What if your son’s friends started comparing notes on female schoolmates, ranking the girls according to their attractiveness? How would your son respond?

What if the discussion were darker? What if peers were urging your son to join in a contest to harass one of the girls in their year, hoping to be first to convince her to send a nude selfie?

We wish it weren’t so, but locker room conversations like these aren’t unusual among youth. Our boys are rubbing shoulders every day with peers who act selfishly and disrespectfully toward girls.

How can we be sure our young men won’t be swayed by peer pressure, and join in either mild or dark acts that degrade girls?

Of course, we need to talk to our boys often – and then some more – to overwrite sexist influences, telling them Treat girls with respect; act honourably toward them.

But is that enough? Maybe there’s more we could be doing. Maybe we should go deeper.

To put first things first, encouraging respectful behaviour toward girls begins not so much with talking to boys about girls, but by talking with boys about some deep issues that trouble every boy's heart.

Hidden insecurities that derail boys

It’s not only girls who can feel threatened by locker room behaviour. On some level, boys can feel threatened too.

To make sense of this, we have to first understand how desperately teen guys are plagued by insecurity and feelings of inadequacy as a male. Most are acutely afraid of being embarrassed in front of their peers for not knowing what a guy needs to know about being a man.

Consequently, whenever machoism, sexual prowess and predatory sexual behaviour toward girls is held up as the gold standard for male behaviour, it plays into our boys’ fears and insecurities.

In the absence of strong role models, rudderless young males are vulnerable to buying in to those crass, stereotypical assumptions about “how real men behave” – adopting sexist and exploitative attitudes toward girls as part of the package.

“Boys are desperately looking for validation of their manhood,” warns Dave Willis, a relationship coach and former pastor.

In his newly released book Raising Boys Who Respect Girls Willis writes, “The Locker Room Mentality exists, and its temptation is a great pull toward the darker side in the war for our sons’ hearts and souls. We need to know that the Locker Room Mentality has temptation only because it promises to meet a need that stems from a healthy desire. Our sons want to know what it means to be a real man, and they’re longing for someone to show them what it actually means.”

Even when they don't join in, our boys can be left feeling confused, discouraged or marginalized for holding to higher standards and a higher view of women.

For them, exposure to a locker room mindset will sow doubt about whether it’s worth holding steady in their pursuit of godly manhood. Because, in effect, locker room conversations suggest to a guy that:

  • only vulgar, stereotypical forms of manliness get respect
  • his sexual knowledge and experience is inadequate
  • and therefore he is inadequate in his maleness.

Many a young man will be tempted to go places he shouldn’t go to learn about sex, sexuality and manhood, just so he can keep up with peers who seem to know a lot more than he does. And if he turns to porn, he’ll learn nothing but twisted, exploitative ideas about girls there.

What parents can do to help

We need to keep talking to our sons, painting for them a clear and compelling picture of what godly manhood looks like, and reassuring each and every boy that he is not “losing out” by holding to God’s standards. But we need to go even further.

The discussion needs to get much more personal. It requires talking about fears, temptations and very practical ways that a guy can stay on the path of honourable manhood.

1. Allaying fears

Parents, and dads in particular, can do much to help allay a son’s fears of inadequacy by:

  • providing reassurance that all men struggle with doubts about whether they’re “manly enough” and feel tempted to validate themselves in unwise ways

  • providing a thorough, age-appropriate sex education and opening regular opportunities for a boy to have new questions answered, so he won’t feel compelled to follow boorish conversations or to seek out porn sites to fill gaps in his knowledge

  • providing reassurance that knowing “what girls like” is not something to worry about. Rather, keep emphasising that sexual naivety is something for a godly guy to be proud of. So many boys would relax a whole lot more if they were simply told something like this:

    Figuring out sex is something precious you and your wife will share together once you marry – a part of your unique love story that you'll be able to treasure. And spoiler alert: no one gets it perfect first time!

  • affirming sons often so boys can feel proud of their progress toward a biblical version of manhood.

2. Defusing temptation to objectify girls

If we’re serious about helping our sons view girls in an honourable way, we cannot do less than what Jesus did. Jesus openly and directly warned about the harm in entertaining lustful thoughts, and we need to warn our boys too.

Willis writes, “One of the most complicated dynamics in raising boys who respect girls is teaching boys that God created them to be visual and to be attracted to women’s physical appearance, but, left unchecked, their visual appetites could warp their thinking and replace respect with objectification. This is one of the most important lessons we should be teaching our sons. It’s also one of the most difficult for them to practice and is a life-long struggle for most men.”

Parenting boys well today means:

For many young men, porn can seem like a shortcut to understanding manliness and sexual relationships. We need to step in and correct that notion!

