How to raise a boy: my mission to bring up a son fit for the 21st century

·26-min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

My little son has a gang he roots for. All boys, dudes everywhere – they’re his gang. I figured this out, recently, when we sat down to watch the Grand National. He’d picked a horse in the family sweepstake and his choice was out in front for most of the race. When it fell back, out of contention, my son paled a bit. Possibly he’d already spent the sweepstake winnings in his head (on stickers, sweets, toy balls) but he took the disappointment quite well, I thought, for a four-year-old. The race was won in the end by a female jockey. It was the only time a woman had ever finished first in a Grand National, the commentators shouted. And all at once my son did cry, real fat gushers, instant snot moustache, the works. Now this was too much, if a girl had gone and beaten all the boys.

Where does it come from, I wondered, this kneejerk allegiance that distances little boys from little girls and makes an us-v-them of gender distinctions, right from the get-go? Where does it lead, as those boys become men? These are questions I’ve been wondering about a lot as my son gets older. He’s a friendly, curious kid who adores his older sister but his sense of himself, just now, seems to come across most clearly when he emphasises the contrasts between them. Along with millions of other little boys he will be coming of age during a richly complicated time for young men, and I want to help him get this right.

Somehow, as a society, we’ve come to believe that a boy will be bullied if he is not the bully

Sonora Jha

The slow turbulence of the #MeToo movement, with all its re-evaluations and reckonings since Harvey Weinstein was brought to account for his crimes in 2017, then the sharp and terrible shock of Sarah Everard’s murder in the spring – these events have helped adjust the way a lot of us price and make room for masculinity’s expression in society. There seems to be an urge to do things differently, to rear young men without the same certainties and biases that previously we absorbed by rote. Mine’s not the first generation of parents to be thinking about all this, and fretfully. In the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, there were many mothers and some fathers who looked at each other and asked: what ought we be doing differently with boys? Perhaps what’s new is the urgency, a sense of enough-being-enough. Perhaps what’s new is that men, in greater numbers, are acknowledging the need for a rethink. Parents and those caring for sons have been wondering (and wondering, and wondering again): if change is to begin with us, how should a boy be raised now?

* * *

On the night of the disappointing Grand National, as I tucked my son into bed, I found myself consoling him by offering up some pedantry about it being a successful race for women and men both, actually. The champion jockey was a girl. But the winning horse was a boy. Well contented by that – the lads having clawed one back after all – my son fell fast asleep. Meanwhile, I went to the computer next door, to engage in one of those favoured activities of young parents, Troubled Googling.

In went some of the jangly questions I’ve been asking myself lately, queries picked off and transcribed as they circled around my head: “how to raise boy better 2021”… “what to tell son instead of stupid crap about male horses”… “be better parent of boy?”… “create better man future?”. The internet threw back all sorts: how-tos, essays, manifestos, podcast episodes, podcast seasons. Quickly I was watching the video of a speech delivered in 2019 by the novelist and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Coolly, more or less irrefutably, Adichie argued that it was time to make feminists of the world’s young men. “Feminism has to make a lot more room for the engagement with men, of men, about men, otherwise we’re not getting anywhere,” she said. “The feminist boys have to get on board.”

A few curious click-throughs from there and I was reading the opening chapters of a book called How to Raise a Feminist Son, by an Indian-born writer and academic called Sonora Jha. I sent her a plaintive email (“How should I raise my son in 2021?”), and when she answered we arranged a phone call. Jha, who now lives on the west coast of the US, sounded relieved when she picked up, even a little impatient, as though she’d been expecting me to telephone years ago.

“So,” she said, “first. I’m glad you’re asking this question. Cos the time has come, y’know? Traditional masculinity. It’s not working. I don’t just mean for women. It’s not working for our boys. It’s not working for our young men.” I asked in what ways she thought so and Jha gave the example of mask-wearing during the pandemic, long a contentious matter in her adopted country. “Last year, we saw Donald Trump make mask-wearing about masculinity. That has literally led to death. Misogyny, homophobia, these things happen when traditional masculinity veers into toxic masculinity. Now those who worship masculinity are also dying from it. So, yeah. I think people are realising that something needs to change. Finally.”

