It’s behavior that I am reminded of now that my son is in his terrible twos. Whenever he wants something he believes he is entitled to but cannot have, he gets frustrated and lets out an ear-piercing whine-wail. Being only a toddler, he has an extremely limited vocabulary, which is at least half the cause of his frustration, not to mention he has no understanding of restraint or chill, nor does he know how to express sadness and disappointment properly. (Notably, age appropriate and just like girls his age.)
I am helping my son to use his words. I am encouraging him to tell me what he is upset about. I don’t want him to turn into these men who raise voices at women. Or men who, whether they realize it, create an intimidating environment where women don’t feel comfortable to express their ideas, let alone feel valued to be considered for a promotion. I want my son to be part of a sea tide of change, so this next generation of men aren’t the angry, contemptuous monsters that women like me have had to endure.
I do this because I know this behavior isn’t born in an office petri dish. It’s learned at a very young age. According to gender researcher Christia Brown, author of “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue,” research has shown there is little emotional difference between infant boys and girls. Both have the same capacity for sadness, both cry the same amount as babies and toddlers. What does change as kids reach preschool age is how those around them react to their crying or frustration. Tears suddenly become a sign of weakness, demarcated for girls, while boys are discouraged from showing vulnerability at all. Boys, however, are allowed to get mad—and get aggressive.
“Boys are taught very early on that aggression is acceptable: Girls are given baby dolls and taught to be nurturing and compassionate, while boys are given action figures with guns in their hands,” Brown says. “All toys are educational, and these toys educate children about what is acceptable behavior.”
Then there is what we reinforce as parents, often subconsciously, with our language and preconceptions of gender. “Even those little 3-year-old boys, we tell them, ‘Man up,’ ‘Men in this family don’t cry,’ ‘Suck it up,’ ‘Stop acting like a little girl’ because we’re not supposed to have those emotions, we’re not supposed to be fearful, we’re not supposed to be hurt and sad,” says Ted Bunch, the chief development officer at A Call to Men, an educational and advocacy group. “We’re supposed to move on, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and keep it moving as men.”
How we express anger is a product of socialization, not DNA, says Bunch. This continues into adolescence—the teenage boy punching walls isn’t doing so simply because of raging hormones, but because rage is how he has learned to handle stress. “We really don’t prepare our children to deal with stress in a real productive way, other than through aggression, especially our boys,” says Bunch. “Aggression solves everything. And the more aggressive person wins—you see that in the political arena or the boxing ring.”
Women become interchangeable with the wall because boys learn both subtly and overtly to treat girls like objects, things of less value. There’s the coach who tells a male player he kicks like a girl, the uncle that teases his first-grade nephew about his girlfriend, as if girls can only be romantic conquests, not simply friends or equals. A friend recently told me that his 5-year-old daughter was punched in the face by a boy in her class. When my friend talked to a school administrator about the incident, the administrator said, “Well, she did provoke it,” which is the kindergarten equivalent of “she was asking for it.”
This attitude that women are there to absorb the pent-up frustrations of men begins in the home and the school stairwell, but it doesn’t end there. It follows both genders into peer groups, into relationships, into the workplace. Just as men are told to suck up their pain, women are told to suck up the expression of men’s pain.
There was a running joke at my former workplace that you could always find a woman crying on the sofa in the ladies’ room. Some man had barked at her for pointing out an error, another had her ideas stolen by a male colleague; all of us were so used it, we’d offer tissues and hugs, then go back to our desks, and do it all over again.
The good news is there are ways we, as parents, can divert from the well-worn path of gender norms that leads to misogyny. Since anger is often an expression of frustration, Brown says, we should give kids a good vocabulary to articulate what they are frustrated about. We can ask them if they are feeling sad or hurt or disappointed. We can tell them that it’s okay to be afraid. We can also teach them to deal with their frustration in the same way it’s healthy for adults to de-stress and process their emotions: talk it out, exercise, breathe, do calming exercises, write it down. Bunch said it is especially important for fathers and other male figures to foster this safe space for boys by showing them that vulnerability is not shameful.
We should also be more conscientious about taking gender out of everyday conversations and activities that aren’t necessary. Brown says this means instead of saying, “What a smart boy you are,” say, “What a smart kid.” “A kid will think, ‘If adults are constantly labeling my gender and the gender of everyone around me—put me in clothes and buy me toys that are color-coded for my gender—then my gender must be extremely important and I better pay attention to the ways in which my gender matters,’” she says.
As progressive a parent as I think I am, I have to watch myself too. I can’t tell my son to “stop crying” just because my patience has worn thin at the end of a long day. Same goes for calling him a “good little big man” because he has learned to put his socks on all by himself. I have to keep reminding him to “smell the flowers”—a deep breath into his imaginary bouquet, followed by a big exhale—so he has a way to calm himself down when he has worked himself up.
These are little steps. But they’re for a purpose that’s just as much about him as it is about me. Week after week, as I watch high-powered men get exposed for assaulting their female colleagues, I am forced to re-evaluate how much I, too, have probably lost out on in my career because men saw me as either compliant eye candy or a mother to soothe their temper tantrums. It is probably too late for me to make up the professional ground that I have lost. But I still have room to take control of what little I can through my son. And at least this time, it’s for a job that’s much more worthwhile.