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How Parents Can Teach Boys to Deal With Rejection

Boys who aren't taught about rejection become men who don't know the meaning of no.

Stories of men responding to rejection badly are an online literary staple, a genre of micro-nonfiction. Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are piled high with brutal recollections. “When I turned a guy down for a 2nd date, he became angry, telling me he ‘knew’ I was into him,” @I_Am_StephanieD recently wrote on Twitter. “For the next 8 months, he showed up at my office and home repeatedly. Each time insisting he was ‘giving me a chance’ to change my mind [sic] bc I was ‘so stupid’ not to go out with him again.”

That’s far from the worst of it. “I was out at a concert with a friend,” an anonymous Tumblr user wrote in September. “Some guy approached me and started talking to me and trying to make advances; I tried to make it clear I wasn’t interested. He didn’t get the message so I blatantly told him I wasn’t. He got angry and punched me in the face.”

The worst stories aren’t told in the first person. In August of this year, a 14-year-old boy from Oklahoma stabbed a girl after she rejected him romantically. In August, a Tennessee woman declined to give a man at the gas station her phone number, prompting him to jump on top of her car, punch through her window, and drag her out by her hair. In 2014, a Connecticut teen was sentenced to 25 years after stabbing his 16-year-old classmate to death after she rejected his prom proposal. In April of this year, a 25-year-old self-described “incel” by the name of Alek Minassian ran over a dozen women in Toronto, killing them all. He said he was inspired by Elliot Rodgers, another “incel” who perpetrated a mass shooting in 2014 to “get back at women who had rejected him.”

Data suggests parents of daughters should be scared. More than half of American women who are murdered are murdered by men. More than 90 percent of those are perpetrated by men that women already know, most commonly a current or former romantic partner. For women, men who know them are more dangerous than men who are strangers.

That women are at risk of being murdered by the men in their lives is not news. But what often goes unstated is that those same statistics — and all these stories — should trigger action on the part of parents raising boys. Clearly, young men are failing to understand or cope with rejection. Giving them the tools to do so and demanding better not only protects girls and women from men, but men and boys from their own worst impulses.

Rejection is crushing. We all know this. And dealing with rejection is difficult. That’s why parents need to have (and re-have) conversations about weathering emotional blows and why it’s important to provide context for kids confused by messaging around rejection they might get from popular culture.

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Part of this messaging comes from the commonly-held idea that women don’t know what they want, that no may mean yes, and that if a man tries hard enough, he can change a woman’s mind, either through persuasion, persistence, or downright deception. How many families have a story where persistence was a key trait in the getting together of two grandparents? And there are classic and well known examples of this like Say Anything, The Notebook, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Sixteen Candles. But even seemingly innocuous movies often teach weird lessons about rejection, potentially communicating to boys that women don’t get to have the final say.

Wedding Crashers is a prime example. When Owen Wilson’s character, John, meets Claire, played by Rachel McAdams, he continues to make moves on her despite the fact that she is engaged to another man. He even goes so far as to poison her fiance (played by Bradley Cooper) to get time alone with her, all the while lying about his true identity. When, in a turn of events, Claire realizes she can’t marry her fiance, Cooper’s character then gets belligerent and angry and tries to order Claire back onto the altar. The entire movie is men acting about women, and not asking what women want, and somehow, despite engaging in the same nefarious and upsetting activities that Cooper’s character does, Wilson is the good guy.

So what’s a parent to do? The rather obvious and also correct answer is this: Talk about it.

“We can’t control everything, and we shouldn’t,” says Dr. Steve Silvestro, a pediatric doctor who runs an expert-driven podcast on raising healthy and thoughtful kids. “But by ignoring it, or by hoping that our kid won’t pay attention, or that your kid will stick to something you talked about in the past as their guiding principle, these open a lot of opportunities for their thoughts and feelings to be swayed in a way that probably isn’t the best for them.”