I encourage my boys to get blankets, to run baths… to learn how to self-soothe. Otherwise they’ll be dependent on women

Danusia Malina-Derben

Like Adichie, Jha felt that one answer might be to raise boys inside a pronounced feminist value system. That can be subtly done, said Jha, who raised her son (now in his early 20s) as a single mother. “In all that time, bringing him up, I may have used the word ‘feminism’ about three times. It wasn’t like I woke him up every morning and said: ‘Here are the principles of feminism you will learn today.’ Instead it was allowing him to cry. It was talking about how things may be uneven in the world towards girls. Raising him here in the US as a young man of colour, he was being called to a certain kind of masculinity. And he didn’t necessarily feel comfortable around that. For me it was an act of compassion towards him to introduce feminism. Not as a theoretical concept but as an everyday guiding principle in the way that we were going to lead our lives.”

Jha chuckled. Around the time her son left home, she recalled, she mentioned to him in passing that she’d raised him to be a feminist. “And he said: ‘No, no, no, I discovered it on my own.’ I smiled to myself at that.”

We spoke about her book, which came out earlier this year. She had given it a punchy title – How to Raise a Feminist Son, and “some men lashed out in response, of course,” Jha said. “Some of them asked me: ‘Why not just cut off his dick at birth?’ Somehow, as a society, we’ve come to believe this. That a boy will be bullied if he is not the bully. We’ve decided that this is how men will win, whether that be jobs, women, leadership. It doesn’t need to be that way.” Jha was sure: a more equitable, empathic social agreement would not only be better for girls, but for boys too. And what quicker route to get feminist principles into a young man’s head than via the gate marked Self-Interest?

“It’s not just about raising gentle, empathic boys. It’s not just about explaining to those boys that there are certain structures preferable to men and we want to dismantle those structures. It’s about explaining why we want things to be more equitable, because if and when they are, boys will get to be not constantly leaders but also followers, they will get to fail, they will get to spend more time at home [in domestic roles], and they can do all of those things without their very humanity being called upon, without them being told: ‘You are less of a man because of this.’”

Before we said goodbye, Jha suggested I try something with my own son. That tearful episode around the horse race, where he was upset by the success of a female jockey – why didn’t I make that a starting point for a different sort of conversation? “I think if it were my son, I would say something like: ‘I’m sad your horse didn’t win. But how happy the winning rider’s family must be for her! And the men who lost? They’ll probably work harder and be inspired by her. So we get to be a part of her victory as well.’”

Jha insisted that the only indispensable resource in raising awake-to, alert-to sons was conversation. Little and often. Others would say the same.

* * *

Somehow I never quite got round to having that extra conversation with my son. The right moment didn’t seem to come. Actually, anything may work as a prompt, Uju Asika suggested. Asika, the London-based author of a parenting blog and the mother of two early-teenaged boys, explained how she’d used video games, hip-hop, summer football tournaments – “any kind of cultural resource to create a spur and get my sons thinking”.

“Like, I listen to my eldest playing video games with his friends. There’s all this banter. You want to leap in, correct, criticise, condemn. But it’s been a learning process for me. I’ve been trying to listen more, and wait more, and see where they’re coming from. Then I might ask: ‘Why did you say that? Did you understand what it meant?’ I try to challenge their viewpoints, but, at the same time, accept that all this is just their experience.”

Asika sighed. She was talking to me while her sons were at school, one at primary, one at secondary, both fast on their way out of boyhood. “None of this has been smooth-sailing. It’s not like a TV sitcom, where you sit down and have this amazing conversation that solves things on the spot.”

