[Featured Image description: Book cover of ‘Real Cowboys,’ by Hoefler & Bean.]
It’s up to us to teach our boys about enthusiastic consent and the gray areas that put girls and women in danger. Below, we discuss how to educate our sons on respecting the agency and safety of both themselves and others.
Content warning: General discussions on rape culture and sexual harassment.
Parents of sons, we need to talk
Look around at all those little girls in your son’s school playground. Those girls whose names you know, who go to school with your boys. The fierce ones, the shy ones, the messy ones, and that one with her shoes on the wrong feet.
Every single one of those girls will be sexually assaulted or harassed before she’s 20.
Every. Single. One.
RAINN’s 1 in 6 women experiencing ‘rape or attempted rape’ statistic doesn’t count unreported assaults. Nor does it count slaps on the ass while waitressing. It doesn’t include being followed home on a dark night. It doesn’t include the lovers and friends shaming them into sex they don’t want. It doesn’t include rape threats for being a female gamer/writer/zookeeper/anything.
This doesn’t count the 1 in 33 men and boys who report sexual assault, and the many more who don’t feel safe enough to do so.
This is our normal. This is the rape culture we perpetuate when we let toxic masculinity become someone else’s problem.
This is our responsibility to change. Learn to identify the mistakes we make as parents – and how to change what we expect from our boys.
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Mistake #1: Believing our perfect sons are incapable of bad choices
Victims don’t grow up in a vacuum. If they are being attacked – who is attacking them?
Our SONS. My sons, and yours – and many of our daughters. You know – those kids we’re raising to be so polite and respectful.
If you hear a quiet voice in the back of your head saying ‘Except not my son, he would never…’ that’s an example of embedded rape culture – the systemic, invisible influences we promote when we ignore what’s wrong in our society.
Our kids can be precious, wonderful, and lovely, and they can still be capable of doing stupid, awful, entitled, ignorant, and even violent things.
FIX IT NOW: Model non-toxic masculinity
Prevent male aggression: stop shaming men and boys when they show emotion, overwhelm, and vulnerability. Giving them healthy outlets for human reactions is how we prevent toxic masculinity before it boils over into an active shooter situation.
‘Tough Guys‘ is perfect for kids enamored with super-heroes and great feats of strength. While I would have preferred some variation, it means something to see strong, capable men who are willing to cry and vent their feelings in a healthy way.
‘Real Cowboys’ is deceptively simple and utterly stunning. Rough, tough, strong and powerful cowboys (who can also be cowgirls, and any race) are charged with protecting and nurturing others. They feel loneliness, sadness, and often need help. This book is magic – stories like this are what we need to tie the bravado of the ‘American Man’ into the responsibility, kindness, and vulnerability our fathers and grandfathers were never allowed to show.
‘Flare‘ is a simple early reader with a deceptively complex story. When Flare the phoenix is born, the Sun, Cloud, and Wind are alarmed to see he doesn’t cry. With some help, he eventually learns how his tears are necessary and valuable. (Seriously – it’s science.)
Just before Q entered kindergarten, he informed me that 5-year-olds are not allowed to cry. I don’t know where he got this idea, but reading ‘The Different Dragon‘ sorted out that nonsense right away. The storytelling is a bit messy and it could use some editing, but lines like this make it worth it: “It’s a lot of pressure to be fierce all the time. All that roaring and gnashing of teeth and snorting fire. It’s a lot of work to scare people and be so mean. And nobody ever wants a dragon to be funny or sad or just regular.” Bonus points for normalizing gay parents (two moms) without making it a thing!
In Clive And His Babies, male-presenting Clive gently and joyously takes care of his baby dolls in this board book. Unlike many books where the kind and gentle boy is an outcast, his nurturing behavior is normal and his other male-presenting friends share the same interests.
You might also like: Whining, Tantrums & Angry Outbursts: Picture Books To Help Kids Embrace big Feelings and Chill
Mistake #2: Equating ‘politeness‘ with ‘respect‘
When the boys were wee babes, my (male) partner argued, “Can’t we just raise them to be decent humans? Then they will naturally treat women with respect and not rape them.”
NOPE. We teach our sons not to rape people…by teaching them not to rape people.
