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Sonali Verma is Senior Product Manager, Analytics, at the Globe and Mail.
I know why I have two boys: Soon after my husband and I got married, my newly minted mother-in-law referred to our future children in the masculine. I immediately said, “I will have only girls.” The moment the words left my mouth, I knew I’d made her prediction my destiny.
Now, let me preface all this by saying I love my boys more than anything else in the world.
But back then, I knew nothing about boys. I am one of three sisters. I went to an all-women’s college with a strong feminist agenda. Plus, as a first-generation immigrant, I was sure I’d have nothing in common with boys growing up in Canada. How on earth was I ever going to relate to these creatures?
Turns out, we share many of the same feelings, challenges and experiences. But as a woman, I can help them see where our lives diverge and how they can help create a more equitable world for both genders. Also, boys are bombarded with messages of what it means to be “manly” – and it’s my job to ensure they are comfortable with expressing emotions and vulnerability. And while I’m certainly no expert in parenting (have you met my kids!) here are some of the lessons I’ve learned, so far, in my 17 years as a mother to boys.
When your elementary schooler complains about all the special programs for girls that he can’t be part of, such as coding club or math club, try not to be shocked by his lack of empathy. He has been fortunate to grow up surrounded by successful women. Someone has to tell him the rest of the story: How his grandmother never had a chance to study beyond the seventh grade because she had to stay home and help take care of younger siblings, how women were only expected to work in fields that were extensions of their work at home (seamstresses, teachers and nurses), and how even today, they earn less than men do, despite being as qualified.
Talk to them about consent. Yes, girls need to know about it. But boys – boys really need to know. Listening to the radio in the car when driving to soccer four times a week is a great springboard for these conversations because all songs really are about relationships. Plus, you’re not making eye contact, so it’s relatively comfortable, particularly before they become self-conscious teenagers.
Show them when they need to speak up. My husband is no longer on great terms with a neighbour after calling him out at a party for telling and encouraging his guests to tell misogynistic jokes. If your village includes men like that, it is a game-changer.
Teach them the difference between using their judgment and doing things out of habit. For example, I’m not a fan of swearing. Yet, let’s face it, most young people swear without even realizing it. So, I made it clear to them that there are some words that I never want to hear coming out of their mouths. So long as they’re not dropping the f-bomb around me, they’re welcome talk to their friends any way they want. The point is, it’s not uncontrollable and it’s a conscious decision. Pro-tip: This applies to so much more in life than just swearing.
Don’t take it personally when your otherwise chatty son stops talking much when he turns 16. He will still talk to you about what matters, just not as much and not as often. Give him space, and give him some credit for having absorbed your values.
Children don’t do what you tell them – they do what they see. Let your sons see you apologize when you make a mistake. Let them see you feeling vulnerable. Show them with your actions what it means to be a feminist, what it means to be kind, what it means to be fair.
What else we’re thinking about:
You know what I said about doing things out of habit? The pandemic really gave me a chance to hit the reset button on my life and ask: What are the habits I want? I’ve started eating thoughtfully and running regularly for the first time ever (thanks to my inspiring family, all of whom started running last spring), stopped drinking coffee, been sleeping through the night (thanks to a white-noise app on my phone) and reading a book a week (thanks to having zero social life). One of the books that I read recently was the popular American Dirt, which is a gripping tale of courage and kindness in the Trump era. I read it before I realized it was controversial – I’d encourage you to do the same, if you can, and form your own opinion before viewing it through this lens, because it made me think about what I really valued in the book and why.
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