How do we want our sons to treat the women in their lives: wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends? I believe that this is the first question we need to answer in deciding how to teach them about sexuality. It is one place where we need to be cohesive: matching our thoughts to our actions. In order to answer those questions honestly, we must first look at our own personal histories as men and women. How did we treat others? How were we treated? If we preach one thing but have lived another our kids will figure it out. They can sniff out hypocrisy in a second.
I have had clients who bring their children into my office with angry mandates for me to fix them—make them behave right and stop acting out. But when we take one small step into the family background we learn that the parents have acted out in ways that have caused a world of hurt for everyone involved. Parents may want to change or protect their offspring from the pain they have experienced but if so they need to be making sincere efforts to look at their own past and do things differently. We can’t be telling our kids one thing and doing something else.
Once we have processed our own sexual history in constructive ways we will have a clearer path toward instructing our children. We should begin the journey sooner rather than later. Sigmund Freud was right about one thing and it is that children—infants even–are sensual beings—not as we think of adult sexuality but in the ways that they are connected to their bodies. Babies are extremely physical and they respond with great sensitivity to the ways they are touched and handled. If they are treated with care and tenderness they will learn to regard their own bodies with respect and extend that respect to others along the way.
If they are treated roughly or with disgust and disdain they will find alternative ways of coping. Some will leave their bodies altogether and reside only in their heads, a far more common strategy than one might think. Alternatively, they may allow their bodies and their physical needs to reign without important input from thoughts and feelings. Either approach is a long way from the integration of mind, body and emotion that is the goal to which many of us are striving.
As we think about teaching our sons we need to remember, as I discussed last week, that in our society women have been taught obedience and submission and men, aggression and dominance. These are importance cultural messages and we cannot and should not ignore them. Following that mandate, we may have elected a bully as our next president but he does not need to be the role model for our children. Do we really want our sons to grow up to be tyrants? If our answer is no then again we need to start very early to disavow our children, and especially our sons, of the notion that it is okay to act like one. The truth is that all little kids are tyrants who think the whole world revolves around them. We have to let them know, kindly and gently, that it does not. It is not funny when a little boy hits his baby sister. It is not cute when a child makes requests of his mother in a loud demanding voice time and time again. A child, and most especially a boy, must learn from a young age that his mother is not invisible, that she too has needs and limits. This can be communicated not angrily but firmly in a way that makes the point. The child who never learns that he is not the center of the world has a good chance of becoming an adult who is either a self-aggrandizing bully or an isolated and lonely person, or sometimes both.
The best role model that a child, either male or female, can have is a parent or a loving caring adult who communicates honestly and without hypocrisy. It does not have to be a celebrity or even a president unless that person exemplifies the kind of values that we want our children to have. Sadly, that kind of individual is all too rare a commodity!
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.