Boys Need Attention Too

Dear Eitan,

I feel like I owe you an apology. Or, maybe, at least an explanation.

Your mom and I have been working really hard to make sure you’ve gotten enough attention over the last few months since Shayna was born and, to be honest, I actually think we’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve each taken you bowling by ourselves a few times, you and I went out for ice cream, your mom has gone swimming with you… I can’t remember everything. My playing with you every morning before I leave for work is somewhere on that list too. There have been times when we’ve been more successful than others, obviously – it’s always hard with a newborn in the house – but I think we’ve been okay overall.

I’ve been thinking about the ways that women are treated in our society a lot lately, especially with regard to parenting. I’ve noticed that I’ve been reading and sharing a lot of articles that have to do with empowering women and girls (or, at least, I feel like I have been). I’m sure that I’ve been taking more notice of these articles because of Shayna. I’ve always taken notice of these kinds of pieces but, since Shayna was born, I’ve found myself even more drawn to material that promotes women’s rights and helps women break through the obstacles Western culture places on them. You’re largely unaware of my social media presence at this point, since you’re four years old and are only starting to learn how to read, but you’ll have to take my word for it.

It’s always been important to me that you grow up respecting women and being aware of the privileges that are available to you as a male. I’ve written about this a few times, usually in terms of situations that arise with professional athletes.1 There are, unfortunately, still so many people in the world who seem to think that women don’t deserve to be able to speak for themselves about their own jobs, their personal space or their bodies. We, as men, need to make sure that we’re being upstanders, rather than bystanders, when issues like this come up.2 That doesn’t necessarily mean fighting women’s battles for them, because that’s not exactly helpful either, but it does mean being available and talking about these issues so that people become more aware of how ingrained some of these views are in our culture.

The “apology” comes up because I feel like I’ve been thinking a lot more about the things that your sister will encounter as she works to find her place in the world than I have about what will come up for you. It’s not that I’m worried about Shayna; at least, I don’t think I’m any more worried about her than any parent would be about their daughter. I do think, however, that I get so wrapped up in thinking about what it’s like to grow up as a girl in our culture that I sometimes forget that you’re going to encounter your own set of challenges.

Boys struggle with body image issues, self-esteem and other social pressures just as girls do, but boys tend to not receive the same type of support in dealing with those issues. It’s not that the support isn’t available; I tend to believe that quality counseling services are considerably more prevalent in most communities than they were even five or ten years ago (there’s even an app for that). The problem is that boys are conditioned to keep their feelings quiet and figure things out on their own, rather than ask for help, so they don’t pursue the help to begin with.3 Even if we won’t know for a few years how most of these issues are affecting you, I should be keeping these things in mind for both you and Shayna. It’s not fair for me to tell myself that you don’t need as much attention because you’re a male; if anything, I should probably be putting even more effort into maintaining open communication with you because you’re going to be getting the message from society that you should be keeping your problems to yourself.

That’s really the reason I’m writing. I want you to remember, as you grow, that there are going to be times when Shayna is going to get more attention than you or it’s going to seem like more focus is being put on her life because she’s a girl. But, even if that’s the case, your mom and I are not forgetting about you. We’re both here for you and we want to help you as much as we can, no matter what challenges come your way. Please keep us in the loop as you get older; we’ll keep asking what’s going on anyway, but we’re going to need you to keep us informed so we can figure out how to help. We hope you’ll always feel like you can trust us to be supportive and honest, no matter what struggles you’re facing.

That’s what we’re here for.

Love,

Daddy


1. For instance, there was this post about Greg Hardy and this one about Ray Rice and this one about the Cubs trading for Aroldis Chapman.

2. This language comes from Facing History and Ourselves, a program and teaching curriculum devoted to examining people’s behavior during the Holocaust and the connections to today’s world.

3. This is one of the reasons why girls might be more likely than boys to attempt suicide, but boys are four times more likely to die from suicide. Girls attempt suicide and (hopefully) get the help and attention they need; boys complete the attempt because they don’t believe help is available for them in the first place.

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Watching What We Teach

I was on the subway on my way to work last week when two men near me began arguing.

I didn’t see how it started. Like so many other commuters, my attention was buried in my phone, split between a podcast and Candy Crush. I looked up when I heard the men raise their voices at each other and took out one of my ear buds so I could hear what they were saying. I was interested in the argument, but I also wanted to see if they would need to be separated or if I would need to move to another car. Listening to the argument turned out to be little help, as the men were both speaking Spanish, but from what I could gather, they had both gone to sit in the same seat and one man took offense at being pushed aside.