Parents of sons are not excused from the uncomfortable conversation of consent. Parents of daughters and nonbinary kids don’t have the luxury of skipping uncomfortable conversations. This conversation was not a choice for my mother, as she armed me with a bottle of Baby Soft perfume to use as mace on my first walk to the school bus stop. That’s the day I learned that we must expect attacks and remain vigilant. At all ages. Every day. Everywhere.
I was six.
FIX IT NOW: Teach your sons that women are people, not objects. What matters to girls matters.
If over half of your bookshelf contains only male characters, we have a problem. Don’t tell me you can’t find good full of books that pass the Uhura test. There are sooo many.
Not all books starring girls are created equal – most reinforce male supremacy. Massive aggregate booklists (cough, cough… A Mighty Girl) boast ‘the largest collection of books and movies’ specifically because they include anything, even if it’s a pile of vile stereotypes.
- Both girls and boys (and non-binary kids) should read an equal mix of protagonists as powerful, vulnerable, complex protagonists that don’t conform to narrow gender roles.
- Beware any story that features a ‘strong female protagonist’ (because the rest of us are weak?)
- Throw out stories that claim she’s ‘not like the other girls.’ (Problematic: ‘Violet the Pilot,’ ‘I Am Lucille Ball.’)
- Our BFL reader, Celeste, pointed out that a previous suggested series, the Ladybug Girl series, is a little outdated in gender roles, so we’ve updated it. Check out the comments if you want to read more about that. Thanks, Celeste!
Throwing other women under the bus to boost a single character reinforces the idea that girls have to be ‘like boys’ to make a valuable contribution to the world. Below, find just a few of the stories my rough and tumble boys adore:
‘Little Robot‘ is our favorite graphic novel here at Bumblebee Hollow. With minimal text, both my boys could ‘read’ it independently by age 3, which gives me the occasional precious break. In this story of a little girl of color befriending a robot, she experiences a complex range of emotions – from jealousy, bravery, and fear to joy and curiosity. Bonus points because she’s a handy engineer.
What’s My Super Power? gives us a glimpse into the life of a modern girl from Nanavut, celebrating what she admires in her friends, and searching for what makes her unique and awesome.
The ‘Princess In Black‘ series of chapter books is just witty enough to keep me entertained when the boys ask me to read them over, and over, and over. This super-hero who is into ‘girly-girl’ things like ponies and princess parties shows kids that being traditionally feminine is not mutually exclusive to being a kick-ass monster fighter.
You might also like: Kickass Books That Pass The Uhura Test – Kickass Books Normalizing Girls Of Color
Mistake #3: We Keep Going When They Say ‘Stop’
From birth, we’ve taught Q & R2 the importance of consent. If they say to stop tickling them, we STOP. If we are late for school and I’m wrestling R2 into his shirt and he says to stop, I STOP. If I ask them for a hug them goodbye and they aren’t enthusiastic about it – I STOP. And even when Q is in spoiled-whiny-turd mode, and I realize I’m gripping his arm as he fights to get away – I STOP.
I apologize. I verbally admit I did something wrong and I have the responsibility never to do it again.
There is no appointment important enough, no urge irresistible enough, no need of ours that surpasses their control over who touches them and how.
FIX IT NOW: Practice giving and respecting consent from birth
- Always for consent – even if they said ‘yes’ before.
- Practice saying ‘no,’ because saying ‘no’ is hard.
- Make your consent clear.
- Accept only enthusiastic consent.
- A hesitant a or coerced ‘yes’ means a NO.
- Silence means NO.
- Talk about normal reactions (and appropriate responses) when we accidentally cause someone harm.
You Might Also Like: Talking About Consent With Kids – Setting Healthy Boundariesand Accepting ‘NO.’
Mistake #4: Because I Say So.
We tell kids to respect our authority, not our reasoning. Teaching our kids to defer to the whims and directives of authority without question, simply because of their age, career, or social status, is how regular folks do horrible things.
Respecting authority implies we don’t have to respect everyone.
Respecting everyone requires we approach differences with an open mind. We listen, we aim for compassion and understanding. We treat others how we’d like to be treated, and we respect the boundaries and reasonable wishes of others, while respecting our own.
Respecting authority, however, means we apply this kindness to our peers and those we have power over – but we must obey authority. If we respected everyone, there would be no need to obey those in power without question.
Obeying authority is an act of submission and subjugation.
