This article contains information about sexual assault which may be triggering to survivors.
My son’s name is Eli.
He is empathetic, hilarious and impulsive.
He loves and is loved.
Last week, on the morning of his first day of school, I found myself thinking about the day his school journey would come to an end. When my boy would be a man.
Will he be taller than me?
Will he still dance with wild abandon?
Will he be one of the ‘good’ ones?
As parents, we openly share our fears for our daughters. But nobody really talks about the fear we hold for our sons.
I know my son’s beliefs about the most effective way to ‘perform masculinity’ will be absorbed, to a large degree, through culture. Whilst this may seem like an innocuous cultural reality, the research proves otherwise.
Gender norms lead to gender inequality, and gender inequality has been recognised through research conducted internationally as “the underlying cause of violence against women.”
There is no denying our country is in crisis. We’re so familiar with the statistics surrounding violence against women, that now, they just wash over us. Barely noticed. There’s no outrageous shock at the news that yet another woman was murdered at the hands of a partner; another woman sexually assaulted.
No special coverage, no ‘all anyone is talking about wherever you go’.
And as a member of the village raising the men and women of our future, I often think – what can I actually do?
How can I make real and lasting change in the attitudes and beliefs that are as prevalent as they are destructive?
Dr Bianca Fileborn is a senior lecturer in Social and Political Science at the University of Melbourne. Her current work focuses on sexual violence and harassment.
I asked her if she personally believed it possible for caregivers of the next generation to create positive cultural change that will eventually see an end to this tragedy.
Fileborn says “the fact is, these behaviours are learnt. Which means they can be unlearnt.” She went on to say that there are many contributing social factors that create the devastating situation we find ourselves, however through the education of the next generation, we “hold a key piece of the puzzle.”
So… exactly what do we, as the village raising the next generation, do with our piece of the puzzle?’
‘Let Boys Be… Good Humans.’
“Achieving gender equality is key to preventing violence” — Delegate Statement, 2021 National Summit on Women’s Safety.
The first step towards preventing gendered violence is to achieve gender equality, and reassuringly, research shows that the majority of Australian parents are on board.
The Respectful Relationships Education Program, trialled by Education Queensland focussed on challenging gender stereotypes and teaching social skills like empathy and respect.
“Encouragingly, after only six months, Year 1 and 2 students showed signs of diminishing stereotypical gender attitudes regarding jobs and activities,” the results read.
This evidence gives us hope, but how can create congruency between what kids are learning at school and at home? The Raising Children Network, an evidence-based and research-driven parenting website supported by the Australian Government recommends the following:
- Make it safe for our boys to feel the depth of their emotions without shame. Reinforce the idea that it’s normal to feel sadness, fear and anxiety. Talk about times when you’ve felt the same emotions. Try validating your child’s emotions by saying ‘I see you feel frustrated. I understand that feeling.’ We can teach children empathy by showing it to them.
- Be conscious of using language that reinforces stereotypes like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘don’t be a bossy girl’. Through your words and actions teach your children that they are under no obligation to ‘perform’ their personality according to their gender.
- Model equality by sharing the domestic load in your household. Have conversations about how everyone plays a role in managing the house because everyone is equal.
‘Hey, Granny – High Five!’
When working towards the eradication of gendered violence, experts agree that embedding the concept of consent into our everyday lives and interactions is crucial. Fileborn says that a lack of understanding regarding the concept of consent is “a core factor that underpins gender-based violence” and believes teaching consent from a young age will be incredibly beneficial.
Teach Us Consent, founded by Chanel Contos, successfully petitioned ministers of education from all around Australia. From 2023, consent will be taught from a whole-school and age-appropriate framework.
Embedding the concept of consent in the everyday life of young children enables them to be familiar and comfortable with theirs and other’s boundaries well before they develop a sexual identity or understanding.
So, What Can the Village Do?
Have lots of ‘little talks’ about consent rather than one big talk. Reading books together can provide a natural opportunity to do this. Books such as, ‘How to Say Hello’ by Sophie Beer, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ by Sharee Miller and ‘Everyone Has a Bottom’ by Tess Rowley and Jodi Edwards all come highly recommended. Asking your child’s consent when doing daily activities like wiping faces and brushing hair should be a norm in the household.
Don’t force your children to hug relatives/friends when they don’t want to. When you see a relative say ‘would you like to give (name) a hug, high five or a wave?’
Model consent. If children are crossing physical boundaries and you, personally, feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed, model talking to them about physically respecting your space and how it makes you feel.
Cultural beliefs and norms are in a constant state of flux. We can use this fact to our advantage. We can create real and lasting change.
Maya Angelou, poet and activist, famously said “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’”
We hold in our hands, hearts and minds the knowledge we need to help the next generation write a new story.
A story of respect, empathy and integrity.
So, to the next generation– a message from your village…
We know better. We will do better.