Raising Boys Not To Be Total Jerks

At some level, I’ve known since before my oldest son was born that this moment would come.  But when it did, it took me utterly and completely off guard.  I was driving a car full of boys home from a soccer tournament last week when my 9-year-old son piped up from the back,

“Hey mom! I’ve got a funny joke.  I’ll ask you a question and you say, ‘Ketchup and rubber buns'”.  “I’ve heard this one,” chuckled my 12-year-old son.  Snickers all around from the soccer players.  

Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know what was coming next.

“What did you have for breakfast?”  “Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns.”

“No! Mom!  Just say ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did  you have for breakfast?” “Ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did you have for lunch?”  “What did you have for dinner?”  Etc. etc.  And then we get to the punchline:

“What do you do when you see a hot chick? You catch up and rub her buns!”     Peals of laughter from the boys.

To my very great credit, I did not run the station wagon off the road and into the ditch.  I kept driving – silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead.  It was a perfect autumn day.  The sky was brilliant blue and the afternoon sun was catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway.   It was a beautiful, perfect day but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed.  I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say.

Every once in a while, though, it is helpful to have gone to law school.  “I don’t think that joke is funny.  You know, if you actually ran after a woman and touched her in an offensive way like that, it would be called “assault and battery”. It is a crime.  You could be arrested.”

“You could be arrested for THAT?”  “Yes.  Plus, the woman could also sue you.”

Silence descends.

“Also, I’ve actually had that happen to me. How do you think it feels to have a stranger grab your butt?”

“WHAT? That actually happened to YOU?”

“Sure. More than once. Usually at parties.”

“That’s kind of  making me feel sick,” said the 12-year-old.

More silence.

From the 9-year-old:  “I remember you saying that you didn’t like running past construction sites because the construction workers whistled and yelled things at you.”

I didn’t remember telling them that, but it’s true.  When I was a teenager, I used to go way off my normal running routes just to avoid running past a construction site.  Good, they were listening.

“So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?”        “Stop, Mom! We get it, ok?”

Teachable moment: ended.  I decided just to leave it there  – for now.  These are intelligent boys, good kids who love and respect their mom and their sister, their grandmothers, their female friends and teachers.   But they, like other young Americans, are deeply impacted by the culture that they live in. Children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images every day.  They are powerfully influenced by their peers (I know they didn’t hear THAT joke at home).   How can that not impact the way that they view girls and women?  And isn’t it only going to get worse as they move through middle and high school?

The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me.  I need to do more to raise these boys to recognize the problem and, hopefully one day, to speak up when they hear someone tell a sexist joke.    Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there – research, organizations, websites.   The Advocates for Human Rights has developed a Challenge the Media workshop and resource list.   And I know that other parents have successfully managed to raise their sons not to be total jerks, but to be men who respect and treat women as equals.

I’ll report back periodically on what I have found.  In the meantime, I would welcome hearing about what others have learned.    But first, I’ve got a date with my sons.  We are going to see Miss Representation.

We've still got a long way to go, but we've taken the first step.
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My Suffragist Grandmother

Suffrage procession in Minneapolis on May 2, 1914
From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society
Source: thomaslowrysghost.tumblr.com


Election Day is coming up Tuesday and you can be damn sure that I am going to cast my vote.  

I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian and all the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother, Thorina Melquist.  Thorina was an immigrant from Norway whose oldest daughter (my great-grandmother) died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina’s youngest child was only nine months older than my grandmother.  She weaned him in order to nurse my newborn grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but somehow – miraculously – survived. (And, yes, “Thorina” is the female version of the name of the Norse god of thunder.)

In addition to farmwork and child-rearing, Thorina was a dedicated suffragist.  She believed strongly in equal voting rights for women and she often participated in demonstrations advocating for the right to vote for women. Women received full suffrage rights in Norway in 1913, so Norwegian immigrant women (along with their Finnish, Swedish and Danish counterparts) played a notable role in the suffrage movement at the local level in Minnesota and other states with large Scandinavian immigrant populations.  The photo at left shows women from several Scandinavian countries in traditional dress marching against inequality and for universal women’s suffrage on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
My Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragist.  She was still pretty young in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by Minnesota.  Women’s suffrage became national law on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment.In some ways, it is surprising to think that less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote.  I was a toddler in Louisiana when that state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1970 – 50 years after initially rejecting it.   And Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984!

