I often drop my kids off for school and daycare in the morning. It gives me a little more time with them, and being in management now means I have more control over my schedule than my wife, which makes it easier. Lately, I’ve often also been dropping the neighbor’s daughter as well – let’s call her A. A is besties with my kids and it’s an easy thing I can do to help out a neighbor I like. She’s always well behaved and easy to have along, but lately my five year old son has gotten particularly amped up and crazy when she’s around. He has a… pretty gigantic baby crush on her. It’s cute. Mostly. What’s less cute is all the crazy that goes with being a five year old who is desperate to attract A’s attention.
After I dropped the girls off and on the way to my son’s preschool this morning, I had a conversation with him about his behavior. I told him he needed to stop yelling and getting in trouble and doing things to pester his friend. We talked about how A really doesn’t like people yelling around her and it makes her uncomfortable, and about how his failure to listen means yelling is sometimes the only way I can get through to him. I asked him how he thought that made her feel. He realized his mistake and said “bad” as his little face crumpled. He was sad. I told him I love him and it’s ok, but an opportunity to learn. We sat in silence for a moment.
He got very thoughtful and asked “so how do I get girls to like me?”
Oooooh boy…. I should have been prepared for this one, but I wasn’t. I told him I’d think about it as we drove along and listened to music.
After a little thought, I told him if you want a girl to like you and pay attention to you, you need to do three things.*
- Help her feel safe. Don’t yell at her or do or say mean things, things that will make her uncomfortable, or things that make her fear she’s going to get hurt.
- Listen to her and genuinely care about what she says and thinks. Stop when she says stop, the first time.
- Find the things she loves. Do things for her and with her that she loves and will bring her joy.
We went over the three things and talked about them and how he can do them the rest of the ride to his school. This isn’t a light switch moment, but I think maybe it’s the start of a learning process for him.
Thinking about my own learning process, it’s striking how different my answer is now than it would have been as a younger man or a teenager. 19 year old me would have likely said something like “just treat them like people, the same as anyone else.” And that’s good advice up to a point. But the fact is, men are dangerous and that danger colors our interactions with women far more than most men realize. To use an extreme example, women are far more likely to be killed by men than the other way around and the person most likely to kill or injure a woman is a male intimate partner. Every woman I know has stories about times men have tried to hurt them. Virtually all have stories about harassment, and most have experienced sexual assault. These things happen to men too of course, but the risk profile is pretty lopsided. Winning trust and affection in any sort of healthy relationship therefore has to start with de-risking the encounter.
At 19 I hadn’t yet realized how much I was insulated from fear of the people around me by the fact I am a tall and physically strong white man. Like me, my son is bigger and stronger than almost all of his peers – he’s in the 98th percentile for size for a boy his age and weighs a solid 50% more than A even though she’s a year older. When he gets into his rowdy crazy little boy mode there is a genuine possibility of hurting someone, even though it doesn’t come from a place of malice. To be the kind, caring, nurturing man that he has the capacity to become, he must learn to control his emotions, his behavior, and his body – something many men much older than him have not mastered. So I led by making sure that A feels safe with him. I think that’s good advice for men at any age. And of course, safety isn’t just physical! There’s strong data showing that one of the best predictors of a marriage’s longevity is the ratio of kind to unkind things the spouses say to each other.
The next point, listening to her, is one I’ve seen men and boys struggle with over the years. Pick up artists, self-proclaimed “alpha males,” and other similar scum across the internet make no secret about the way they devalue women’s speech. Those people didn’t just appear from nowhere of course, they’re reflecting and reinforcing very old modes of thinking. I remember being a teenager and having a wrestling coach who made a joke during practice that if you know what you’re doing it’s easy to turn “Don’t! Stop!” into “Don’t stop!” I remember my father saying in all seriousness that women just aren’t intellectuals and you can’t expect them to be. I remember any number of TV shows with jokes around women just talking endlessly until the man tunes out. I’d like to think things have improved in the intervening decades, but I’d be lying to myself. Our entire society tells men and boys not to value women’s words. The conditioning is pervasive and not subtle. I’m not going to attempt to solve that societal problem in this essay, but I will say that it’s impossible to build friendships and relationships with people when you devalue what they tell you and ignore boundaries.
The third point, sharing her joy, is in some ways the most critical. Strong relationships, whether friendships or romantic, are based on connecting to the parts of the other person that light them up. Most people like to be around people who make them feel good. It isn’t always easy, especially when a relationship gets strained. It requires remembering that the other person is – in fact – a person with their own desires and dreams and not an object or a status symbol. I truly believe that failing here is one of the biggest reasons people break up.
I wanted to share all of this with you, dear reader, because I feel like having simple conversations with our sons about how they should relate to women is more important than ever. The current right wing backlash against feminism is powerful and well funded. From “influencers” like Andre Tate teaching boys to hate and abuse women to the fact that no one has been prosecuted based on the contents of the Epstein files to attacks on reproductive freedoms to the recent Trump-endorsed republican candidate who argued women shouldn’t have the right to vote; it’s a scary time to be a woman. It’s also a scary time to be a dad trying to teach good values when the society around me seems to want to glorify misogyny at every opportunity and teach my son to look down on his mother, his sister, his friends.
Being dad is about helping him learn and become the best version of himself. Given the number of boys and men I’ve known who legitimately have no idea how to interact with women and attract attention from smart and well adjusted women, I want to start that learning process early. He’s clearly interested so today was a good day to start. If I can help my son learn to act right early on, I can perhaps save him – and the women in his life – some heartache along the way and maybe even help him succeed.
What would you add to my list?
*In retrospect (and after talking to some of the women in my life), I probably should have added “notice the things she’s good at and give sincere compliments” and maybe “be funny.”