October 06, 2021
By Dr Kathy Weston
Just as I was sitting down to think about the potential theme of this week’s newsletter, I spent time procrastinating by folding socks and telling various children off for the untidy state of their bedrooms. As I made my way through the detritus on my 15 year old’s bedroom floor, I managed to bang my little toe one of his serrated-edged metal dumbbells.
Such was the pain, I literally grabbed him by both shoulders and started yelping and sobbing in giant gulps. He was gaming at the time and looked up in total consternation and shock. He had never previously witnessed such a display of maternal vulnerability, nor ever heard me exclaim in such desperation. He looked up for approximately ten seconds and then returned to his game, by which time I was in the neighbouring bedroom, crumpled on the floor, trying to apply every psychological trick in the book to cope with the pain.
As the sensation subsided from searing to throbbing, you can probably guess what happened next. I returned to the room to demand it be tidied immediately. I also was keen to question his response to my obvious distress. As I did, I was reminded of the words of my criminologist colleague, Professor David Gadd (himself the parent of teen boys), who said that we must educate our young boys to ‘take an interest in others’ feelings’.
He gave me this advice within the context of a conversation about violence against women. Learning to care, check in and ask empathetic, exploratory questions are key relational skills that need to be taught and valued at home. We cannot ignore the fact that, as parents, we play a central role in the values, views and behaviour of our boys. Why is emotional literacy so critical for boys? Sociological literature on coping points to the fact that boys often ‘mask’ difficult feelings and the problem of ‘impression management’, whilst mental health literature repeatedly references how boys commonly struggle to articulate emotions and can find it harder than girls to seek support.
Beyond that, a contemporary culture that is rife with toxic masculinity, sexism and misogyny can easily normalise the poor treatment of women and girls. If not handled properly, even little incidents like ‘toe-gate’ can risk the reinforcement of harmful values.
As parents, we are in the best position to have these important conversations with our children.
I explained to my son that I understood his shock, and even his response, but that at the very least, a kind response requires being with the person who is upset. It’s very hard to comfort someone in pain, but the next time I stub my toe, I suggested, he might helpfully put his hand on my shoulder and simply help me to ‘wait it out’.
I explained that empathy can be demonstrated by presence and that sometimes this is more powerful than words. We talked about the difference between empathy and sympathy (beautifully articulated here) and what he would be comfortable saying to someone in distress. My husband helpfully prompted my son to enquire about my toe later in the day. Nudges like these from a man that he adores and looks up to are invaluable. When my son asked how I was, I could tell that he was using a script suggested by his dad and felt self-conscious repeating it, but his efforts were met with praise. “Thank you for asking” I said, “It is so kind. Thank you for being so caring and loving, I really appreciate it”.
I am delighted to report readers, that the next morning, a warm cup of coffee was waiting for me, made by my teenage son, who said he wanted to do it every morning; a reminder that parental praise is highly motivating!
‘Toe-gate’ made me reflect upon how important it is to use every single opportunity to underline the importance of taking an interest in others’ feelings. My son loves me, but had no clue how to express that he cared or the significance of doing so.
Hopefully, ‘toe-gate’ will mean that, one day, when his partner is distressed, he will be able to demonstrate the kind of empathy that will embolden, rather than compromise, their relationship.
Recently, a family therapist colleague was telling me about the many cases she deals with, where women are put down or belittled by partners. Her observation was that, in many cases, young men in the family start to demonstrate a similar disdain towards their mothers or sisters.
What happens at home matters and the values that our boys hold are critical. As adults, will they be emotionally available to their partners? Will they be kind and sensitive or egotistical and narcissistic? Will they be able to express negative emotions in ways that don’t involve physical harm to others?
In recent days, there has been enormous interest in the causal factors behind the heinous murders of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard. These types of crimes have long been studied by criminologists, who have demonstrated that there are often ‘red flags’ in childhood that predict later behaviour, and that contemporary culture and digital habits can play a contributory part.
Let’s remember that the time for caring about these issues and tackling them is right now. The peak age for domestic abuse is 16-25 years. Worryingly, the digital diets of teenage boys often contain pornography – approximately 64% of 13-14 year olds watch it each week. This content often objectifies women and even promotes violence towards them. Fresh research, published in the British Journal of Criminology earlier this year, found that first time users of pornography are frequently nudged towards sexually violent content. Whilst pornography reigns as sex educator and boys grow up thinking that women and girls are worth less, we can’t expect much to change.
Let’s exert influence where we can: in our parenting. Let’s raise boys who are emotionally literate, educated about violence against women and girls, willing to challenge gender stereotypes and inequality and keen to tackle misogyny and everyday sexism. May they learn to be great ‘upstanders’, rather than bystanders, and be a positive influence among their peers. Surely the fruit of our parenting practice lies in how our children behave towards others? How we treat one another at home needs to be scrutinised and taken seriously each and every day.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Parents in Tooled Up schools have access to many resources on the subject of healthy relationships, empathy and handling the issue of pornography. Use our list of questions to prompt discussion about your teen’s digital diet. Find up to date facts in our article, 40 Things Parents Need to Know about Pornography or, if you prefer, watch our video, Pornography: What Parents Need to Know.
We’ve interviewed many experts on different aspects of teen relationships and pornography. Dr Fiona Vera-Gray talks about early romantic relationships and the impact of pornography, Dr Elena Martellozzo describes her work outlining young people’s experiences of pornography, Dr Clarissa Smith talks about encouraging healthy sexual development and Professor David Gadd unpicks the issues of domestic violence and teenage relationships. All of these podcasts are accompanied by exclusive notes.
Having conversations with our children about healthy, mutually respectful relationships is crucial. Read our article to learn more about early romantic relationships and use our activity They Love Me, They Love Me Not, to prompt family chats. Within the Tooled Up library, many of our resources have been written with cultivating empathy in mind. But for starters, our list of Books to Cultivate Kindness and Empathy will provide further food for thought for young people of all ages.
Finally, make sure that you register for our October webinars. Tomorrow night (7th October), we’ll be chatting to professional hockey player, Holly Cram, about how best to nurture young athletes and on 11th October, we’ll be learning more about sports nutrition, with Dan Richardson. On 13th October, we’ll be talking with gender equality experts, Lifting Limits, about exactly how we can challenge harmful gender stereotypes at home and school. Visit www.tooledupeducation.com for full details and to claim your free tickets (please note, tickets are £10 for members of the public).