There are a couple of ways for parents to tackle this particular issue. The big one: time and time again, parents need to tell their boys one thing: if a woman rejects you, you respect her decision and you move on. You can be her friend, but you don’t have to be. You can cry if you want, but you don’t have to cry, and you don’t do it to make them feel bad. You can be upset, but that girl is not the focus of your upset. You are upset because you are hurt, because you put yourself out there — and that’s the bravest act of all. And you hammer that home with empathy.

As conversations around masculinity are changing, long-held beliefs about male aggression have never been so hotly contested by the cultural zeitgeist at large. It is no longer culturally acceptable for men to behave poorly in response to rejection, either by ignoring the wishes of the women who rejected them or by responding with violence. In order to clearly state to those reluctant to change, the world at large, and specifically parents, need to change the way we talk about romance. Women are not sending secret messages with their words. They are simply saying what they want.

The pop cultural trope of men continually propositioning women after they’ve said no, or even following them and manipulating them into relationships, or being angry and vindictive after rejection, is rampant in rom-coms. It’s even rampant in popular music. Miguel’s How Many Drinks ft. Kendrick Lamar reads: “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me/Yeah you look good, and I got money/But I don’t wanna waste my time/Back of my mind, I’m hoping you say two or three.” The suggestion that the right amount of alcohol might lower a woman’s defenses and have her engage in sexual activity is problematic for a number of reasons, largely due to the fact that it suggests that consent is a blurred line, one that can be manipulated.

Most adults know that these tropes are not how real life goes. But kids don’t.

If parents listen to a Miguel song with their kid and it features a boy chasing a girl who keeps saying no, parents should ask their kid what they think about that. When they watch a rom-com that features a boy who is relentlessly pursuing a girl who is not interested, they should ask their son how they would feel if someone was doing that to them. These conversations shouldn’t only happen when a kid is already in trouble for doing something bad. They should be proactive, and constant. If the messages a kid gets from the boys around him and from the tv and the music and the radio say that reacting with violence is okay, then it’s a parent’s job to make sure their kids know it’s not.

So why did this attitude take hold? Why, at any point, was male aggression normalized and even tacitly accepted to the point where it became a pop cultural norm? And what is there to do about it?

A study by University of Kansas researchers on male aggression in the face of female rejection posits a theory: Long ago, particularly in the American South, men had to protect themselves and their families from perceived economic and existential threats (the two often being interchangeable). A man in the South couldn’t let a thief steal his horses, not only on principle, but because they represented his family’s livelihood. The power and aggression of his defense was what made him a capable defender of his home, someone to be feared and someone worth the respect of his peers.

What emerged from a culture in which defensiveness was more valued than the ability to bind together a community? What researchers call Masculine Honor Culture, a social system in which men respond to any form of “emasculation” with aggression. The problem now is that we no longer live in a system where the ability to protect one’s home is more important than the ability to make friends and influence people. But culture has lagged. This leads to men profoundly overreacting to minor forms of perceived emasculation, notably romantic rejection.

Why a woman’s rejection is seen as emasculating is another question entirely. There’s not a clear answer there other than that it represents a manner in which men are not only told that they cannot have what they want, but are informed of this by women. This rankles those who see being bossed around by a woman — even one they admire — as a humiliation. That’s a significant population.

The best thing parents can do is help their sons recognize that people reject others for a whole number of reasons; yes, maybe it is them, but it’s not because of their manhood. Or maybe it’s because they’re seeing someone else, or maybe it’s because they don’t want to date. Maybe it’s just because they don’t like their personality. But whatever the reason is, it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point: what other people think of you is not what defines your worth. But a lot of men today — especially those who cling on to their sense of identity as something that must constantly be proved — haven’t understood that yet.

Parents have no choice but to help their boys understand this. Otherwise, sons’ sense of self-worth — and what it means to be a man — might lead to them equating rejection with inadequacy and not taking no to an answer. There are already enough stories like that being told by frightened women and myopic screenwriters. We don’t need any more.