Despite their shared language, the two men appeared to be from very different walks of life. The man who had taken the seat had tan, pockmarked, weather-beaten skin and was wearing dark grey shorts and a black v-neck t-shirt. His black hair looked damp and somewhat stringy, though I couldn’t tell if it was wet from water, gel or sweat. The other man was wearing dark slacks and a neatly pressed white polo shirt. His skin was smooth and his hair had been carefully sculpted into place. Polo looked ten to fifteen years younger than Shorts, but I suppose the actual margin could have been smaller.

They yelled at each other for a few minutes. Shorts appeared defensive, but certainly aggressive, as he continually pointed his finger at Polo’s chest and asked, “What’s your problem?” Polo, meanwhile, spoke sternly but simply stood straight, rather than leaning into Shorts’ space. He used phrases like, “You can’t just do whatever you want,” and “You’re not the only person in the world,” as though he were Shorts’ parent.

Which made sense, since Polo’s son was standing next to him, watching the whole thing.

Polo’s son looked to be around eight or nine years old and was the spitting image of his father. He was wearing athletic clothes but he had his father’s face and signature hair part. I decided that Polo was upset because he had been hoping that he and his son could sit next to each other but that Shorts had sat down before them, perhaps bumping into one of them in the process. In that light, Polo seemed more like a protective father, rather than simply a disgruntled man on his way to work. That image was reinforced for me once the argument subsided, as Polo and Shorts sat down next to each other and Polo held his son on his lap.

As I watched the men argue, I listened to their exchange but watched Polo’s son. His expression never changed; his face remained blank, though I thought I saw a hint of fear in his eyes. He seemed to be waiting, as I was, for Shorts to push his father or throw a punch. The boy didn’t say anything; he simply stood dutifully next to his father, watching the two men yell at each other and waiting to see if he would have to defend his father.

I found myself trying to put myself inside the boy’s head to see what he was learning from watching his father. “When someone does something you don’t like, yelling at them is the best way to solve the problem.” “Don’t back down from an argument, no matter how aggressive the other person seems.” “Keep on driving your point home until the other person is convinced you’re right, even if he doesn’t seem to be listening anymore.” “Defend yourself and your family against any and all threats, no matter how trivial the offense.”

There are some positive lessons in there, to be sure. Standing up for one’s beliefs and maintaining personal dignity are lessons I would think any parent would want to pass on to their children. As I thought more about how I would have acted if one of my children had been with me, though, I kept picturing myself making a comment to the other person and then leaving to find another seat. Even if the other person tried to continue the conversation, I believe that my leaving the space and keeping my temper in check would have brought the other person’s anger down, as well. Hopefully, the issue would have been settled quickly and more quietly, without one of my children ever having to fear that I was about to get into a physical altercation.

And then, suddenly, as I was processing what I had seen and telling myself that I would have handled the situation better, I realized that I was projecting my own ideals onto these two men without having all of the information. Maybe Shorts had shoved Polo and his son out of the way. Maybe he had stepped on Polo’s son’s foot. Maybe Polo was angry because he genuinely thought his son could have been hurt, which would have made his reaction more justifiable. Plus, even if I was right that they had simply bumped into each other while looking for the same seat, the men spoke to each other, expressed themselves and then the argument was finished. Neither man became violent and they spoke calmly throughout the rest of the ride.

I know that my first instinct is to act protectively toward a child I see in a situation like this. It’s why I work in the children’s mental health field and has a lot to do with my identity as a father, as well. Even so, I have been working to maintain an awareness of the influence my background and my work experience have on my perception of my surroundings. Part of that means remembering that if I might do things a different way, it does not necessarily mean that my way is the “right” way. I still think that Polo probably should have walked away from Shorts, rather than continuing to argue, but I appreciated the fact that he prevented the argument from becoming physical, especially because his son was there. I also realize that different people, especially people from different backgrounds, can have different definitions for “yelling.”1

The key for us, as parents, is to keep in mind that our children are always watching us. They see how we react to every situation, both positive and negative, and they take notes. If we show affection and smile often and treat people with respect, our children will internalize those behaviors. If we throw tantrums whenever things don’t go our way, we can rest assured that our children will throw tantrums when they don’t get their way as well. If we keep a calm, stoic demeanor all the time and only become really animated when we’re watching sports, our kids will follow those examples too.2

I may not know what triggered the disagreement between Polo and Shorts. I may not even know exactly what lessons Polo’s son learned from watching it, though I think I have an idea. But I do know that parents always have to be careful about the lessons we are teaching our children, especially when we don’t even realize we are doing so.


1. Jerry Maguire illustrated this point beautifully in this scene.

2. Sound familiar, Yavelberg family?