‘The Biggest Contribution I Can Make To The Strong Girls Club Is Raising My Three Sons To Be Good Men’

'Only from a woman can they learn what it is to be female in a world where the power pendulum swings towards patriarchy - so that they become husbands, partners and friends to women for whom it doesn’t,' says Deborah Linton.

Raising boys

by Deborah Linton |
Updated on

As a mother of three young sons, I have sometimes wondered if the feminism in my family ends with me? The past few weeks have reminded me why that cannot be the case.

In a year that has shaken the foundations of public consciousness, many times over, the difficult conversations I’ve embarked upon with my boys - eight, seven and three - have shown me that the biggest contribution I can make to the Strong Girls Club is raising three little brothers to be good men. Men who lift women respect them and contribute to the kind of change that empowers true equality.

While this thought was not new to me, the responsibility to get it right was driven home by the murder of Sarah Everard, as she walked home, last month, that of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, stabbed in a Wembley park, last summer (their mother believes the police gave the case less attention because the women were Black) and, most recently, thousands of allegations of sexual assaults and rape in schools. (The website, Everyone’s Invited, has now collected over 14,000 testimonies.) They spawned protest banners and social media posts reminding us that, while those with daughters strive to keep them safe, far more importantly, women like me must educate our sons.

Discussions I envisaged having with them, as teenagers, were propelled into the present

Discussions that I envisaged having with them, as teenagers, before they bolted out the door on a night out, were propelled into the present in a more pressing way than I could have contemplated while they are young.

Consent is difficult to explain to children who do not yet know their bodies and whose exposure to relationships extends to screaming, “Alert!” when Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron go in for a kiss in High School Musical.

Last year, school set a lockdown lesson which involved asking a teddy bear if it wanted to be hugged. They looked perplexed and keen to play football. Children’s capacity for understanding grows rapidly; this time, I thought hard about what I wanted them to figure out.

Deborah's boys
©Deborah Linton

I grabbed a moment between bath and bedtime and asked them about tickling. “It’s fun until you want it to stop, isn’t it?” I said. They agreed. I asked how they feel if someone doesn’t stop and explained that each person has the right to decide how their body is touched, never anyone else. A friend told me to use the example of a cup of coffee, so I asked whether they’d make me one if I said I didn’t want it. “No,” said the seven-year-old. “But you probably would cause you really like coffee.” See, not easy. Their observations are cute. They won’t be when they’re 18.

It wasn’t the first complex topic we’d broached this year but it was the hardest to explain. Last summer, like many families, we spoke about racism and colonialism; after I watched Roman Kemp and Caroline Flack documentaries, exploring mental health and suicide, I asked if they knew how to help a friend - or themselves - if they seemed sad. “I won’t leave them on their own,” the eldest said.

These past 12 months, I’ve asked myself with more frequency than I could have imagined whether I’m educating them enough - and have got in sufficiently early - or if I risk overwhelming them too young? How much information would shatter their innocence? How much is not enough when the lessons they learn now shape the men they become?

Only from a woman can they learn what it is to be female in a world where the power pendulum swings towards patriarchy

At the moment, their view of girls - informed very much by school, not home - is that "they shriek and think unicorns are real". I work hard to dispel that. If they grow up to dismiss women in the same way or be inactive in the face of intolerance or inequality, that would be my falling.

Psychologist, Steve Biddulph, author of the best-selling book, Raising Boys, says teaching sons to respect women is a central scaffold to good parenting. Modelling behaviour for them starts with the way the men in their lives treat the women. When they become teenagers, Biddulph encourages parents to talk to sons about the difference between pornography sex and real sex. I remember thinking that would be their dad’s job. I’m reminded, now, why I must be part of the conversation. Only from a woman can they learn what it is to be female in a world where the power pendulum swings towards patriarchy - so that they become husbands, partners and friends to women for whom it doesn’t.

In our house, the word "respect" is probably yelled, by me, more than any other, to the kids when they don’t listen or leave stuff scattered across the house for me to tidy; to their dad when he doesn’t listen or leaves stuff scattered across the house for me to tidy. (Educating boys can involve educating men too; hopefully that won’t be the case in future.)

I hope my kids continue shrieking, “Alert!” at Disney kisses for a few more innocent years yet; when they outgrow that, I pray that I've done enough to raise them into men who will elevate, enable and be part of meaningful change for their peers. The task of getting that right, of ensuring feminism does not end with me because I am not raising a daughter, feels greater than any other precisely because I am raising sons.

READ MORE: Men, You Don’t Need To Be A Father, Husband Or Brother To Care About Violence Against Women

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