Obeying without question compels us to remain silent and not step out of line. We must obey our elders – even when they abuse us. We must obey our teachers even when they humiliate us. We must obey our employers even when they exploit us. We must obey our customers even when they trample us. We must obey our mentors even when they assault us. We must obey our breadwinners even when trap us. We must obey our police officers even when they murder us. We must obey our owners even as they beat us. We must obey our government even when they kidnap us.
When we put authorities on a pedestal, that leaves the rest of us as subordinates. Do you see where I’m going here? ‘Authority’ is just another word for our masters. This is authoritarian nonsense is the stuff of tyranny.
I teach my boys to respect everyone and question authority.
FIX IT NOW: Teach kids to challenge questionable authority
Baby Dragon is a gentle example of why they should listen when I tell them to stay put and not follow strangers – even if strangers seem helpful. It’s not a perfect book, but it worked for us as a primer, and helped us discuss procedures for if they ever get lost in public.
That Uh-oh Feeling – Claire can’t quite explain what makes her feel so uncomfortable. Cole & Leng don’t try to portray the coach as a ‘bad guy’ – he’s friendly and approachable. If kids are always looking out for ‘bad guys,’ overt abuse, and strangers, they might fail to report things until it’s too late
What I love most about ‘That Uh-Oh Feeling‘ is that both Claire’s friends and mother believe her. If we want our kids to come to us before things go to far, they need to trust that we will take them seriously, and this book models proper behavior for both victims, peers and adults.
‘Ron’s Big Mission‘ is based on the story of astronaut Ron MacNair in his 1959 fight to check books out of the library.
You might also like: Kids Books About Resistance for Courageous Kids
Mistake #5: Creating Loopholes
I’m tired. I’ve been working all day. I paid for everything. I got you this job. I never ask you for anything. You’re so inflexible. Are you sure you don’t want it?
Preventing assault is the responsibility of the attacker – never the victim. We don’t wait for our sons to use ‘code words’ when they want to stop rough-housing. It’s our responsibility as the tickler to remain vigilant for signs that we’re approaching a line.
- ‘No’ means no.
- ‘Well…okay’ means no.
- Silence means no.
We hold power over our children. One day they will have power – over a romantic partner, apprentice, or child who can’t afford the economic, career, and social fallout of drawing a hard line in the sand.
If your victim has to scream “I MEAN IT,” you have already assaulted them.
There is no excuse for letting it get this far. Anything less than enthusiastic consent means STOP. Victims can’t use ‘code words’ when unconscious. Victims can’t verbalize the reasons they feel uncomfortable when they’re young, isolated, and have nowhere else to go.
Many of us have been trained from early childhood to comply and consent to painful experiences or face dire consequences – like being put up for adoption, being institutionalized, or facing the rage of our attackers.
The responsibility preventing assault lies with the attacker. No exceptions.
FIX IT NOW: Teach kids to take responsibility for their actions
I want to list ‘Last Stop On Market Street‘ (not pictured) because it’s a spectacular book on compassion and kind action, but since it’s the boy’s grandmother who initiates kind action, I’ll save it for another day. Right now, let’s focus on stories where the boys themselves direct the action and model good decisions on their own.
‘Invisible Boy‘ gets thrown around in lists about compassion and empathy. It’s okay, but problematic. I list it here specifically because I’m sick of this being the gold standard for empathy.
- There is no empathy modeled in the book, just two kids being baseline decent human beings while the rest of the class are asshats.
- It’s full of stereotypes (nerd has glasses and no one picks him for sports, Asian kid, because chopsticks).
- The invisible boy earns friendship with kind actions, and they are immediately reciprocated.
Kindness is not transactional. Books like this encourage kids with social disabilities to ‘earn’ friendship. Making friends when you are socially awkward doesn’t actually work like that and stories like this teach neurodivergent/awkward kids it’s our fault we’re ignored and bullied.
For kids who do not have a social disability, we should teach them to be kind to kids because they are human, not because they are hoping for a payoff, and not because we owe it to them for a past kindness. WE CAN DO BETTER.
Faith McNulty’s thing is the interaction of fragile creatures from nature thrust into the world of man, relying on the compassion of powerful, conflicted humans to not squish them. I like these books a lot. Although irrelevant to boys behaving nicely, ‘The Lady And The Spider,’ (not pictured) is slow-paced and pensive, but holds up surprisingly well as a mild suspense-thriller for even young toddlers. For this list, ‘Mouse And Tim‘ is the perfect story to illustrate how we have to make the right (compassionate, selfless) choices when we are the ones who hold dominion over those with less. It’s the only book that left my loud and boisterous then-4-year-old into a deep, bittersweet, quiet contemplation after reading.
