Commentary: How do we raise sons who will never hit women?
Cases of young men getting into trouble for objectifying women or being physically abusive has been in the news. Centre for Fathering’s Bryan Tan says the hard work starts at home.
SINGAPORE: The recent incident of a NUS dentistry student receiving a community-based sentence after strangling his ex-girlfriend in her own home, drew an outcry from many women’s groups in Singapore.
In a bid to revive their relationship which ended after two years, Yin Zi Qin, 23, met the victim and together they entered her bedroom by climbing into her window from an adjacent showroom unit.
When the victim declined to revive their broken relationship, Yin strangled her until she blacked out on the floor.
In another case that went before the courts in January this year, a former student at Yale-NUS College admitted to taking intrusive pictures of his female flat mates.
He said that looking at naked pictures of the women helped him destress from the academic pressure he felt.
Like many fathers of daughters, my heart went out to the victims. But the latest incident also made me look at how I am raising my two sons when it comes to how they treat women.
A FATHER’S INFLUENCE
Global research has shown that active fathering positively influences a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development.
Children whose fathers are highly involved across diverse activities - such as eating together, helping with schoolwork and going on family outings – exhibit fewer child behaviour problems, and higher levels of sociability and academic performance, a study by American sociologists, Jane Mosley and Elizabeth Thomson found.
Adolescents who feel close to their fathers are also less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour or experience emotional distress according to the Journal of Marriage and Family.
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Women’s groups have highlighted the importance of raising boys to respect women through education. But for me, the real lessons are learnt when a child watches how his mother, sister or other women around him are treated by the men in their lives.
When men at home treat women like they are equally worthy and valued as people with needs, feelings, intelligence, skills, and power, their sons are much more likely to grow up doing the same, a 2018 article in Psychology Today argued.
This was something I too had to learn.
In my younger years, I used to be less inhibited and careless with my words. There were times when I would use unkind words on my wife at the dinner table. It took me a long while to realise the adverse effects this behaviour had on my children.
When I realised how harmful this was, I became more conscious of the words I used, the tone I took and resolved not to put down my wife, even in jest.
LEARNING HOW TO DISAGREE WITHOUT RANCOUR
I used to wonder why marriages in the movies always seemed so perfect, and mine was filled with conflicts I was ill-prepared to handle. It took me more than a decade of working through disagreements with my wife to understand such instances served to help us appreciate one another better and draw us closer as a couple.
In working through these differences, we have come to a few simple rules: We will try our best not to argue in front of the children. And if I lose my cool in a disagreement, I will do my best to apologise and seek reconciliation.
In doing so, I prioritised harmony in my home. And this is what I tell my children – the importance of maintaining good relationships depends on the extent we have to go to work on them.
My sense is that even though my children are young, by watching my wife and I, they appreciate what strong relationships look like – and see that while they are not perfect, they are always centred on respect for each other.
It also helped that I have a community of fathers around me that held me accountable for the state of my marriage, and modelled for me how to love and respect my wife in all circumstances with their own honest sharing.
This is another powerful lesson I took from this journey. Men, like women, can and should have the avenues to share personal highs and lows. It makes us better as fathers and sons too.
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LEARNING NOT TO OBJECTIFY WOMEN
In recent cases of violence towards women and sex crimes that end up in court, there seemed to be a pattern of perpetrators objectifying women and resorting to violence when things do not go well in their relationships.
Mr Yin also had demonstrated a loss of control after facing rejection. He had hit his own head against the wall when she declined to continue their relationship. He admitted he was upset before he proceeded to strangle her.
Objectification is part of a harmful sexualisation process being forced onto our girls, which according to the American Psychological Association is a leading cause of sexual violence against them.
It usually takes the form of sexual comments about women or jokes about their looks or body parts. It may seem harmless, even trivial, but can be an insidious way boys learn to disrespect women. We must consciously avoid that kind of talk as men.
We need to move away from this conditioning that objectifies people of the opposite sex and plays up assumed gender-specific roles. When it comes to my three children, I am mindful not to discuss about their physical attributes, but to emphasise their qualities that deserve praise.
I would commend them for being loving, joyful, good, kind, gentle, faithful, patient and possessing self-control. In our home, we have a chart to track such behaviours and we would reward our children appropriately.
We have to acknowledge none of this is easy. As with everything else, we need resources, support and encouragement. It is hard for us to talk to our children about relationships for instance so how do you share your view about sexuality and relationships?
This is especially tough when the way we were raised is different from the world our children live in.
When our children return home with relationship issues, fathers (and not just mothers as a default) can create a safe and conducive environment where tough conversations can happen. If our children feel unconditionally loved and accepted, they may be able to talk about such episodes more openly.
We cannot shield our children from heartbreak, but we could certainly build their sense of personal resilience by affirming them, and making them feel more secure in who they are, and how much they are loved in the family, so that they learn emotional self-control.
Apart from demonstrating love, empathy and affirmation, fathers could engage in emotion-coaching to model how to overcome adversity.
In Singapore, we are fortunate to have several platforms that help fathers with such skills. The Centre for Fathering (CFF) conducts weekly fathering workshops to empower fathers to strengthen their relationships in the home and address contemporary issues that children face in their growing years.
Fathers are equipped to positively influence children by being involved in their lives, showing them love consistently, being aware of how they feel and think, and nurturing them through affirmation and encouragement.
Through the national Dads for Life movement, a strong emphasis is also made in the community to form father groups throughout Singapore which provide fathers with support and camaraderie. I believe there is much wisdom in shared journeys because that has helped me become a better father and husband.
In showing that we take fatherhood seriously, we would have laid the foundation for our sons, who will in turn go on to be boyfriends, husbands and fathers themselves.
And perhaps, we will have one less story about a young woman who is abused or a young man whose life is turned upside down.
Bryan Tan is the CEO of DADs for Life and the Centre for Fathering. Formerly a senior officer with the Singapore Armed Forces, he made a mid-career switch to the social service sector to serve fathers and the “fatherless” in our nation. He is happily married to Adriana, and they have three children, Michael, Joshua and Deborah.