that I have boys, because then I’ve had to meet my prejudice against a lot of masculine things head-on. And hopefully it will make me continue to grow and be a better parent.
Aymann Ismail: Oh, that’s really interesting. I didn’t know that you had to confront any prejudices that you had against masculine things. Can we talk about that for a second?
Maria: Yeah. So for example, in my family there are only boys in the next generation. So we don’t have any girls. And I’m scared that they’re just going to make a boy league and that they’re just going to be very competitive and build stuff and play football and chess and all these things where I don’t feel like I have anything to bring to the table, so that I’m just going to be a doll woman that they don’t respect. They have some older cousins, and whenever they become competitive, I’m like: “No, you shouldn’t win. You shouldn’t try to come first. Why do you do that?” And when I think about that later on, I’m like, why? Competition can be a good thing. That’s what kind of drives the world forward, that people want to do better.
Shehnaz: I can relate, Maria, when you said you have certain—I don’t know if it’s biases, but I think maybe they’re just fears. For me, they felt like fears. So the way men display specific male “gender” traits to me is a way for me to have conversations with them. I’ll give you a really funny anecdote. I own a restaurant, and I work with my brother and a bunch of guys. So they were watching football. I have no idea about anything about American football. Nothing. So my brother’s talking to me like I’m supposed to understand this language.
So I decided consciously that I would join in. I started learning. He’d say, “You want to bet this?” And I did an intellectual approach. I would bust out all the quarterbacks and running backs. So I was teaching myself, and it allowed me to enter that space and be able to hang with the guys, if you will, and continue to have conversations. There were football players who were brought up about sex charges and rape and stuff like that. And that allowed me to [say], like, “I know about football, so let’s talk about this dude.” And you can see the appall on the guy’s faces: “This is not right.” And you have younger people there, so you have these conversations in front of them, and that’s what I think is important in all aspects of our life. Even if you don’t know something, learn it. Enter that space and have those conversations and be that person who gives a different perspective. Or who will take it apart and say, “Hey, well, what about this?” Doesn’t have to be hostile. Not all the time, you won’t agree all the time. But you enter that space and you allow people to think.
Aymann: That’s amazing. I love that. I feel like, by having those kinds of conversations in front of especially younger men, you’re also teaching them to dissent. You’re also teaching them to be able to say no. You’re, in a way, displaying the kind of courage that they’re going to need later on when they’re in that locker room–type situation or they’re with a group of guys who are catcalling women. You’re teaching them how to be like, “Actually, this is an opportunity to talk about this other perspective.”
One of the things that comes up in my mind when we think about raising boys post-#MeToo is the subject of consent. I know one of Maria’s worries was about having sons be the type to send dick pics. Was that something that you ever worried about? And if so, how did you talk to your kids about that?
Shehnaz: Well, we talked about dating. We also talked about “Do you know what rape is?” You have to explain these things. In their mind they have a different view of what rape is, but rape can come in many different forms. So let’s talk about rape, first of all, and what your understanding of it is, and then let’s talk about relationships. If you are seeking a relationship, or if you’re with a young woman. Or male, whatever. What is it that’s acceptable and that’s not? Because they have to understand the difference. Because our culture, popular culture, teaches rape as something. It also teaches that certain things aren’t rape. So we have to be able to sift through the bullshit, if you will. Let’s sift through the bullshit, and then let’s have a real conversation about this.
Maria: I’ve started now by respecting their bodies. I’m not forcing them to give out hugs. I’m trying to read their body language if I’m tickling them and we’re playing, to see when they want to stop and respect if they say no. And likewise that I say no when I don’t want to do [it] anymore. So I’m hoping I’m laying a ground for that. I definitely want to have an open conversation, yeah. And I wish that they will have the wits to stop if they see that the other person doesn’t enjoy it. Or if they don’t enjoy it themselves. So, yeah, talk to them. I’m definitely going to. That’s my goal.
Aymann: Maria had said that she was scared that her boys would be scared to be themselves. I thought that was really powerful. I can think back to a thousand examples of my life where that was true for me. I mean, not just when I was playing sports, but also in wanting to belong to any kind of social group. There’s still this urge to get the joke, and make people laugh, and have people like you. So I wonder if you have any advice on how to teach your boys to trust themselves and know who they want to be.
Shehnaz: Right. I think they’re all going to be pressured. My kids went through, I’m sure, the same thing. And I know of several times [my son] was severely bullied because of his size and age difference. Because he’s Arab, male, Muslim, and it was a predominantly white school. So I think that being pressured into specific spaces, even to joke about your own people, to joke and laugh at the same jokes that are making fun of your own people—I know my son did it. And I would talk to him about these things. I also discouraged physical violence, and I told him that he would have to be able to, unfortunately, sometimes have thicker skin. And the only way you can have thicker skin is if you’re very comfortable in your skin.
Aymann: It sounds like those fears were coming from a visceral place for you, coming from a place where women were urged to get married young and wanting to kind of support a man while they did the “real” work, or the valuable work that they got compensated for with money. I wonder if you were ever worried that you were just going to be raising sons that were going to be doing the same.
Shehnaz: No, I reject that. I rejected it from the get-go. I was like, “Nope, my kids aren’t going to be like that.” I give you an example. You know how the schools do “Take Your Kid to Work Day”? You had to bring an official letterhead and all this stuff. So Adam says to me: “Mom, can I stay home? Can I stay home and work with you?” I’m like, “Yes, you can.” So I printed up this really cute letter with this woman and this feather duster, and it was like “Mom’s LLC.” It was a complete deconstruction of this whole idea of taking your kid to work in an office environment, or whether it’s like plumbing with Daddy or whatever. I wrote this interesting letter, I posted it to Facebook, and my son brought it in really proudly to school. And when he came back, he’s like: “Mom, all the teachers were passing it around. They saw it. It was so cool.” I think you have to surround them with that stuff.
Aymann: So you need to be that person first.
Shehnaz: I think so. And I think you need to be confident about the things that you believe in. First, I would take my kids to a lot of nonprofit organizations, events. And I shared with them stories of the things that I would be working on. I shared with them stories of my own, that I think that they could learn from and they would benefit from. No, they don’t have another female in the house like a sister, but they do have a mom at home.
To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “How to Raise Sons Who Won’t Send Dick Pics.”