Actually, Asika added, a TV sitcom had been a useful conversation-prompt the other day. “We’ve been watching Friends again. Just full of stuff you might, um, want to challenge. This was an episode where Ross was worried about his son playing with a Barbie instead of a GI Joe.” Asika and her sons, watching, wound up having a profitable chat about gender stereotypes. “A quick chat. When I go into lecture mode I can see them zoning out. Kids have really short attention spans. But in a way I see that as something we can use to our advantage.”

Plant seeds, was Asika’s suggestion to me, and start small. “When you read the various statistics about boys, male violence, toxic masculinity, all this – it really does start to feel overwhelming, like it’s a crisis point for boys and men. I try to be more hopeful and see it as an opportunity to keep adding to their options. The boys coming into the world now? I hope as they get older they’re going to feel a lot more liberated, as opposed to being fit into the boxes that have existed for generations of men. The main thing is to expand the ideal of what we consider manliness to be.”

Last July, as Asika was preparing to publish a book called Bringing Up Race, about parenthood and racial identity, George Floyd was murdered in the US, prompting a summer of global protest. “That was happening. I was bringing out my book. So we talked a lot about race and identity at home. I asked my sons about their experiences as black boys. We talked about how to behave in a situation, for instance in an encounter with police, or here, in London especially, any situation involving knives.”

Related: Young, British & Black: the voices behind the UK’s anti-racism protests

Asika described them as “scary conversations but necessary ones. We get letters from school, sometimes. More muggings. More incidents of knife crime. I ask my sons: ‘What would you do if you came across this happening? Or, if someone tried to steal your phone, how would you respond?’” She tried to help her sons expand their definition of manliness to include smart submission (“A phone is just property, not relevant, you hand it over”) and verbal instead of physical intervention. Walking away intact from a dangerous situation? Manly. Choosing words over fists? Manly.

Asika said: “It’s one of those tricky, where-do-you-draw-the-line problems, between telling them to stand up for themselves, not be victimised – and at the same time not wanting them to become an actual victim because they stood up for themselves. As a mother the main thing I want is for my sons to be safe. But I do still tell them: ‘Stand up to bullies, stand up against racism, stand up for what you believe in. But does that necessarily have to mean a physical altercation? Does it have to mean fists? Can’t it be with your voice, with your values?’”

Asika described it all as a work-in-progress. A lot of the parents I wound up speaking to used the same phrase, as though we were all in the prototype stages of some great but wobbly experiment.

“At the end of the day,” said Asika, “mine are boy-boys and always have been. They’re still gonna be punching each other on the arm when they’re in their 40s. You do wonder, sometimes, where it comes from.”

* * *

Danusia Malina-Derben, a mother of 10 from the South Downs, started to pick apart this question – where does the boy in boy come from? – when one of her children came to her to say that he felt he was both a boy and a girl. “‘Half of me is a boy and half of me is a girl,’ was how he verbalised it,” Malina-Derben recalled. “He used a female name when not in school. He wanted a dress. I’d been lucky enough to have four sons in five years, just a massive injection of boy. And this moment triggered the most magnificent analysis of how I was being with my sons as a group. I had to think: ‘What do I want to do with this?’”

I came across Malina-Derben via her two podcast series, School for Mothers and School for Fathers, in which she delves into aspects of an unconventional parenting experience, and interviews others about theirs. While we spoke, she was working-slash-hiding-from-her-youngest-kids in the car on her driveway. “How do we raise conscious boys in a changing world,” she wondered.

For years Malina-Derben has worked as a coach in male-dominated corporate sectors, “talking to hundreds of men about their grief, about having to be the strong one, the leader, the bread-winner, the big guy at all costs. An awful lot gets spoken about the privileges of masculinity, particularly of white masculinity, particularly white humans who identify as men. We know those privileges well. But the more that we narrow the range of activities and the stereotyped possibilities of what it is to be a boy, and therefore a man, we narrow the experience and expressiveness that’s possible. Which leads to huge unhappiness. I’ve come to see that men get thrust into channels of life that actually aren’t necessarily helpful for them, and aren’t helpful for anyone else either. The humanity that we disregard for males is a travesty. We need to reinfuse our understanding of what it means to be male with human-being-ness.”

