In the wake of Rob Porter’s resignation from the White House amid allegations that he physically abused two ex-wives, it is important for parents of boys to think about how to train our children not to abuse women. The simplest and most traditional first step towards this end is to tell boys that they are never to hit girls. This is a vitally important rule, but complicated by our culture’s shifting gender norms.
Several years ago while at a barbecue, an old friend who is a liberal feminist and I were watching my 4-year-old son play with her 4-year-old daughter. Eventually there was some dispute over a water gun that led to shoving. Almost simultaneously my friend cried out “No shrinking violets” to her daughter as I yelled “We don’t hit girls” to my son.
It was an interesting moment, because I realized that my friend was absolutely right to teach her daughter not to back down from confrontations with boys. But I also knew that I was right to tell my son not to push or hit girls. These two ideas are both correct, but feel in some sense at odds with each other.
The Lesson In Action
Several years later, my son, in second grade at the time, told me that a girl in his class hit him at school. I asked if he hit her back, he said “No, because you told me not to.” I told him that was good, but then he said that it wasn’t fair, why shouldn’t he get to hit her back just because she’s a girl? I had to concede the point that it wasn’t fair, but I told him that fairness is not always how we should measure our actions.
He didn’t seem very convinced. So I asked my wife to come over. I told my son and my wife to make a fist and hold them out, then I did, and we all held our fists side by side. Even though he’s only 8, his fist was closer in size to his mother’s than hers was to mine. I asked him which he thought would hurt more, mom’s or mine? He answered, “Yours, by a lot.” He got the point.
What struck me was that in order to instill this vitally important rule about men and women, I had to appeal to a distinctly biological reality: that men are stronger than women. In an age in which many parents and educators are actively trying to deemphasize traditional gender roles, I was drawing a line in the sand that must exist so as not to be crossed.
But at the same time as establishing this important difference between the sexes, it’s necessary to make it understood in the context of a broader equality. Not hitting girls is not transactional. Boys and men don’t get something in return from women for obeying this rule. And it doesn’t mean that in a whole host of ways women aren’t extremely strong. We can walk and chew gum at the same time in these lessons, but it does require teaching boys that they have unique responsibilities.
Not All Masculinity Is Toxic
The prohibition against hitting women has traditionally been tied to a broader set of behaviors considered to be “manly.” While not hitting women is still widely considered a good behavior, many of the others — such as not backing down from a fight with another man, being assertive, and being stoic — have been attacked as toxic masculinity. But what if this code of masculine behavior is not a buffet, where you can pick and choose? What if all of the elements of the code are intrinsically connected?
When you teach a boy to be somewhat stoic, to keep some emotions in check and not let them show, you are also giving him the emotional control to resist the urge to strike a woman even in the face of extreme anger. If we err too far on the side of letting boys express their feelings unchecked, we may not be preparing them for the moment when their heart tells them to raise their fist, and their reason must stay their hand. When we teach a young boy not to quell his emotions, we risk winding up with a 6’2” 200-pound man capable of great violence who doesn’t have the tools needed to control that violence.
Talk To Your Sons About This
This is a conversation parents need to have with their boys. It’s a lesson that must be learned by rote. It is too important a rule for boys to carry into manhood for us to shy away from it for fear of cementing gender roles that some in society eschew.
Someday my friend’s daughter and my son will be adults, fully grown and endowed with their innate strengths and weaknesses. I have no doubt that she, like her mother, will not shy away from confrontations with men, that she will be no shrinking violet. For my son’s part, I hope that in all aspects of his life he sees confrontations and competitions with women as enlightening and enlivening.
Part of my job as a parent, to help ensure that his interactions with women can be respectful and vibrant, is to make sure he knows he can never be physically violent with them. In a very real way, knowing that line can never be crossed is a prerequisite for that.
“We don’t hit girls.” It’s a phrase that every boy should hear over and over. There are few words they will ever hear that are more important.