Now the right to participate in government is one that we Americans take for granted – so much so that less than half of the population votes unless it is a Presidential election year.  In 2008, the voter turnout was 63%, a high water mark that is low in comparison with most countries.  In U.S. local elections, the voter turnout is even lower.  Many of the mayors of major U.S. cities are elected with single-digit turnout. That’s just shameful.

I love to vote.  In fact, I vote every chance that I can – legally at least. I always try to bring my kids with me when I vote, so they can see that having a voice in the democratic process is something both important and valuable.

But when I’m standing in the voting booth, I feel like there are others there in the voting booth with me.  They are some of the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

Standing with me is the young Haitian asylum seeker who was beaten by police at a polling place in order to discourage him from voting for Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.  He held his own, though, and stood there bleeding and bandaged for several hours before he finally had the opportunity to put his check next to Aristide’s rooster symbol on the ballot.  It was the first time he had ever voted – and it was a remarkable act of courage and endurance.  In telling me about it, he summed it up by saying,

“I voted!  It was a very good day.”

In the voting booth with me are also many of the amputees in Sierra Leone in 2004.  It was common practice during the conflict there for members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to hack off the hands or arms of people with machetes.  Some of them had been targeted during elections so that they couldn’t vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot.  I also heard that the RUF brutally amputated hands during one election because the government’s slogan was that,”The power is in the hands of the people.”

I visited Sierra Leone in 2004, after the conflict had ended and just prior to the first post-conflict elections.  As I traveled through the countryside, I saw people coming together for meetings to discuss the upcoming elections.  In spite of the horrors that they had endured, they were coming together in villages big and small, to exercise their right to participate in their government.  Here is a photo I took of a gathering in a village far out in the bush in the Kono district, an area that endured particularly brutal human rights abuses.  Yet now, as the country was slowly emerging from the conflict, the villagers were coming together to discuss the upcoming local election process.

My Suffragette Grandmother

Although my grandmother gained the right to vote, she was never able to go to college.   She was certainly smart enough, but her family couldn’t see the point in wasting good money on educating a girl.  Grandma Lillian never expressed bitterness about this to me. But one afternoon when I was in high school, I stopped by to say hello and to get her thoughts on my top college picks.  I remember sitting in my grandparents’ darkened living room.  A mantel clock ticked and the air conditioner hummed.  It now seems impossibly calm and quiet, so different from my current raucous and messy living room. My Grandma Lillian told me that the most important thing was to follow my dreams.

 “You can do whatever you want to with your life. Be what you want to be.  
But never forget those of us who weren’t able to follow our dreams.                
Follow your dreams for us.”

 

Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone.  Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.
Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone. Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.

So that’s why I never miss the chance to vote.  I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian.  And for everyone else who can’t follow their dreams.

Every election day is an opportunity.  An opportunity to have a say in the decisions, big and small, that impact the lives of you and everyone around you.  Don’t make excuses, don’t be discouraged.  This is a right that is too valuable to waste.  On Tuesday, please get out there and VOTE!  If you need help finding your polling place, go here:

 

The photo at the top is of the Scandinavian Women’s Suffrage Association marching in a parade in Minneapolis in 1914.

I keep it in my office in honor of my Grandma Lillian.

The Definition of Family

Extended family from 3 continents at my brother’s wedding
(Nes kirke, Norway, August 2010)

I’ve been thinking a lot about family recently.  We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his “unwieldy crew” at the airport, when my daughter Eliza sighed, “It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins.”  Knowing there was no actual blood relation, I cross-examined her on why she thought they were our cousins.  (It must sometimes stink to have a lawyer for a mom.) Finally she said in frustration, “Because, I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support?  The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

When I was at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana, I met a woman who runs a cook shop there.  Called Ma Fatu, her feisty personality would have been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or of an inn in medieval England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would serve me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.  

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the  possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.   When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.

I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.  I once had a client say to me, “I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!” 

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Back when the UDHR was written in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less the multiple forms of family that exist today.

Now, I am a strong supporter of same-sex marriage.  I also believe that the equal rights of LGBT persons to marry, file joint taxes, visit partners in hospital, raise children, etc.  will be guaranteed by law sooner rather than later.  But the bigger point I’d like to make is that, no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the change in law happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define themselves as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people –like Ma Fatu – will create their own families. 

Maybe my six-year-old Eliza is right – the true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe IS really the people who you feel like are your family.  And if that is so, wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected our families? 

So I think the real questions are: How do you define your family?  What does your family mean to you?  And what could our society and State do better to support YOUR family?