Parenting in the Age of #MeToo: What Are You Communicating?

A psychological perspective on gender socialization and attitudes toward sex.

Posted Sep 26, 2018

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Source: Image courtesy: Shutterstock

As a psychologist, I am aware of the impact that parents have on their children and how children learn from observing models in their environment. From your own personal experience you can identify as least one situation in your home where your child probably was more likely to do something based on what they saw (from you or others) as opposed to what you told them. According to Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1987), individuals learn by watching others perform a behavior or observing consequences of that behavior. Furthermore, television and the media have a huge influence on how children obtain models outside of the home. As early as 1987, Bandura noted that the “television has greatly expanded the range of models available to a growing child." In the age of #MeToo (read more here), it is important for parents to reflect on how their views around sexuality and touching others without consent shapes their child’s perceptions about sex and sexual assault.

Socialization is the process of transferring knowledge and beliefs from adults to children. This socialization process may involve attitudes around racial pride or gender role expectations. You can read my previous post for more on racial socialization or masculinity norms. In this current age of #Metoo, what messages are being taught to boys about touching others without their consent. Is this behavior acceptable? Should society excuse sexual assault and touching without consent when boys are under the age 18? Those of some the thoughts that have been depicted in the media over the last few weeks and months by both men and women. What we know from the research is that gender socialization of boys to adopt unequal or stereotypical attitudes related to masculinities starts at an early age.

According to some, early adolescence (age 10-14) is a critical period for shaping gender attitudes, particularly because the onset of puberty that intensifies expectations related to gender (Amin, Kågesten, Adebayo, & Chandra-Mouli, 2018). Adolescent boys also tend to report masculinity norms such as physical toughness (e.g., showing higher tolerance for pain, engaging in fights, competing in sports), autonomy (e.g., being financially independent, protecting and providing for families), emotional stoicism (e.g., not acting like girls or showing vulnerabilities, dealing with problems on one’s own), and heterosexual prowess (e.g., having sex with many girls, exercising control over girls in relationships). These messages may be communicated through media sources or observing important models such as parents.

Gender socialization is also important because it plays a role in sexual assault and reporting of those incidents by victims (regardless if the victim is male or female). Sexual assault comes in different forms. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines sexual as any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without consent, and can take many different forms, including rape, attempted rape, sexual coercion, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, and any type of sexual contact with someone who cannot consent (such as someone who is underage or unable to respond). Given gender role socialization, one unfortunate consequence is the possibility that males may engage in unwanted touching due to beliefs about sexual prowess. Furthermore, sexual assault remains the most underreported crime for teens as well as adults (as cited by the NCTSN). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, individuals may not disclose sexual assault due to shame, not wanting family or other people to know, being unable to prove the incident occurred, fear that police will not take it seriously, or fear that nothing will be done.

Communication Tips for Parents

Below are some suggestions from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

  1. Teach your teen to decide what limits he or she wants in relationships and how to express those limits to dating partners. Tell your teen, that if someone crossed those boundaries or if he or she senses danger, to speak out and act immediately.
  2. Let your teen know that teens or adults have the right to change their mind, to say “no,” or to agree to some sexual activities and not to others.
  3. Educate your teen about risks of excessive drinking or drugs use, and how they reduce a person’s ability to think and communicate clearly. However, remind them that being drunk or high does not give anyone permission to assault or hurt them.
  4. Teach them party safety, like pouring their own beverage and keeping it in sight. Date rape drugs can be put into drinks and are often undetectable.
  5. Tell your kids to be aware of where they are hanging out. Teach them not to hang out in places that keep them isolated from others. Although they may be able to take care of themselves, it is always wise to be careful.
  6. Teach teens to trust their instincts. If they feel that a person is not trustworthy or a situation is unsafe, they should leave.

Copyright 2018 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

References

Amin, A., Kågesten, A., Adebayo, E., & Chandra-Mouli, V. (2018). Addressing gender socialization and masculinity norms among adolescent boys: Policy and programmatic implications. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62(3), S3-S5. 

Kågesten, A., Gibbs, S., Blum, R. W., Moreau, C., Chandra-Mouli, V., Herbert, A., & Amin, A. (2016). Understanding factors that shape gender attitudes in early adolescence globally: A mixed-methods systematic review. PloS one, 11(6), 1-36.