Raising good men: How parents can teach sons about healthy relationships and consent
In the wake of sexual harassment scandals, "GMA" explores raising good men.
— -- In the wake of sexual misconduct scandals and the #MeToo movement that have rocked the nation in recent months, some parents are talking about how to raise boys to become men who treat women with respect.
"Good Morning America" is speaking with boys, parents and experts on how to raise men who not only don't harass women but who treat women as equals.
ABC News' Paula Faris sat down with a group of six boys, aged 12 through 16, in the Denver area to explore their views about relationships with girls at a time when many are having their first experiences of dating.
Unbeknownst to the boys, their parents listened in while they spoke with Faris about everything from romance to consent.
When asked how many of them had "crushes," five of the six boys, who we agreed to identify only by their first names, raised their hands. Mason, 14, even said he had a girlfriend.
While some said they had told their parents about their crushes, most said they did not talk to their parents about relationships.
"No, try to keep it, like, on the down low," Sebastian, 15 said. Adam, 16, agreed, saying, "You've got to keep them out of your business, you know?"
Dr. Stephanie Dowd, a clinical psychologist from the Child Mind Institute in New York City, listened in on the boys' responses. She told ABC News that parents should proactively initiate a conversation with their sons on what a healthy relationship looks like, especially as they begin to develop an interest in dating.
"Having a healthy romantic relationship really requires both partners to have empathy," Dowd added. "To be able to see if from the other person's perspective."
Expand the 'sex talk' to include a discussion about emotions and consent
Dowd told ABC News that it is also critical for parents to expand on how they may talk to their children about sex when their sons and daughters begin to date. She said parents should initiate a dialogue with their sons especially about romantic feelings, emotions and consent.
"This is specifically how you ask for consent: 'Are you OK with this? Does this feel comfortable to you?'" Dowd said. "It's as simple as that. Parents just need to model that for your kids."
When Faris asked the group of boys what they thought it meant to have consent, most seemed to understand what it meant.
"Both people that are doing something, want to be doing it," Mason said.
The boys also responded when Faris gave an example.
"Let's say you guys are in class and you notice that one of your classmates, a male, puts his hand on one of your female classmates' legs and doesn't have permission. Is that OK?" Faris asked, receiving a chorus of "no" from the group.
"That's sexual harassment," Adam said. "You can't do that."
When asked what it means to "be a man," most of the boys said they felt that in part it means to hide your emotions.
"You've got to be mature, can't show emotions," Adam said. "You've got to just be, like, manly."
Dowd said that this understanding of masculinity can become "dangerous" as boys grow older, and it is up to parents to teach their sons that such views of manhood are false.
"These messages are very rigid for boys and men," she said. "And they're dangerous. Parents have to expand the definition of what it means to be a man."
Expert tips on how to talk to sons about healthy relationships
Dowd broke down her top four actionable tips on what parents can do to help raise boys that grow up into men who treat women as equals and with respect.
1. Teach teens what a caring, healthy, romantic relationship looks like.
Dowd recommends approaching your teen with "compassionate curiosity and open-ended questions to get them talking about what they think a loving relationship means."
"Talk about the difference between a healthy romantic relationship versus an unhealthy one," she added.
Dowd added that parents should "point out positive relationship role models where mutual respect, compromise, and caring of the other occurs," either in real life or on TV.
2. Define sexual harassment and speak up if they see it happening.
"Sexual harassment is more than just unwanted physical touching," Dowd said, noting the importance of making sure your children understand the different forms of harassment, which she outlined as below.
- Verbal harassment: Making sexually explicit comments, jokes, catcalls directed at someone.
- Cyber harassment: Making those same sexually explicit comments online.
- Nonverbal harassment: Making sexual gestures, or writing sexually explicit things about someone.
- Unwanted behavior: Repeatedly asking someone on a date, not taking "no" for an answer, or following or stalking them.
"Parents need to be role models and teach their kids to stand up and stop harassment when they see it," Dowd added. "If you see something, say something."
3. Convey that boys and men must ask for consent and accept that "no" means "no."
"We need to stop our boys from acting as though they can take whatever they want," Dowd said. "We want to be teaching our boys that to take advantage of others is the opposite of what a real man would do."
She continued that parents should instill in their sons an understanding that "to be a man of integrity means you have empathy for your partner, you ask for consent, and you step in when people are being treated poorly."
4. Teach boys to have empathy for others and to treat others with dignity and respect.
"We want our kids to develop an awareness of how others are feeling and use this as a guide for how to behave," Dowd said.
Dowd recommends that parents teach their teenage son to "use his own feelings as a mirror for how others may be feeling, and give him a chance to link his actions to the feelings they cause in others."
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