As someone who passionately works with teenage girls what I’m about to say may seem strange or even (ridiculously) like a betrayal but here goes…
I am more worried about raising my sons than my daughter.
I work with tween and teenage girls and it’s my absolute passion. I write books and go into schools with the sole purpose of helping our girls realise their potential. My resources list for tween and teen girls is looooong and brimming with books and podcasts and websites and magazines and documentaries and school workshops which are designed to light a fire inside our girls. Hell, I’m an ambassador for a national program from Suncorp, Reach Out and Netball Queensland called #TeamGirls which is all about encouraging our girls to have more confidence in their ideas, their physical abilities, their dreams and their bodies.
My own eight-year-old daughter’s bookshelf is filled with books that make my heart sing: Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, Amazing Babes and Girls Can Do Anything. I took her to see Hidden Figures on International Women’s Day. We cheered at the Wonder Woman movie. We sit together and watch I Am Malala.
And while it’s pathetic that the gender pay gap still exists and violence against women is still a national disgrace – I cannot help but feel my daughter – our daughters – are going to be okay. The tide is turning. In 2017, women are louder and stronger and bolder than ever before. Men who commit acts of harassment or violence are on notice. The female voices encouraging our girls to not play small and instead be great women who take up space are loud and large in number. On top of that my own experience of the electrifying force and strength of female friendships – to hold you up when you feel like falling, to cheer when you win – fills my heart. As women we are communicators and nurturers and powerhouses.
But I also have two little boys.
And where I feel confidence and excitement for my daughter’s future, I feel fearful for my sons’.
My two little boys (aged four and five) are affectionate and loving and joyful and emotional and vulnerable and kind and they exist in a world that still demands them to hide those qualities. They exist in a world that continues to be dominated by toxic masculinity.
I look around for the good men other than their father to guide them and show them what a good man looks like and I gotta say the landscape is pretty bare. Other than Gus Worland’s brilliant Man Up series and Enlighten Education’s Good Fellas School Program – what is out there? It’s slim pickings.
Where are the books? The podcasts? The websites? Where is the dedicated programming to teach our boys what a good man looks like? Where is the advice for 12-year-old boys about porn or friendship or body image or integrity or being their authentic selves? Where are the examples of feminist men who see women as their equals and who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable? It’s one thing to tell boys not to participate in locker-room banter but who is TEACHING THEM how to handle those moments? What to say? How to navigate these raw and awkward situations?
Listen: How hard is it to discipline boys? Is it any different to girls? (Post continues after audio...)
You know why I’m more worried about my sons? Because it is men who are lashing out. The vast majority of violent acts are perpetrated by men. Men are also more likely to be the victims of male violence. It’s men who are most commonly committing acts of terror and carnage. Men and boys who are targeting women with vile, misogynistic websites. According to Beyond Blue, “Blokes make up an average six out of every eight suicides every single day in Australia. The number of men who die by suicide in Australia every year is nearly double the national road toll.”
When male school captains and prefects at elite private schools are participating in sickening acts of sexism – is that not a red flag to all of us that somewhere along the line we’ve screwed up?
We are failing to teach our sons how to be vulnerable, how to form strong friendships, how to reach out, how to respect women.
This is a concern for all of us. Because if we are failing our men – in how we raise them, in our expectations for them – we all suffer.
Bec and her three kids. Image credit: Lightsmith Images.
A few years ago I collected hundreds of anonymous questions from teenage girls for my book Ask Me Anything. The vibe from the majority of questions was one of curiosity and frustration and the vast majority of questions centred on their female friendships and how to negotiate their highs and lows.
Last year I started collecting anonymous questions from teenage boys for a boys’ version of Ask Me Anything. The vibe I got from them? Anxious. Nervous. Unsure. How do I ask a girl out? How do I let a girl know I like her? How do I get to be a success? How do I become financially successful? What if I’m gay? Seems to me these boys are worried about public rejection. And they’re worried about not meeting society’s expectations for them – namely that they will be both “successful” and “heterosexual”.
So what is the point of this column? I don’t even know. Maybe what I’m asking is for more good men to stand up and to help the next generation of boys navigate the tricky road ahead. Because frankly, they need you. My two little boys need you. We all do.
Rebecca Sparrow is the author of Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls) and Find Your Tribe (and 9 other things I wish I'd known in high school). She co-hosts the award-winning health and happiness podcast The Well with Robin Bailey and #TeamGirls in 10 - a podcast specifically designed for mothers and daughters. Each year Bec talks to thousands of school students about friendship, resilience and giving back. She is a proud ambassador of Givit.org.au, The Pyjama Foundation and #TeamGirls.
You can follow her on Facebook.