I became a teacher because in high school a close friend of mine was assaulted. She was walking home at night when a man stopped his truck, leapt out, and tried to force her into his vehicle. She fought back with all her strength, but he would have overpowered her if not for another car that happened to come along. He fled. She escaped.
That night, I saw her bruised lip and matted hair where he had tangled his fist in an effort to force her into the truck. Months after the minor physical injuries she sustained had healed, she continued to experience lingering emotional and psychological effects of the assault, despite the fact that her assailant had not managed to rape her. When walking around our high school or the streets of our town, she tried to make herself look ugly by wearing lumpy clothes and slumping her shoulders, in hopes that boys would not pay unwanted attention to her. She often felt unsafe.
In the weeks that followed the assault, I experienced a new anger about misogyny in various forms, from sexist T-shirts to the reaction from a male high school teacher I told about the assault, whose first words were, “At some point we should consider the possibility that she might be making this up.”
I channeled that anger into working with young children at a battered women’s shelter. In the shelter playroom, I saw 5-year-old boys who punched the Barbies and pulled their hair. After just a few days of being in a caring, safe environment, these same boys gently brushed the dolls’ hair. I chose to be an elementary school teacher because I saw how much influence we have to change children’s learned habits and life trajectories if we intervene early enough.
I thought about that experience while listening to an NPR interview with child psychologist Michael Thompson on how we teach boys to have empathy. He doesn’t discount the prescription we usually hear: having explicit conversations with boys about consent. But Thompson also talks about a simple but profound action that even very young boys can do.
“If I were in charge of everything, every boy would take care of children at some point in his own boyhood. He’d take care of small children who get hurt, who cry, who need comforting. Boys who have been camp counselors, for instance, 18-year-old boys who have taken care of a cabin of 10-year-old boys—they’re different because they’ve had to take care of somebody’s hurt and loneliness and homesickness and pain. It changes the older boy, and it makes him a better young man.”
Here are three simple ways we as educators can help boys develop empathy.
1. Find ways for boys to care for younger children.
My 1st and 2nd graders are reading buddies for children in a pre-K class down the hall. When I learned that the 12-year-old brother of a girl in my class was bullying her at home, I invited him to start working once a week as a volunteer with my 2nd graders. He almost immediately became more nurturing toward his younger sister both at school and home.
The girls I teach often take on caregiving responsibilities for younger brothers and sisters at a very early age—babysitting, feeding, even changing diapers. The boys, by contrast, are often allowed to play video games while their sisters and mothers are engaged in the constant work of that caregiving. Teachers may not be in a position to change that dynamic in our students’ homes, but we can create opportunities for our students to nurture and mentor younger children in school beginning at an early age.
2. Read books featuring strong female protagonists and gentle boys.
The scarcity of children’s books featuring girls and women is startling. A Washington Post article on this topic cites a finding that female characters appear in about 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year, while male characters appear in 100 percent.
The assumption I hear from the publishing industry is that girls will read books about boys, while boys won’t read books about girls. We can change that, beginning with the books we choose for read aloud, guided reading, and the baskets or shelves lining our classroom libraries.
As a child, I loved Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books. My current favorite for kids in grades 2 to 4 is the Get Ready for Gabí series of chapter books by Marisa Montes. Gabriela is a spunky, strong Latina girl who stands up to bullies to defend younger children.
When I was growing up, the record Free to Be…You and Me was always playing in our home. I remember the story William’s Doll, in which a boy’s father provides his son with plenty of sports equipment but refuses to give him the doll he asks for. At the end, the dad’s own mother points out that playing with the doll will help William learn to be a father someday.
3. Be direct.
Boys need to know that men can be gentle. That it’s OK for boys to cry. That girls are as strong, smart, and capable as boys. That it’s never OK to put your hands on someone who doesn’t want you to.
Part of the reason we need more men to be teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, is to help model respect for women. When the boys in my class are reluctant to be partnered with a girl for a school project, I point out that I work on a 2nd grade team with two women as well as another man. I ask them, “What if I would only work with Mr. Schuster, and refused to work with Mrs. Harter or Mrs. Batson? I’d get fired!” They laugh, but they get the real-world point.
Human nature or human habit?
Like most Americans, I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the harrowing details she remembers of her assault. I heard her describe her vivid fear when she couldn’t breathe that her attacker would accidentally kill her. I heard her recall the older boys’ laughter during the attempted rape.
I was staggered that afternoon by the depth of empathy the 11 male Republican Senators on the Judiciary committee expressed for Brett Kavanaugh, the U.S Supreme Court nominee, contrasted with what I saw as the staggering lack of empathy they exhibited for Ford. Many of these men simultaneously acknowledged Ford’s credibility while implicitly discounting the veracity of the experience she had just recounted, including her assertion that she was “100 percent certain” that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her.
I also witnessed an aggressive, evasive, belligerent man who didn’t believe an accusation of this kind merited the type of hearing that was taking place. I watched Kavanaugh respond to a female Senator’s question about whether he had ever blacked out while drinking with the unfathomably rude response, “Have you?”
The way those hearings unfolded has everything to do with our job as teachers.
We don’t just teach the children in our care how to become strong readers, writers, scientists, artists, thinkers, and mathematicians. We teach them how to become strong, kind men and women. Boys have to learn from an early age that girls’ rights, emotions, and bodies matter precisely as much as their own.
I agree with the quote by Jewel from the album cover of Pieces of You: “What we call human nature in actuality is human habit.” I have come to believe the same about boys and men. There is nothing inevitable about violence and disrespect toward women. It is learned behavior. We can teach boys a better way.
Author’s note: I realize the binary discussion of boys and girls in this column does not capture the identity or experience of trans students. We need more books like Alex Gino’s George that reflect the experience of students who do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, or whose identity is not captured by the binary notions of male and female. Given the way traditional gender roles have played out in the testimony and response of Ford and Kavanaugh, I decided to confine this column to the dynamics involved in those traditional gender roles.