Her child was three years old when he first came to Malina-Derben with questions about his identity. (His preferred pronouns are now he and him.) “It was a stroke of luck for me, it really was. I had the luck to reconsider things that I was doing with my sons that would also embrace and include his need. I considered every element. Language. Clothing. Activities. My conversation about what was possible in life. Career roles. Contraception. Consent.” She made sure to ask all her children the same questions about the future. Do you think you’ll be a parent yourself? “Because it’s only girls, traditionally, who are ever asked that.” Whenever she found herself at the foot of the stairs, about to shout “Boys!” to summon the ones of her children she wanted, Malina-Derben tried out other options. “Fam? Team?” She shuddered at the cheesiness. “I’m still negotiating with them on that one.”

For as long as I’d been researching this story, I had been asking interviewees: were there any small, manageable, free techniques of theirs that other parents might use? Malina-Derben thought for a moment and came back with an answer I wasn’t expecting.

“Blankets.”

She explained. When she considered, at one end of her life, the distress she was trying to counsel out of adult men, and at the other end of her life, the habitual and unexamined ways we’ve often raised our sons, she noticed a gap. Boys were hardly ever taught to comfort themselves. “There’s a whole industry of it surrounding women. But it’s missing around boys. Self-care? For boys and men, they’re told to channel it off into sports, fishing, DIY. Just look at Father’s Day cards and the ridiculous things that dads are supposed to be into.”

So, Malina-Derben continued, “I encourage them to seek out blankets. Run themselves baths. Make a warm drink. That sounds odd, but they’ve taught themselves, with my guidance, when and how to self-soothe. Things we would once have associated with femininity – wrapping yourself in a blanket, making yourself cosy – I’ve tried to help them do that without questioning whether or not it’s masculine. Otherwise I’m going to raise boys who are dependent on women to help them look after themselves. Many, many women basically look after their men, if they’re in a heterosexual relationship; and the men rely on that as a kind of barometer of where they’re at emotionally. It’s a disempowerment for men. And it’s another thing that women have to do.”

* * *

People told me of other interesting techniques, mostly ones they’d stumbled upon while trying to second-guess or reimagine the work of raising sons in 2021. Dave Wilson, a one-time handyman turned sobriety coach whom I’d contacted to ask for advice about the discussion of alcohol with young men, said that in his own household he made deliberate use of the human habit of eavesdropping. “Ear-wigging,” Wilson called it. He’d raised one son to adulthood and now had two stepsons on the brink of teenagehood. He realised he could get all sorts of useful information over to them (about booze, morals, life) without them squirming, if he only staged a loud-ish conversation with his partner and let them hear it.

I spoke to a developmental psychologist from Philadelphia, Michael Reichert, whose book How to Raise a Boy came out in paperback last year and who teaches a weekly “emotional literacy” class for young men in a school near his home. Reichert offered up neat parcels of insight on all manner of subjects that were pertinent to the development of young men, for instance online pornography, “which the world of boyhood is steeped in”, he said. Whatever the topic, though, Reichert’s advice for parents boiled down to a one-word instruction.

“I would say to them: ‘Think about the day you just spent. How many minutes did you listen to your son? Not ask him questions. Not interrogate him. How many times did you sit back, still your own thoughts, mobilise that place in your heart where you are delighted in him, really make him the object of your attention – and listen?’”

Related: Is pornography to blame for rise in 'rape culture'?

In his weekly high-school class, Reichert said, he had forced himself to stifle his own generational discomfort and listen to the assembled boys talk about their experiences with online porn, “this industry that is ubiquitous in their lives, shaping what boys imagine is expected of them, defining the boundaries of performative sexuality, maybe in spite of what’s hard-wired in their natures. I am way, way more inhibited on this topic than they are. I’m so much more uncomfortable. They’re ready to talk about it. They’re so happy there’s this space in which they can acknowledge something to one another that there hasn’t been much breathing room for at all.”

