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Stop telling my son to man up

June 04 2018 By Khadija Gbla, Our Watch Ambassador

Between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2014 there were 152 intimate partner homicides in Australia.

Khadija Gbla Image

That’s according to the first snapshot released by the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review, which was released last week.

The review found that almost 80 per cent of the reported homicides involved a man killing his current or former partner, someone he supposedly loved. The unfortunate thread that links the majority of these horrific murders is that they were committed by men.

In fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics around 95 per cent of all victims of violence in Australia — whether women or men — experience violence from a male perpetrator.

I couldn’t help but wonder why experiences of violence are so gendered and how, as a parent of a three-year-old boy, I can positively influence his attitudes and behaviours.

As mother to Sammy, I am well aware of the archaic model of masculinity that many boys are imprisoned by. Boys are told they need to ‘be a man’ — that they should be strong, stoic, competitive, aggressive and unemotional. It’s a toxic definition of manhood that can beat any natural ounce of tenderness out of men and boys until anger is the only acceptable emotion left.

And while it doesn’t always predict violence, toxic masculinity seeps into the fabric of our society and creates a complicit culture that ignores the warning signs of gender inequality and disrespect.

Research released by Our Watch reveals that although most parents of 0-3-year-olds want to challenge gender stereotypes for their kids, but there is still some rigidity around how parents feel when it comes to their kids engaging in activities traditionally considered ‘outside of their gender’.

Parents tended to be more concerned when their sons engaged in ‘feminine-type’ activities than when their daughters showed interest in masculine-type toys and experiences.

But it has to be asked, what is it about retaining the tough macho exterior that we like? Because it seems to be killing us.

It is a trap that I’m confident Sammy won’t fall into, because I am constantly reinforcing to him that he is free to be himself.

If Sammy cries, I don’t tell him to ‘man up’ or that ‘boys don’t cry’, I comfort him.

When he lovingly rocks his baby doll to sleep and covers it with a blanket when it’s ‘cold’, I don’t tell him he’s a ‘sissy’, I encourage him.

The result has been remarkable. The attendants at Sammy’s childcare constantly tell me what a gentle, kind and empathetic boy he is. Just the other week, they told me that when a child fell over during playtime, my son rushed over to console them.

I am constantly doing my best to free Sammy from the clutches of toxic masculinity and negative gender stereotypes that are subtly and forcefully pushed on children in so many ways. How we dress our children, the toys we give them to play with and how we speak to them, all play an important role in how they determine what is acceptable behaviour according to their gender.

We know from extensive research that adherence to rigid constructions of masculinity and femininity is a key driver of violence against women and that experiences in childhood can have an enormous influence on future life paths.

Having Sammy has made me appreciate that it is damaging for me to enforce expectations on him that are in contrast to his natural inclinations. And it is my job as his first role model to encourage him to be himself and to always respect women and girls.

Although we may never understand the sickening minds of those who cut a woman’s life short, we can make sure that as parents, we address the issue of violence against women at its core.

Because if we don’t, many boys will faithfully adhere to the toxic legacy that has been created for them.

This piece was originally published in The Advertiser.