Watching the viral video of four boys bullying a 68 year-old woman on the school bus is every parent's nightmare- especially mothers of boys. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Karen Klein, the bullied bus monitor, shared:
"I'm sure they don't act that way at home, but you never know what they're going to do when they're out of the house."
I watched in horror of how they treated this woman, and my head was swimming- with fear that Lord of the Flies is being reenacted on school buses and playgrounds daily. With hatred for the messages engrained in our culture that measure a person's worth by the size of their waistline or their wallet. With disgust for the graphic, sexually violent language used so flippantly to debase a woman with hate. With sadness for the boys' lack of conscience that what they are doing is hurtful and wrong. With contempt for the rigid code of manhood that constrains how they are programmed to connect with one another and themselves.
But mostly I just thought, what if my son acted like that? What if this isn't one isolated experience, but emblematic of the bullying epidemic in our nation? How can we change the climate of what it means to be a boy in America? Our boys need help.
While it's easy to vilify the boys, (their families have already received death threats), I'm more interested in looking beyond their reprehensible actions to what makes them behave this way, and the conversations we, as parents can have about raising boys with emotional tools to deal with social pressures and to make better choices.
How can we deprogram our boys in a climate of hate and judgment to value respect and love? Not to attack, but to stand up for those who are being attacked? What can we be mindful of? Here's some food for thought:
1. Swagger, thug culture, and entitlement have given our boys a false sense of confidence. One that is built upon perception rather than merit. Appearances and not substance. Replacing entitlement with humility, gratitude and service could revolutionize how our boys perceive themselves and the world.
2. Exposing our sons to a broad range of "manly" role models, not just the strong, silent types but also expressive, kind, and nurturing ones helps our boys redefine what it means to "be a man".
3. Don't let pop culture raise your children. Working parents are more time-stressed than ever, but letting screens raise our boys is sending them a message of emotional numbness, violence and discrimination. These boys said they were deliberately trying to post a bullying video to get hits like the ones they've seen online. Which in our social media culture of sharing, online notoriety is the new social currency. Know what your kids are watching and emulating, and talk to them about it.
When I first found out I was having a son, I panicked. Raising an empowered girl I could get my head around, but I was convinced I didn't have the first clue how to raise a boy. What did I know about "manhood"? I looked to my gay male friends, because they have been some of the most loving, intelligent, empathetic examples of manhood in my life. If I could just raise him "gay" we might be all right. My best friend assured me my sensitivity to gender issues would work to my benefit in raising a son, because I would impress upon him the importance of treating women (and all people, really) with respect and love. But how? She told me about a book that profoundly opened my eyes to the emotional strains put upon men and boys in our culture: Real Boys' Voices by Dr. William Pollack.
Pollack contends that boys are forced into emotional strait jackets and that the only socially acceptable emotions for them to display are anger or happiness. Our society's narrow scope of "manliness" doesn't allow them to express sadness, disappointment, fear, and an entire spectrum of "feminine" emotions, and we are now seeing the effects of those repressed emotions manifest in higher depression and suicide rates, and boys acting out to hurt others. Hurt people hurt people. I had a new perspective on the pressures hurled at our boys and men on a daily basis, and I felt armed to fight them for my son's sake.
To date, donations to Karen Klein have totaled over half a million dollars and the boys have apologized. But does that make any of this okay? Hardly. What's the message of this? That bullying victims get a media tour and free vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars? While it's admirable that people want to defend her and put their money where their mouths are, it dilutes the underlying issue of why these boys treated her in such a sub-human way in the first place.
I hope that this incident outrages people, as it has me, so that we continue our conversations reevaluating how we all can do better for our boys' futures.
Must reads for parents of boys:
Are these boys' parents to blame? Are they the norm, or the exception?
-Diane Mizota, Host of This Week in M.O.M