The terms “toxic masculinity” and “healthy masculinity” are in reference to a set of behaviors that any man can exhibit on any given day. Through the behaviorist approach, we learn that all behavior is learned. As such, if we are to foster an environment where healthy masculinity is our factory setting, these lessons must be taught to young boys in their formative years. As we continue to observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we take a look at several Louisville parents who are teaching their sons healthy masculinity practices.
Chanelle & Sean
Chanelle is a Kentucky Senate employee and her husband Sean works as an accountant. Their son Victor is an 8-year-old Tae Kwon Do and anime enthusiast. Chanelle says she and Sean work hard to break the toxic masculinity barriers that Chanelle herself experienced growing up with her own father. “My father was a stern believer that ‘real men’ don’t show emotion,” she says. “We try our best to break that stigma and teach our son that it is okay to be sad and that you are not less-than for experiencing those emotions.”
Sean and Chanelle also realize they are fighting against a tide when it comes to utilizing therapy as a tool of healing. The American Psychological Association states that only 26.4% of Black men ages 18 to 44 who experience mental health challenges actually seek treatment, citing structural racism and the unique Black American experience as roadblocks. As such, Sean and Chanelle prioritize breaking down this wall to mental health with Victor. “It is important for us to teach him that therapy is okay and that you can learn many helpful coping mechanisms to handle your anger,” says Sean. “Our goal is to teach our son that there is nothing wrong with feelings and it’s OK to be angry or sad. You just need to take a moment to process and talk.”
Nick is a bank teller at Republic Bank and an Indiana State Senate hopeful. He and his wife Melonie are parents to Sebastian, their four-year-old BattleBot engineer. For Nick, respect is a lesson that was instilled in him as a child growing up in the foster system. It is also a lesson he vigorously teaches his own son. “In the foster environment, I was able to learn that being respectful and polite can go a pretty long way,” says Nick. “I strive to teach Sebastian that very lesson.” Another lesson Nick adds to Sebastian’s healthy masculinity curriculum is not using your size, strength or power to get what you want from others, a lesson that the therapists at Talkspace highlight as a cornerstone for healthy masculinity. “Living in the frat house, I learned that you don’t have to be aggressive to earn respect,” Nick says. “I work to teach my son that it is alright to talk in a calm manner and that you don’t have to be forceful.”
Another layer of respect Nick teaches young Sebastian is the art of the apology. “Owning up to our mistakes and taking accountability is big in our house,” Nick says. “I teach Sebastian that our mistakes don’t define us, nor does apologizing when you are wrong make you any less of a man. Instead, it is an admission that we all still have room to grow.”
Lindsey is a coordinator at a mentor program for children in the foster care system. Her son Mason is a bright 8-year-old bookworm who loves a good game of Minecraft. At Lindsey’s house, consent and boundaries are paramount lessons for Mason’s development. “If you start to build right now, then boundaries and consent will be normalized by the time he is older,” says Lindsey. Mason loves to show affection for his friends through hugging, something that Lindsey encourages, only after permission is given. “I love that he is such an affectionate kid,” she says. “I just teach him not everyone likes being hugged and to get in the habit of asking before he does it.”
Early childhood experts like those at Healthline recommend starting consent lessons by teaching children the correct vocabulary for body parts early. Lindsey says she adopts this approach with Mason to tear down the taboos that surround sex in hopes of important conversations later in life. And while some may struggle teaching consent to younger children, Lindsey emphasizes that teaching this lesson doesn’t have to be difficult. “It doesn’t have to be a super in-depth conversation nor is it ever too early to start teaching our sons these valuable lessons that will grow them into great men,” says Lindsey. “If we aren’t teaching them, then who is?”
James J. Wilkerson, J.D., is the director of Staff Diversity and Equity and the Deputy Title IX Coordinator at IU Southeast.
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