Oh, one more tip, Reichert added. Try swimming on the floor.

Excuse me, I said?

“It’s another strategy I recommend. Following the boy’s lead.” Reichert explained that he has a grandson who is four years old, the same age as my own son. “I’m looking after him? I’ll plop myself next to him. Do whatever the hell he wants to do. And for my grandson, right now, that involves pretending we’re swimming on hardwood floors. This is miserably uncomfortable for me, by the way. But for him? It means he has an adult who is willing to do what he cares about. He doesn’t have to do it alone. He has me with him.”

* * *

I have a daughter as well as a son. She’s a little older than him. I find it easy and exciting to tell my daughter, as often as I can: You can do anything. You can be anything. Ignore anybody who says otherwise. Not so straightforward when it comes to sons. A pep talk about their future, the kind where your instinct as an adult is to try to make the life ahead sound less complicated and cluttered than it will actually be, sounds clumsy without certain disclaimers. The disclaimers themselves sound clumsy. It must all be so hard for a little boy to take in. You can do anything. But not anything-anything. You can be anything. Only please hold back, exercise judgment, read rooms. Ignore anybody who says otherwise. Really, really don’t.

There is much that’s cramped, odd, scary and foolish about inward-looking male culture. A lot that’s good as well. For 39 years I’ve resisted it and been drawn to it. A dozen men, arranged in a semi-circle to talk at 140% volume about her and her and her and the match? For the same person that can be shameful in theory, and in practice as pleasurable as a deep bath. My son enjoys taking me aside from my wife and daughter to tell me, conspiratorially: “We have willies.” For many of us it’s innately felt, this lure of one of the biggest clubs there is. Male kinship is sticky. Like a religion seeded early enough, its tenets can be hard to shake off even when reason insists they must be. I want my son to know that rewarding membership of the tribe needn’t be ride-or-die, it needn’t mean allegiance above all else.

Tom Lamont in his garden with his son
Tom Lamont in his garden with his son

Right after Sarah Everard’s murder in the spring, as the country reeled in shock, there was a muted but real reluctance among the men I knew to take any collective blame for one guy’s intolerable act. It took about a week for the bigger idea to get across, to me at least. Men as a tribe must hold themselves to account. Interrogate one another and curb one another. If not because all men have the hidden potential to be awful and violent women-haters, then because the haters among us may be so lost in contempt they can only be reached by male criticism, male pressure, male example. If the perpetrators of sex crimes aren’t being reached or punished by the law as it exists, perhaps what’s left is for men to be better policed by their peers.

When I spoke to the author Uju Asika about the aftermath of Everard’s murder, I was struck by her candour about her husband, who felt the same initial responsibility-reluctance as I did. Asika called it “that whole not-all-men-do-this pushback, which became very frustrating for me and a lot of my female friends. Speaking with my husband, there was a sense of him trying to distance himself from a man who would do this type of thing. I believe there’s absolutely a chasm between my husband and the type of man who would attack Sarah Everard. But they’ve also both grown up within a system that is weighted against women. He’s had to recognise that. He’s had to say: ‘OK, I have to be personally accountable for how I behave within the system, how I relate to other men, how I hold them to account.’”

Post-Everard, a lot of grown men have been going about this business of slow extraction, gloopily removing their feet from tacky alliances, putting aside all the omertàs, wondering just what we’ve let happen to malekind on our watch, especially out on the fringes. Imagine, I thought, after speaking to Asika, if we could raise our sons to think so clearly from the start, no extrication or re-education necessary, and above all no sudden shocking murder as a prompt.

