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Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D.

Will Your Boys Grow Up to Respect Women?

How to make it happen and rot the roots of sexual misconduct.

Source: iStockPhoto/gmast3r

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought increased awareness of the pervasiveness and serious harm that sexual harassment and assault cause to victims. Calls for real change in our communities and businesses are overdue and welcome.

Although famous women’s stories and national platforms are crucial to the fight against these societal scourges, parents and mentors can have an even greater impact. We can take steps to stop the development of sexually harassing and violent behaviors from developing during childhood to young adulthood. While boys and men are victimized by sexual harassment and assault, in most cases the victims are female and perpetrators are male, so this post is based on this perspective.

To help boys develop lasting beliefs in the equality and value of women as whole people, with needs, feelings, skills, and power, we need to understand how the opposite beliefs develop. So what are some of the root causes of believing that girls and women aren’t equally valuable and worthy of the same respect as men? And, moreover, what leads some men to disdain, marginalize, use, or abuse women?

It’s worth remembering that, just like girls, young boys gradually learn how to control their behavior during their pre-school and elementary school years. So normal misbehaviors towards parents and teachers who happen to be women aren’t necessarily warning signs of burgeoning sexism.

And it’s important not to equate normal, developmental disobedience that often accompanies autonomy gains with disrespect, which is a more specific and far greater infraction. Kids are being disrespectful when they act like or say things indicating that parental authority isn’t valid.

Disrespect of girls and women by males is even more specific. Examples are acting as if or stating things indicating that women are inferior (their needs, abilities, position, and power are less), calling them degrading names (slut, bit--, c---, body parts, objects), demanding that they obey, assuming they cannot accomplish goals that men may achieve, and chronically interrupting or discounting their opinions.

The roots of sexual harassment and violence against women include learned disrespect of women. This starts early when boys are socialized to be aggressive and disrespectful, by watching such behaviors modeled by media (TV shows, movies, popular music lyrics and videos), peers, some parents, and even society when our legal and other systems don’t deter or adequately punish sexual crimes.

Sexual harassment and violence are often thought of as women’s issues, but they’re also men’s issues since the vast majority of perpetrators are men. So the men in boys’ lives are a significant part of the solution: changing male culture of how women are thought of and treated. Fortunately, there are many ways that both men and women can make this culture shift a reality.

First, learning respect for women starts at home, when boys watch how their mothers, sisters, and other women are treated and talked about by men. So when men at home treat women like they’re equally worthy and valued as people with needs, feelings, intelligence, skills, and power, boys are much more likely to grow up to do the same.

When older boys (12 and up) treat women disrespectfully (call them demeaning names, swear at them, objectify them, put them down, act like their needs and interests aren’t as important), these are warning signs of possibly committing sexual harassment or assault against women in the future. When disrespect of women occurs, adult males need to step in and say, “We don’t talk about (speak to, treat) women like that.”

Although home modeling is probably most important, boys also learn how to treat women from other male relatives, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and mentors, so parents have good reason to monitor these influences.

When there isn’t a good male role model at home (such as with single mothers or when a mom has an abusive partner), women can still strongly express disapproval of disrespect and aggression against women when they experience it, or see it in TV shows, movies, games, or on the web. And house rules with consequences can be set to train and reinforce respectful behaviors. Mothers and sisters can say similar things to what we’ve suggested above for men, standing up for themselves to correct the behaviors and false beliefs in women’s inferiority.

Putting a stop to aggression or violence against women at home is crucial, because of its potent real-life modeling of mistreatment. In homes with untreated domestic violence, it still may help for abused mothers to say, “I don’t want you growing up to treat women like your Dad treats me. I know I deserve better.” Better yet, if you are in an abusive relationship, for the sake of your children, seek help to do something about it (National Domestic Violence Hotline).

Second, parents can address sexism with their middle school and older kids. Kids need to know all the negative consequences of treating people badly due to their sex or gender:

  • Sexism promotes role stereotypes: women should be primary child or home caretakers, and can’t perform as well as men in many careers; men aren’t good caretakers but are naturally insensitive and aggressive.
  • When women are treated as inferior (sexism), it promotes sexual harassment and sexual violence against them, lowers pay, respect, rights, and job opportunities while harming their confidence and mental health.
  • When men believe they should be superior, it creates pressure to be successful and aggressive (including sexually), promotes relationship problems with women in society and at home, lowers the chance of enjoying a fulfilling, equal life partnership, and can lead to legal troubles.

The third thing parents can do to raise boys who respect women is to show they believe that men and women are equal. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Talk about shared good qualities of genders (skills, intelligence, character, personality, strength, kindness) and promote these in both boys and girls. For example, praise boys for their kindheartedness and girls for assertiveness and taking on challenges.
  2. Equally support boys’ and girls’ interests and activities, despite whether or not they are typical for a child’s gender.
  3. Support gender equality by sharing home and child responsibilities, and by rotating chores so boys and girls do equal amounts and types of work.
  4. Adopt a zero-tolerance house rule of no sexism in your home.
  5. Model respectful, kind behaviors you would like to see children around you exhibit toward others. Emotional or physical abuse by women in boys’ lives can also be an underlying factor in future disrespect and abuse of women.

And finally, men can support gender equality by not objectifying women: not talking about them sexually, about their looks or body parts, or calling them objects (e.g., “piece of tail”). Objectification is part of the harmful sexualization process being forced onto our girls, which according to the American Psychological Association is a leading cause of sexual violence against them.

Moms, dads, grandparents, coaches, mentors, teachers, and other adults in boys’ lives can speak out against objectification and disallow it. Even when in the form of comments made during a movie or in a locker room, objectification needs to be called out. And we can teach boys to value women far more for their personal characteristics than physical looks and to have empathy for girls because they face tremendous harm from sexualization today.

Source: iStockPhoto/CREATISTA

Our boys deserve to have loving parent-child relationships, and equal, fulfilling life partnerships, working relationships, and friendships with women. Teaching them to respect and not objectify females not only makes these relationships possible, but also rots away the roots of sexual harassment and violence and compels men to intervene on behalf of victims.


American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. Retrieved from


About the Author

Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and training clinic director at the University of Northern Colorado. Laurie Berdahl, M.D., is an obstetrician-gynecologist and speaker on parenting and adolescent wellness.