By talking about the need to raise boys with an awareness of boundaries, consent and respect for women we are, implicitly or explicitly, blaming mothers for the actions of men who commit sexual assaults.
This is the opinion of Larissa Nolan, journalist, who I heard speaking on the radio this morning. The item was trailed by saying that mothers are now being blamed for the actions of men in light of the #metoo movement highlighting sexual assault. My ears pricked, as I crawled through the predictable traffic of Dublin’s suburbs. ‘Are they?’ I thought, ready to be outraged. It’s not something I’ve come across in any of the pieces I’ve read on the movement, which have , quite rightly blamed the men involved. (Apart from the odd contrarian piece from people who ought to know better who apportion blame to women for not saying no loudly enough, for sending mixed messages, for not standing up to these men who wield incredible power. But I don’t read those pieces, not good for my mental health.)
Larissa Nolan believes, or at least says she believes, that when Michelle Obama (Nolan explicitly referenced Obama) talks about the fact that we raise our sons differently to our girls, she is putting the actions of boys and men who behave badly onto the women who have raised them. She thinks that the vital discussion of the importance to introduce our sons to concepts of boundaries, consent and compassion, are attacks on mothers of boys. Nolan also thinks that the idea of introducing consent classes in schools is preposterous. It’s up to parents to do that. Wait, not just parents, mothers specifically, she says. And mothers are already doing that, thank you very much. Please don’t insinuate we are not raising our sons to respect women. Mothers of sons are always telling them it’s not nice to hit little girls. Nolan’s son loves her, so he must love women.
Nolan also thinks there is a disconnect between mothers who are raising girls, like Michelle Obama, and mothers who are raising sons. Of course there are many mothers, like myself, who are doing both. I worry for my son and my daughter. I know I have to teach them both different lessons, in different ways. Or maybe not. Maybe I need to teach them the same lessons in different ways. I don’t tell my son that he shouldn’t hit girls, I tell him that he shouldn’t hit people. Same as I teach my daughter. I teach them both that when someone says no , it means stop. Hopefully, my son is being raised in a home where he sees that his sister is capable of the same things as him, who is an individual in her own right just as he is, who is treated the same as him. The lessons of respect and kindness towards other people are the same, it’s just up to us as parents to be aware of the external messages and influences in the world which might contradict this. So I might emphasise with my son the importance of thinking of others, in a world where men are more privileged than women. But I might tell my daughter that it’s OK to put herself first, in a world where women are socialised to please everyone but themselves. She will be taught to say her no firmly and hold on to it, he will be taught no is a complete sentence.
Maybe I just don’t have as much confidence in my parental influence as Nolan does. She seems sure that she is doing her job, as a ‘good mother’ (her words, oh, the problematic concept of the ‘good mother’) and that this is enough. But this is not allowing for any external influences, nor for the fact that our children are individual beings. That we can do our best to promote our values, but they go out into the world as adults who will make their own minds up and who must take responsibility for their own actions. When our children are tiny, they may look up to us as idols (ha!) but there comes a time when maternal influence wanes. That’s the scary thing about parenting: you do your best, but you might still be raising a psychopath.
It’s nonsense for Nolan to say schools shouldn’t offer consent classes because it’s a parents job to do that. Even if all parents are doing it, which of course they aren’t, when our kids get to school age it’s not just us who’s raising them. It’s schools, it’s their friends, it’s government policy, it’s social media, it’s advertising. All of these things impact who our children are, who they will become.
So I won’t take it personally if you tell me I have a responsibility to raise my son to be the kind of man society needs him to be. I know.