My weekly column is not a platform on which to offer commentary about political issues, given my belief that the majority of readership do not expect or want to read my views about the political arena. I also recognize that when I share my thoughts about the values and practices that could help our children lead more compassionate and resilient lives, some of those values could be associated with a particular political group more than another.

That said, last week we witnessed unsettling news. There’s a great deal to say about this chaotic experience; however, I might be more helpful in offering my perspective on teaching our children the importance of truth and respectful behavior between the genders. We still raise boys and girls differently. Of course there are inherent differences in the sexes, yet we must take responsibility to look beyond the politics of patriarchy to the gender dynamics. When we consider what divides us, it could be that we’re holding closely to the traditional gender qualities of “masculinity” and “femininity.” If we believe that “boys will be boys,” then we must simply endure their sometimes-acting-out behavior. Yet that’s abandoning our responsibility to model ethical conduct and to teach our children that every person deserves to be treated with kindness, compassion and respect. Most importantly, we must model to our children that integrity is what truly shapes their identity and their self-worth.

Boys learn early to shun dependence. Research indicates that boys, typically by the age of 4 to 6 years, become disconnected from expressing their strong emotions. To show vulnerability, or to seek emotional support, a boy risks being labeled a “mamma’s boy” or “a wimp” or a “sissy.” Being too sensitive is associated with feminine qualities, which boys quickly learn are negative. In contrast, girls are encouraged to remain dependent, connected, typically expressing their feelings. At an early age, they are socialized to voice their opinion; however, by early adolescence, they’ve learned to silence their inner voices in accommodating others. A girl can easily seek protection, when frightened, both through language and understanding, skills that promote resilience. For boys in our culture, access to these same skills is compromised. The “boys code” of indifference produces wounds, while avoiding acknowledging and healing them.

Women are more accustomed to “processing” their feelings, embracing support and connection by sharing challenges to ultimately reach a solution. Men typically want to solve whatever problem she’s sharing, without a lengthy description. To understand the differences, the focus must be on facilitating difficult conversations; attending to the emotional root of behavior; hearing and understanding; and, most importantly, teaching our children how to advocate for themselves. This is merely touching the surface, given our responsibility to guide them.

The current “climate” provides opportunity to strengthen our collective voices in educating children about sexual assault, while being mindful that it is always the adults, not children, who are responsible for keeping them safe. This recent hearing speaks to several critical issues: teaching our boys and girls to be mutually respectful, kind, compassionate community builders with healthy boundaries; and highlighting the importance of being truthful, even in the face of shame and humiliation. This is another opportunity for parents, caregivers, schools, and children’s organizations to assure children their voices will always be heard, that it’s safe to come forward, and that being respectful and truthful are more important than being right. We must be willing to consistently model these values.

Sometimes, there’s nothing even the best parents can do to protect their children from bad things. However, some grievous events can be prevented; parents have a responsibility to set clear expectations of acceptable conduct, especially when hosting parties. Turning a blind eye to what might be happening, or supplying substances to underage adolescents, sets the stage for serious problems. It may elevate parents’ popularity with their children’s peer group, while encouraging unhealthy practices. Parents are usually conscientious about their children’s well-being in the areas of health and safety, yet possibly less so in educating them about sexual assault. Those inherently uncomfortable or difficult conversations are avoided, when, in fact, they should start early within the home. Again, our culture’s skewed characterization of masculinity promotes boys to be tough from a tender age, to emotionally disengage, to solve differences with aggression or violence and, sadly, to view females as sexual objects. William Pollack refers to the “Boy Code, the covert contract of toughness.” Our collective responsibility is to respond compassionately to the epidemic of male disconnection and depression, allowing boys to be vulnerable.

Dr. Pollack continues: “Some fathers are haunted by worries that if they don’t display tough, macho behavior, their sons will turn out effeminate or gay. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Modeling masculine behavior that includes the full range of human responses — from toughness to tenderness — offers boys the security they need to grow into their own individual personalities, whatever they may be like. Ideally, a boy, rather than feeling distance and judgment, feels loved and accepted by the most important man in his life, his father.

“Most often, when a father feels worried about whether his son is ‘manly’ enough, it’s because of shame he himself suffered as a boy. These leftover feelings of shame can fester painfully. He may unconsciously act out with his son the same scenarios he endured as a boy.”

I urge parents to begin having those difficult conversations with their children. It takes a community to raise a child, as well as to change the culture of violence; thus, we can’t afford to ignore the lessons from any sexual assault case. Our children must learn how to cultivate positive, caring relationships, positive communication, empathy and healthy sexuality, all of which start within the family. This is not about sex education, rather it’s about teaching children essential life skills. Our discomfort in addressing sexual violence only fosters chronic censorship. Finally, supporting and modeling to our children by being truthful, no matter how painful the consequences might be, is the foundation for a healthy society that believes in respect for every citizen, male and female. When we finally appreciate that and respect the gender differences, we can move from conflict that blocks us to growth and deeper connection.

“Most of our failures in understanding one another have less to do with what is said and what is heard than with what is intended and what is inferred. — George Miller, psychologist

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