Trying to Be a Good Dad in the Age of Bad Men
Preparing my daughter for the world at large requires tact and empathy and —most of all — a willingness to admit that I don’t have all the answers.
The day you hear the first cry, you begin building a world. You make it with snuggles and nighttime feedings and stories and lullabies and discovery and play. It’s delicate, sparkling, and beautiful. You hope nothing enters this world you’re building unless you let it in. You choose with great care because the world you’re building is not for you.
But one day the levee will breach. The water will start to rise.
A year after Donald Trump was elected president, despite the fact that he bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia, my daughter went to a four-hour, detailed sex ed class. She is four years younger than an Alabama woman was when Roy Moore allegedly sexually assaulted her. Right now, my daughter’s body is still her own. Soon it will change, and the world at large will attempt to make a claim on it.
The water is coming. She’ll need to learn how to swim.
Many of the dangers I worry about will never come true. Chances are, my kids will not be eaten by a bear while we’re on a camping trip. Chances are they will not be swallowed by an earthquake. It’s likely they’ll live their entire lives without being struck by lightning.
It’s nearly certain that my daughter will be the victim of some form of sexual misconduct. It’s repugnant to consider, but also undeniably true. The flood of reports about criminal and creepy behavior is new, but the behavior is old. Women and girls have been enduring it for a long time.
It begins by telling my daughter that her body is her own, always and forever. That she doesn’t owe anyone a hug or a kiss or a smile. That her path in life should never be influenced by the way the world sees her, that her looks are unimportant, that her brain matters most.
Preparing my daughter for the world at large requires tact and empathy and — most of all — a willingness to admit that I don’t have all the answers.
It begins by telling her that her body is her own, always and forever. That she doesn’t owe anyone a hug or a kiss or a smile. That her path in life should never be influenced by the way the world sees her, that her looks are unimportant, that her brain matters most. I will promise to advocate for her, to believe her, to support the ways she learns to protect herself, to stand with my wife as she walks with our child through the gauntlet.
I will never know in a firsthand way the visceral response a woman feels when a sexual assault occurs. But I can direct my daughter to the people who do, the people who have written and spoken with eloquence and rage during this moment in time. The women who have stood bravely against social media trolls and men who intentionally subvert “believe women” into “believe all women, no matter what.”
I can also give advice. Be wary of men with power. Be wary of women who urge compliance. Don’t believe in heroes. Start with me.
I said that it’s nearly certain my daughter will experience a form of sexual misconduct at some point in her life. I won’t spike her anxiety by telling her that because I could be wrong. She might be lucky. But I am absolutely dead certain that my son will be encouraged by other boys and men to demean women, and that he will do so without hesitation so that he can be accepted. If you are a man, your own life experience should be all the proof you need of that statement.
I have more time to prepare my son for the moment when the world at large takes him away from the world I built. He’s only four. I also have a hell of a lot more work to do with him than with my daughter, because obliterating sexual violence begins by changing the behavior of men when they are still boys.
I must tell my son, over and over, that women don’t exist for the pleasure and ridicule of men. I must do this clearly and directly through conversation and patient instruction. I must do it obliquely when he’s watching how I behave.
There are basic rules to teach: Always keep your hands to yourself, and don’t say mean things to anyone. That much is obvious. The deeper work has to do with encouraging introspection, empathy, and open-hearted curiosity, with learning how to push back against a pervasive culture of toxic masculinity that reveals itself in sneaky and overt ways.
Consider Al Franken. As Dara Lind wrote in Vox, Franken can’t say whether more women will “come forward with allegations, because he wasn’t expecting any women to come forward with allegations, period.” Perhaps Franken isn’t aware of who he might have hurt because he never considered his behavior hurtful. Similar language in many recent statements reveals a widespread emotional blindness among men who have been forced to answer for their actions.
Why would such obliviousness be so widespread? Because it’s been tolerated and encouraged by too many men.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I listen to a radio show that tells me about athletes who sexually assault women. Usually, there is a discussion on the show — should the athlete in question be punished? How severely? For me, listening at home, this is a bright line: yes, and to the max. But that same program frequently uses a bit that centers around inappropriate behavior. The discomfort it creates in women is played for laughs. My kids hear this program nearly every day.
If I’m serious about doing all that I can to protect my daughter and to save my son from committing large and small acts of misogyny, I must snap off the radio — and explain why I’m doing so.
As actions go, this is pretty small. If it strikes you as too radical or politically correct, think about how you’d react if the story was about a radio show that featured a minstrel act. Words are powerful, especially when they go unchallenged.
I must tell my son, over and over, that women don’t exist for the pleasure and ridicule of men. I must do this clearly and directly through conversation and patient instruction. I must do it obliquely when he’s watching how I behave. I must demonstrate for him how to support, how to advocate, how to believe. I must teach him that women have to lead the way forward if there is any hope of creating a fair and equitable society.
And that’s the most important lesson I can teach my son: when you grow up, the world will not be yours.