Every boy needs to know that consuming porn is not something harmless that “all boys do.” Porn presents a false, depraved view of male and female sexuality, and it certainly won’t teach a guy how to have great relationships with girls.

In brief, boys need to know that porn leads a guy toward:

  • unrealistic expectations of girls and a poor understanding of the girls he meets in real life – he’ll be less able to figure out girls than ever;

  • things a guy might not notice but the girls around him will: that he’s hyper focused on himself and want he wants from a girl, but shows little consideration for her feelings; that he acts in ways that feel demeaning or even abusive to girls;

  • literally losing control of his mind as sexual thoughts and cravings increasingly intrude into all his day to day activities and make it hard for him to focus on things he once enjoyed;

  • profound loneliness, in the end, because porn involves loveless sex and teaches a self-interest that leads to loveless relationships.

3. Introducing a girl’s perspective

As noted, boys can be swept up in demeaning behaviour toward girls when they’re worried about what other guys expect of them. But boys can be driven to disrespect by mistaken ideas about what girls expect of them too.

For example, it’s common for boys to misconstrue a girl’s motives for her clothing choices, and to assume she’s inviting sexualized attention.

Willis cites surveys done by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn that are revealing.

Willis writes, “When girls dressed in tight clothes, most boys assumed that they were intentionally doing so to invite sexual advances or to induce sexual fantasies in the boys who saw them. . . . Only 4 per cent of girls reported choosing their clothes with a motive of getting sexual attention from boys, while 90 per cent of boys thought the girls were dressing to get sexual attention.”

Beyond talking to our sons ourselves, one of the best ways to cultivate respect for girls is to let our sons hear from girls – to build understanding and empathy.

Here’s where sisters, cousins and female friends can help out. And youth group leaders, too, can be great allies in creating opportunities for guys to hear from girls on how they really feel about:

  • being whistled at as they walk by
  • being hit on by guys
  • not being looked in the eye, but having attention focused on another part of their body
  • not having their perspective taken seriously
  • having their decisions questioned
  • being viewed as “less intelligent” . . . and a host of other ways that girls can feel demeaned.

4. Teaching time-honoured manners

Without doubt, this is a complicated, confusing culture for our boys to navigate. All in all, we want our boys to understand that Jesus is calling them to a high standard – to a vision of manliness that protects girls rather than exploits them.

It’s easier for a guy to rise to the challenge if he knows what’s expected of him – if he knows what “protecting girls” looks like. To that end, we can begin by simply teaching some traditional ways of acting thoughtfully toward girls (also called manners). For example, would your son think to do the following:

  • offer a girl his jacket when it’s cold or raining
  • give up his seat in a crowded bus or train
  • look out for a girl’s safety – offering to wait at the bus stop with her, or walking her to her car (without being patronizingly presumptive about it; he should always ask first)
  • always be on time to meet a girl so she’s not left waiting alone
  • protect a girl's reputation – meeting in public places; not hanging out in her bedroom or dorm room and not inviting her to his.

Don’t forget to teach your son that acting respectfully toward girls also means protecting girls when they make mistakes or are in danger of making a mistake. Being a protector means:

  • shutting down classroom gossip about the girl who sent a nude selfie
  • not shaming girls who dress provocatively
  • not getting back at the girl who hurtfully dumped him or dissed him
  • calling a taxi, or even her parents, for a girl who’s so drunk she’s vulnerable
  • warning girls away from guys who are too drunk to drive
  • warning girl friends away from a date with a guy who has already bragged about his “dishonourable intentions.”

5. Correcting our own attitudes and actions

Our kids don’t just learn from us in our best moments; they learn from us in our worst moments too. And since we’re all tainted to some degree by the culture we live in, we need to routinely run a safety check on what we, as parents, are modelling for our sons.

Dad, is your son picking up sexist sentiments from you? Do you ever joke about a woman’s ability to drive or navigate? What comments do you make about women’s career choices? Do you sometimes express surprise that a particular job is held by a woman?

Mom, even you need to be careful too. Do you ever make negative comments about another woman’s appearance or weight? Or about how another woman dresses?

All of us can likely do better – to be more careful about the jokes we laugh at and the entertainment choices we allow into our homes. All these unguarded moments and outside influences help shape our boys’ perceptions of the value of women.

In closing, here are a few brief reminders you may want to share with your son from time to time:

Guys who act superior to girls will always have inferior relationships with girls.

Male bonding by degrading females is never okay. The word “degradation” also means to strip a guy of his knighthood. When he degrades females, a guy is stripping away his own honour.

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
– Jesus (Luke 6:31)

Recommended reading:

Raising Boys Who Respect Girls by Dave Willis.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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