* * *

“I see parenting as an act of social change,” Bobbi Wegner told me, when we spoke by phone one afternoon. A clinical psychologist and a Harvard lecturer, she has two sons aged 10 and 12, young men who, in Wegner’s candid phrasing, are “positioned to be the future dickheads of the world, quite honestly. They’re white. They’re privileged. OK, none of that’s their fault. But they do get sent a specific set of messages from the culture: that the world is theirs for the taking. And I want them to appreciate and understand this. It’s such a huge piece [of the pie]. I want them to have an awareness of their position. And use it.”

It wasn’t enough to raise boys not to be dickheads, Wegner had started to think. Better if they grew up anti-dickhead. Better if they ushered in a post-dickhead world. Wegner described for me her radicalising moment as a mother of sons in the 21st century. “It was 2017. Harvey Weinstein was happening. I had the radio on and they were talking about his crimes. My son was in the room.”

Wegner, as a teacher sensing a teaching moment, stopped herself from switching off the radio and instead she began to explain to her son what Weinstein had done. How this rich and famous guy touched women when they didn’t want to be touched. How he said things that made them feel unsafe. “My son took it in, didn’t bat an eye, then said: ‘What, that’s illegal? Didn’t President Trump do that?’” Wegner reeled back. “Like: woah, woah, woah. Did he think that all this was permissible? It made me realise he was getting messaging that I just had no clue about. And if I hadn’t asked him or brought it up that day, maybe it would have kept baking into his identity.”

She hit the Harvard library hard, reading all the research she could and reaching the opinion (crystallised in her book that was published last year called Raising Feminist Boys) that it wasn’t enough to teach girls to protect themselves. Boys had to be taught not to harm. Wegner told me: “What we know about sexual assault is that a lot of it happens at high-school age and college age [roughly 14 to 21], when boys’ frontal lobes aren’t even developed yet. We have all these boys who’ve been seeing sexual content in puberty. They’re really excited to get naked with girls. They don’t have a lot of rules about and parameters around what’s OK and not OK. Sexual assault can end up happening as a kind of crime of impulsivity, a lack of empathy, a not-knowing.” Wegner felt sure that if these were drivers of a certain type of sexual assault, these things could be tackled and perhaps eradicated with something as cheaply and readily available as conversation.

Related: A feminist's guide to raising boys

At home, as a parent of sons, Wegner said, she had settled on a programme of curiosity, small provocative questions (“Helping them to notice and wonder about things”) and a determined unsqueamishness when it came to any discussion of sex.

“Quite honestly it’s a work-in-progress,” she said. That phrase again. “I have my sons sitting in my living room, now, looking at me.” What to say to them today, she wondered? And tomorrow? And after that? “All I know is that this is tied together,” she said, “sex, relationships, identity, power differentials, this is happening to them. So as a parent you can either decide to turn a blind eye and see what happens, which seems like too much of a gamble to me, or you can appreciate that this is the reality and you can be in the passenger seat beside your son as they go through this stuff.”

* * *

Every parent of boys I spoke to for this story stressed, at some point or other, the same thing. They didn’t have the answers. They only felt as though they were starting, belatedly, to ask better questions. They were um-ing a lot, ah-ing, hoping for accidental insight between the sighs and the tuts and the head-scratching.

It was a comfort to me, that nobody knew anything for sure, as I walked my son home from school last week. He was idling along, holding my hand, softly singing one of those repetitive playground rhymes that kids spread among one another like ailments. “Boys always win,” he chanted. “Girls in the bin.”

Surely there was a composed, ameliorative, just-right response that would get my son questioning this sentiment, I said to myself. Think fast! In the end I murmured a lame riff on the chant, one in which everyone won. Nobody went in the bin. My son looked at me when I was finished, quite plainly thinking: ‘Jesus, mate, there’s no way that will catch on in my playground.’ But he kept holding my hand as we walked. I took it as a sign he was willing to be steered, and that that was still my job, however ham-fisted or clumsy the effort. I waited for the next prompt.

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