We can all use our voices to change the culture to prevent sexual violence. Prevention requires addressing the roots causes and social norms that allow sexual violence to exist. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are engaging groups whose influence can play a critical role in changing the culture. This post offers one father’s perspective on promoting gender equity and ways to help young men empower themselves to be agents of positive social change.
**This post contains gendered language**
With its many rewards, parenting can come with some substantial challenges. Balancing the competing demands of school, athletics, social life, and more all while trying to raise a healthy, well-adjusted human can feel daunting. Writing this as a father, it feels important to remain mindful of the impact I have in my son’s life. Parents have an opportunity to make a big difference not just in their child’s life, but in the lives of others.
Rigid ideas about how parents can and should prevent sexual violence still persist. Often, discussions about sexual assault occur exclusively with daughters and focus on avoiding victimization. Stereotypically, a father’s contribution to this discussion has been some variation of, “If anyone does something to you, I’ll make them sorry.” This script is problematic not only because it reinforces victim blaming, but also because it perpetuates a model of toxic masculinity.
Meanwhile, sons infrequently receive messages from their parents about their role in addressing sexual violence or what to do if they experience it. As parents, we try to model positive social behaviors for our kids: If my child never sees me smoke, then they’ll never smoke; if my son doesn’t see me treat women poorly, then he’ll never treat women poorly. While is undeniably important to be a positive role model, we can be intentional and proactive in countering negative messages about how violence occurs.
It is helpful to remember that sexual violence doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum. We owe our children the opportunity to hear from us messages that contradict the frequent misogyny that is prevalent in our society.
To help our children be the best version of themselves we can:
- Cultivate empathy – Empathy, or the ability to connect with the feelings or experiences of others, promotes pro-social behavior. When your children interact with others, take the time to ask them to reflect how their behavior made the other child feel. It can be something positive, like sharing a toy, or a behavior you’re less proud of, like insulting someone at the playground. Either way, linking your child’s behavior to its impact on others is an important lesson to convey.
- Create an UPstander – Empathy can motivate individuals to intervene when they see someone being mistreated. Rather than being a passive bystander, you can review with your child strategies to safely intervene that are appropriate to their age.
- Listen to your child(ren) – New prevention strategies are being presented to our kids – and a lot of them look different than what we were taught as kids! Take the time to listen to your child and be willing to learn. If your child senses you value the information they are receiving, they will pay more attention to it. Some of the parents I admire the most are those who seem to learn as much from their children as their children learn from them.
- Lead with language – If you hear your child insult a peer by saying, “You [throw/run/talk] like a girl,” recognize how that influences the value your child places on “a girl.” Left unchallenged, this devaluation can lead to other harmful comments and behaviors (i.e. “Bros before hoes,” “She broke up with me because she’s a slut,” etc.).
- Be a thoughtful role model – As a parent, you are a role model. It is inevitable. So, be mindful of the behaviors you demonstrate to your child. If the only compliments your child hears you give his/her mother relate to her appearance, this sends a message that a woman’s value depends on her looks. Our children learn to interact with the world by watching us. Let your child see the best you.
Robert Baran is the Assistant Director at NJCASA. He has been working with and on behalf of those affected by trauma for over 15 years. He is a firm believer that we all have a role to play in preventing sexual violence, both as individuals and as members of our communities.