‘How To Heal A Broken Wing‘ highlights the importance of paying attention and going above-and-beyond what is expected of us. When the city ignores a hurt pigeon lying in the street, only one boy stops to care. He doesn’t have to spend weeks nurturing it back to health, but he decides to make it his responsibility.
Kindness is a muscle, friends. Work it.
Mistake #6: We Stay Silent When Things Feel Off
‘He’s just a product of his time.’
‘I’m sorry you’re offended. I didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘Boys will be boys!’
‘But he’s autistic/three years old/loves to hug!’
Nah. Stop making excuses. If you wouldn’t excuse your daughter from this behavior, you can’t excuse your son.
FIX IT NOW: Stop making excuses – and start identifying and discussing problematic behavior
We need to stop reading stories that romanticize harassment immediately.
When I first started reading with my kids, I bought a copy of ‘A Visitor For Bear‘ because it was a cute, silly story. Only recently, after finding it lost deep in our bookshelves, do I realize this is the type of book I’d put unequivocally in the ‘NOPE’ list today – there is no way I’d read this to my boys after what I’ve learned over the years.
Mouse wants to be Bear’s friend. He keeps sneaking into Bear’s house. Bear says ‘no.’ Mouse apologizes, leaves, and shows up again. Bear shouts ‘NO.’… Repeat. Eventually, Mouse wears Bear down, and they become best friends.
After reading thousands of animal-protagonist books, I’m starting to see the messages we teach our children. No matter whether Bear is male or a bear or a human or the larger and stronger animal or a boss or a king – his ‘NO’ counts.
He shouldn’t have to repeat it. He shouldn’t have to justify it. We should not see him broken down, we should not romanticize harassment.
Being less savvy with facial expressions as my allistic friends, I recommended ‘Hug Machine‘ years ago until long-time BFL’er Amanda L. pointed out that some of the Hug Machine’s targets looked uncomfortable with his affections. Not once does he ask permission, he just goes around groping people. As adorable as the story is, it’s a hard pass.
As an autistic woman, I hate ‘My Brother Charlie‘ with the heat of a thousand suns (hyperbole!) but for now, let’s just look at the cover. Look at it. Does he want that hug? NO HE DOES NOT. Back off, jerks! Charlie does not deserve your abuse. Seriously, I haaaaaate this violent, discriminatory, ableist crap book soooo much. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.
In ‘Mud Puddle,’ a sentient mud puddle repeatedly attacks a young girl, violating her personal space, clothing, and body – forcing her mother to repeatedly wash her to get clean again.
If she didn’t want to get dirty, she shouldn’t have left the house, amirite?! My 5yo found it hilarious. I did not.
‘You Will Be My Friend‘ is a cross between ‘Hug Machine’ and ‘A Visitor For Bear.’ Lucy chases down and physically assaults various animals until one of them likes the way she behaves.
I totally identified with the Lucy – this was my experience as an autistic kid! Insipid stories like these tell us assault is okay if the attacker is a girl.
I know better now – and I’m sorry.
‘The Bad Mood And The Stick’ not only teaches kids that we can’t just get out of a bad mood – we have to foist it off on someone else. That’s not even the terrible part!
The terrible part is when a white man takes his pants off in the workplace of a black woman even though she protests and explicitly tells him not to.
This delights her so much, they get married. What the actual fuck. Oh wait, I forgot Lemony Snickett has a history of unacceptable behavior toward black women.
Examples of mutual, affirmative, enthusiastic consent
If you’re looking for a cute alternative to ‘Hug Machine,’ try ‘Hug Time,’ which features hugs so in-demand, a whale leaps out of the water for them. (I could be wrong, but the main character’s best friend looks surprised by a hug, but not uncomfortable).
Also check out ‘Hug Me,’ about a cactus that wants hugs and manages to keep his prickles to himself until he finds someone who wants them.
If you want a story like ‘You Will Be My Friend’ without the home invasion and assault, try ‘Elwood Bigfoot,’ which was so sweet it made me cry a little, and both boys rejoiced at the ending.