Raising Boys to Become Men Who Aren’t Dicks

The World Health Organization reports an epidemic of violence against women. How to respond?

The thing that worries me most about raising a boy — the thing I seriously give the most thought to — is how to make sure he doesn’t end up being a dick.

That’s not entirely fair to my four-year-old son, who is exuberant and sweet-natured and as selfish as all kids his age tend to be: “Dick” isn’t the word that immediately comes to mind in my day-to-day dealings with him. (And his grandparents will, ahem, most assuredly object to my phrasing here.) But someday this boy is going to become an adolescent, and then he’s going to be a man, and the temptation toward dickishness is going to be a powerful thing at some point.

How do I steer him right? How do I get him to choose the non-dick way?

I ask this, because a report by the World Health Organization on Thursday just how pervasive and damaging dicks can be: About a third of women worldwide have been physically or sexually assaulted by a partner. Forty percent of women who are murdered are killed by their (male) partner. As a general rule, women face far more danger from the men in their lives than they do from any kind of “stranger danger.”

It is, literally, an epidemic of the worst kind of dickishness.

“The report findings show that violence greatly increases women’s vulnerability to a range of short- and long-term health problems; it highlights the need for the health sector to take violence against women more seriously,” said Dr Claudia Garcia-Moreno of WHO. “In many cases this is because health workers simply do not know how to respond.”

As with all health threats, the place to start is probably with an ounce of prevention. That means all of us who parent young boys have a responsibility to work extra hard to teach them respect for women, for everybody, regardless of whether they’re strong or weak.

In turn, that means looking at the odds and refusing to flinch from the idea that there’s a good chance that your sweet boy might one day — against everything you hope for and teach him — become the kind of entitled man who feels to treat the woman in his life without respect, without love, without tenderness. Because the men who are beating their partners, assaulting them, murdering them? They were all somebody’s son, once.

And to be clear, this isn’t just a class thing that we can turn our noses down against: Witness this week’s murder-suicide involving a Pennsauken doctor and her soon-to-be-ex husband. The dangers of dickishness are unbounded.)

For me and my wife, that means being on guard (sometimes, perhaps, overly so) against the times our son mentions girlhood in a perjorative way. Sounds silly, right? After all, boys and girls seem to have a natural antagonism at that age — Girls! Ewwwwwww! — so why fight it? But that’s not how most parents would respond if their four-year-old were wandering around, say, slinging racial slurs: We’d nip it in the bud. So we try to do the same with sexism, knowing that sometimes the folks around us will roll their eyes.

When my son recently referred to ballet as “girl dancing,” my wife quickly opened up a computer and showed him video of Mikhail Baryshnikov, then of Gene Kelly. My son, a huge fan of Singin’ in the Rain, settled in to watch the latter.

And yeah, when a commercial comes on the TV, showing a young man grabbing and kissing a woman without asking permission, we’ll point out to him why that approach doesn’t cut it in the real world. Even at the risk of being branded “humorless feminists.”

I don’t know if this stuff is finding some permanent spot in his brain, which is scary. All I know is that we’re going to keep repeating the lessons, day after day and year after year, and make those lessons ever more explicit the older he gets. If we’ve done our job, he will know two things by the time he leaves our house: A) We love him. B) He must treat everybody, women and men, the way he would want to be treated.

It would be easier if we could give him a vaccine against lazy, entitled, bullying dickishness. We can’t. Solving this epidemic will require years of work, by all of us.