How to Raise a Boy: Author Emma Brown on Teaching Kids to Fight Misogyny and Stereotypes with Kindness
Emma Brown has a lot of experience with kids. She used to work as a middle school math teacher in Alaska, and now has two children of her own, a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy.
It was while on maternity leave with her son that she started realizing she had so many questions about how to raise a boy. The #MeToo movement was just beginning, and she wanted her son to learn the right lessons about consent. She started researching, and it led her to bigger questions that many parents have about masculinity today, how to talk to boys about sex, porn, sexual assault and expressing their emotions with their friends.
Her questions about how to raise her son led her to write, “To Raise A Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood,” and the things she learned are valuable for all parents, whether they have sons or daughters or both.
In addition to being an author, Brown is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. She started out writing obituaries for the newspaper, covered local and national education from 2011 to 2017, and was the reporter who broke the story of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
She is also a friend of mine — we met in journalism school at UC Berkeley.
I got to ask her a few questions about the book. Here’s some of what she had to say.
So Emma, why did you decide to write this book?
Emma Brown: When my son was 6 weeks old, the Harvey Weinstein stories broke, and I was just home nursing him, scrolling through my phone and reading all those stories. It forced me to think about how to raise my son to be different, so I started talking to hundreds of boys, as well as parents, teachers and researchers. My question ended up broadening into, “How do we need to think differently about boys?” I was so familiar with the challenges girls face, but I never thought about the challenges boys faced. It was eye-opening for me to see that boys face their own really serious problems that we all need to care about and help tackle.
What are some of those challenges?
EB: Boys are told from time they’re tiny to avoid being anything like a girl or seeming gay. And that can be from the superficial, where they’re told, “Don’t like pink,” to bigger things like, “Don’t show emotions, be tough.” And that makes it difficult when they grow up to sustain those close friendships, which we all need. And we can see that in really dramatic mental health differences between men and women, where men are nearly four times as likely to die by suicide. That’s an astonishing statistic, and it speaks to ways we make it difficult for men to speak up when they need help.
We need to equip boys with the same language as we do with girls to protect their bodies.Emma Brown
Another one is we talk about boys as perpetrators of sexual violence, but there are many more boys than we realize who are also victims. Some are through the scandals we hear about, with older men preying on boys, but it’s also their peers. We don’t talk about it much, partly because boys are often too ashamed to tell someone what happened to them. But it’s also because of how we grown-ups see boys. We say “Boys will be boys” as an excuse for boys’ bad behavior, sometimes, but it’s also something we say to brush off the violence boys experience. We need to equip boys with the same language as we do with girls to protect their bodies.
A third challenge is, I talked to lots of boys who are aware of the new accountability around sexual harassment and violence, but have a lot of unanswered questions about how to have healthy intimate relationships. Sexual education has evaporated from schools, so there’s not guidance around healthy consent at school or from parents. For a lot of boys, that means pornography ends up being a guide, and a lot of porn is not consensual or respectful, so we’re not giving them the guidance they need beyond what they find online. We’re setting them up to fail.
The part about sexual violence [from the book], where boys were doing these violent sex acts to each other as forms of hazing or bullying, was especially shocking to me.
EB: Yes, as many as one in six boys is sexually assaulted or abused before age 18, but we don’t hear about that much. We expect boys to suck it up. We as adults are assuming they aren’t as vulnerable, and it was eye-opening for me as a mom of a 3-year-old boy. He’s totally vulnerable, you can see his emotions, but I need to remember that no matter how big and strong he gets, that little vulnerable part is still in there.
Was there anything you learned that directly changed your parenting?
EB: I have now been articulating ideas about consent just as intentionally with my son as with my daughter, starting basically when they’re infants. So when they say they don’t want to be touched, it’s honoring that, but it’s also talking about how their bodies are their own and no one should touch them without their permission.
I also learned that parents talk with their sons less about feeling and emotions, so I try to talk to my son about how he’s feeling, how I’m feeling, or even how characters in books are feeling.
With my daughter, I see now ways I might have pushed her away from femininity to help her be strong, so now I am encouraging her to be who she wants to be. For me as a kid, I wanted to be more like a boy. But from my research for this book, I learned that I want my kids to have the best access to everything, from what’s traditionally considered feminine, with caretaking and nurturing, to what’s typically considered masculine, such as being strong and a leader. So I’ve been less dismissive of what’s typically considered feminine, because I want them to have those attributes.
I had an example in the book of when my daughter was 2 and was trying to climb on this net at a playground, and I told her to say, “I am strong and fearless.” When I wrote the book, I realized fearlessness is not really what I want to instill in them. It’s ok to be afraid. So now I tell them to be strong and gentle.
When my kids and I are watching something and I see a stereotype, I try to point it out and talk about it so it’s not percolating into their brains.Emma Brown
Do you have other takeaways or lessons for parents?
EB: What I hope we can all do is examine our own stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or man, because that limits our sons from becoming who they are. As I wrote in the book, that’s partly about parents, but also about the systems in our culture. Parents need help from the schools our boys go to, and coaches, sports teams and faith institutions. Because we can give them a safe place to be themselves at home, but they also have to go out into the world, and that can be a hard place for boys, if they don’t fit into the traditional idea of what a boy is supposed to be. We need help from the institutions that are helping raise our sons to challenge traditional notions and let boys be who they want to be.
I finished the book with a lot of hope, because I found programs that are challenging those notions. In a lot of ways that has already happened for girls. We’ve challenged old-fashioned notions of what it means to be girls. But some of these efforts are led by boys now, where they’re meeting together to talk about the pressures they face and issues from the #MeToo movement — to hash out what does it mean about consent when you’re grinding at dance, what’s the power dynamic when dating a younger girl. There are a lot of positive developments that give me hope.
Are there examples of books, movies or shows that could help parents in challenging these notions, or ones they should specifically avoid?
EB: In my book, I use “The Notebook'' as an example. There's a scene where Ryan Gosling’s character is basically coercing Rachel McAdams to go on a date by threatening self harm. It’s wild to see now. And then in “Frozen II,” I loved that Kristoff is pining after Anna while she’s off having the adventure. I think it’s in “Frozen,” he asks if he can kiss her, and she says yes, and that’s a really good example of consent.
There was a school district in Ohio that started talking with sixth graders about pornography to give their students tools they need to think critically about how different forms of media are constantly bombarding us with ideas about sex and gender. They use that scene from “The Notebook” as an example, actually. So pornography is a concern, but there are a lot of scripts kids learn about what it means to be a boy or girl not from explicit media, but just what they watch when growing up. When my kids and I are watching something and I see a stereotype, I try to point it out and talk about it so it’s not percolating into their brains.
Other things parents should know?
EB: We mentioned the need to give boys guidance around intimate relationships and sex, and that can be awkward for people, but we can give kids tools even if we don’t want to have the conversations with them. When I was a kid, I took a yearlong sex education class at my Unitarian Church, so even though my parents rarely talked about sex with me, I had a lot of learning from that class. So that can help parents if they don’t feel equipped to have the conversations themselves.