Boyndaries: Balancing Our Boys

A friend of mine who’s a boy mom recently told me, “I have a really smart son, so sometimes I let him enter into a debate with me regarding whether or not he should be allowed to do something. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking, ‘No! I’m setting him up for his future relationships. I can’t let him get away with pushing me past what I expect from him.’ Sometimes I have to make my no mean no, and he just has to accept that.”

Her mindset is a great example of how we should all be thinking when it comes to disciplining the young boys and men in our lives. We are setting these boys up for future interactions with women. If our no’s eventually mean yes, there’s potential for them to think they can pursue, stalk, coerce, or even harm women and girls into doing what they want because, “women like to be chased, they like to be overpowered” (as some men think even today). Yes, that’s a large leap, but keep reading.

Another example comes from a mom who was pushed past her limit - which is easy to do! The boy, about 5 years old, asked for candy. The mom had her reasons for him to not have it which she explained to him. He followed her around the kitchen island begging, crying, calling her terms of endearment. He would calm down, be sweet, wait til she smiled, then ask again, to which she always replied no. Finally, she almost tripped over him in the kitchen after turning around quickly and in an effort to ensure their safety, she gave in because their safety meant more to her than him not having candy.

Both are typical experiences with their children in particular, but when consistent, which one do you think will produce a boy who understands boundaries better? Which boy will listen better when someone, anyone, says to stop doing something? Which one might be learning that if he waits long enough, complains, and keeps asking, he’ll get what he wants?

Yes, it seems extreme to link a child who pushes for candy to a man who pushes a woman past consensual levels; however, when the need for solutions to violent crimes against women arises, this is one place to start.

When I think and write about preventative measures we could all be taking to decrease violent crimes against women, I cannot shake the idea that this starts with transforming men, meaning we start with boys. Violence against women is primarily performed by men and if we could, as a community, start focusing preventative training on boys instead of primarily teaching girls defense, we could possibly end this epidemic. I could write volumes about the safety of girls and women but without focusing on the origination of the issue (men) we’re kidding ourselves if we think we could actually find a solution.

Our society has done a decent job recognizing the need for physical boundaries by birthing the zero tolerance policies across the nation’s primary schools with regard to touching other students. Essentially, the zero tolerance policies have eliminated touching other students as an option for any child. Personally I don’t believe complete abstinence is a viable solution for the long-term, and at some point when developmentally able, they should be taught the nuances of consent and touch, but it’s a start. Naturally time will be the ultimate decider of whether or not this was the best recourse.

Beyond physical boundaries, we need to go another step further. We need to discuss the socialization and bring up the idea that the pushiness of boys could be an innate force.

The male species was and is designed to recognize challenges, rise to the occasion, and push past barriers that could make them become or seem weak. This and the following statement is not meant to insult men, it is merely explaining what drives them and how we can deflect their nature in the area of violence.

Boys are brought up to try harder, get a yes, not stop until you win, and so on. Today, we have multiple sophisticated outlets for men to prove their capabilities and earn titles of notoriety including sports, business, and politics, just to name a few. Before these, they conquered or ”discovered” land masses. Prior to those they used feats of strength and, more primitively, hunting was the most popular way to define male worth when compared to other men.

Dorian Fortuna, Ph.D., contributor for Psychology Today agrees. In an article titled, Male Aggression: Why are men more violent?, Fortuna writes, “Men have inherited these skills from our evolutionary ancestors, because, in general, in the living world, gaining a higher hierarchical status, resources, protecting the family and obtaining competitive advantages in conquering women involves increased physical contest and increased aggressiveness [Buss, Duntley, 2006; Gat, 2010]. Similarly, in many animal species, including primates, males have the biological role of being guardians of the territory and of banishing the intruders or of protecting the group from predators, and these functions imply that males exhibit a higher level of aggression than females [Wilson, 1975].”

All of the aforementioned pursuits of male worthiness, if successful, lead to fame, wealth, and ownership (including women). In present day this undeniable urge to press boundaries in order to achieve notoriety or ownership (such as the candy in the previous example) can be observed at very young ages. The kid who pushed for the candy will likely do great in business and negotiation; however, eventually he will need to learn the difference between being a bull in a conference room and being kind and respectful in relationships. Therefore, we need to teach our young boys how to surmise for themselves why boundaries don’t always need to be pushed, and when it’s downright illegal to do so.

For those of you reading this who don’t think this is an issue, please allow me to provide an example:

I was just on social media the other day commenting on a friend’s posting regarding #whyididntreport. A man, a grown man, said, “yeah but sometimes no means yes. There’s a difference between a hard no and a soft no. … It’s courtship.” To anyone who agrees with this man, need we women remind you: No. Means. No. Period. Between socialization through prior generations dating before modern gender equality and the male’s genetic makeup, it’s no wonder we’re still facing this problem.

Yes, genetic. As Dr. Fortuna continued to say, “All of these anatomical, hormonal, behavioral and evolutionary factors demonstrate the biological, [instinctive] inclination of men to be more combative. Therefore, on an individual and social level, men are involved in acts of violence and crime. The social environment only cultivates and points out these predispositions towards fighting and aggression.” With this information, it becomes even more imperative that we work with our boys to fight these tendencies when it comes to people resisting or saying no.

So, how do we all, men included, teach our boys that a no won’t “eventually mean yes if they try hard enough” and how to control themselves when their instincts are to become aggressive?

First, make your no mean no and don’t back down.

Simply said, harder to implement, I know.

If you’re a parent of a young boy, you may start here:

  • Make a list of all of the things you will take a firm stance against;

  • Consider going over your list with the child, if appropriate, before something happens;

  • Reward him when he thinks about why he shouldn’t push a boundary;

  • Give consequences when he does push back.

Second, work with him on the subject of controlling any angry outbursts:

  • Remind him anger is OK - it’s our actions that need to be controlled

  • Teach him anger is a surface emotion, that there must be something deeper he’s feeling

  • Give him tools to express himself (journal, emotional vocabulary, safe space)

  • Teach him breathing exercises if necessary

Lastly, model the behavior you expect.

I believe we can create a new generation who don’t push boundaries, who stop when requested, who respect others, who have empathy, and in general understand other humans are entitled to just as much as they are.