We’ve done a great job with our girls over the last couple of decades – they’re more confident, less likely to bend their “likes” to fit gender norms, and all-around better equipped to step into this brave new world.
Which is not to say we don’t have a long way to go, but the focus on intentionally changing the way we talk to and about girls and women is a great start.
As the mother of two young boys, I hope a similar revolution is coming to help this new generation sidestep the toxicity that’s plagued so many before them – that they can like pink and play sports. That they can love doing theatre and race remote control cars, and take dance lessons if they want, even if it means quitting the soccer team, all without inviting ridicule from their peers.
Part of what’s ailing boys these days is the idea that rejection is something to be embarrassed about – that it means something is wrong with you, instead of being viewed as the other person’s right to their own opinion. Boys and men feel emasculated when women politely decline dates, when employers pass them over for a promotion (perhaps giving the job to a woman instead), or basically any time they ask for something and they’re told no.
Not being able to handle this in a mature and reasonable way – in which they shrug, evaluate whether or not there’s something they could work on to improve themselves, and then move on – leads to a host of issues later in life, the worst of which can be an inability to take no for an answer.
It’s how men turn into stalkers, into harassers, and into things infinitely more dangerous – and I know that none of us raising our boys wants them to grow up to be the sort of men that scare women.
Those violent, angry, frustrated men are out there, though. Over half of the women murdered every year are killed by men, and 90% of those half are murdered by a man they thought they knew well.
It’s terrifying, but those of us raising boys have a chance to make the world a better place, simply by giving our young men the tools to effectively deal with rejection without lashing out. You’ll be fighting an uphill battle, because there are so many classic and modern examples in film, television, books, YouTube, and video games that teach boys that girls and women don’t get the final say.
They promise you can change a girl’s mind by pestering her, becoming her “friend,” deceiving her in other ways, or stepping up your powers of persuasion. They say girls don’t really know what they want, that they have less autonomy than men, and even that they might not really mean it when they say no.
You can’t ignore these things and hope your boys will remember something you told them instead of what’s presented time and time again for entertainment value. You need to watch critically, and insist on having discussions about the difference between fantasy and reality when you’re done.
The biggest idea you want to beat into the ground? If a woman rejects you, you respect her decision and you move on.
It’s fine to be upset, but know that it’s not her fault. It’s ok if you want to cry, but don’t do it to try to guilt her into changing her mind. You can stay friends with her if you want to, but not with the idea that doing so will get you the romantic partnership you want.
It’s hard to put yourself out there, to say “I like you” and then have the other person tell you they don’t feel the same way. It’s brave. It hurts when it doesn’t go the way you’d hoped – and maybe she even could have handled it better, but we’re all learning – but you’re upset because you’re hurt and embarrassed, not because she did anything wrong.
Other people, especially women, don’t own us anything. Not a smile, not their time, certainly not their bodies.
Conversations should be proactive and constant, and one popular way of getting them to view the situation differently is to turn it around.
If you’re curious why and when we normalized male aggression, even adopted it as a thing to flaunt in pop culture, keep reading.
The simple answer is that it’s a holdover from another time, suggests this study out of The University of Kansas.
Men used to have to protect their families from economic, existential, and physical threats. They had to be aggressive in defending what belonged to them, and the more capable they were in this area, the more their peers respected them.
What emerged was a culture in which men responded to any form of “emasculation” with aggression, with defensiveness valued more than community, and as times have changed and evolved, many men have not.
Most researchers believe not being wanted by a woman is seen as “emasculating” simply because of the idea that a woman should not be able to tell a man he cannot have what he wants.
The bottom line is that when you’re talking to your sons about rejection, dating, and masculinity, we want to get them to a place where their sense of “manhood” or their sense of self isn’t tied to what anyone else says about them – whether someone likes them or doesn’t, they know who they are and they are secure in that.
What other people think of you doesn’t define your worth, so even if the girl you like isn’t interested, it doesn’t mean you’re any less worthy, or any less of a man.
It’s not an easy lesson for anyone to learn, but it’s the one that, when you manage it, sets you free.