Raising Kind Boys In A Culture Of Male Cruelty

Coaches, friends, girlfriends: Who is allowed to harm a guy?

Young teen boy with dimples and black hair smiles in a grassy field DigitalMediaPro / shutterstock

Not long ago, I saw a fight outside of our pleasant little suburban Target, clearly perpetrated by the floppy-haired eighth graders with skateboards I'd seen causing low-key mayhem in the condom aisle earlier. A guy in a family SUV saw the fight and parked his car in the parking lot roadway, got out, and separated the fighting teens and attempted to disperse the crowd of their peers from around them.


When I pulled up closer, I saw that the two people fighting weren't two of the boys, but rather a boy and a girl. I stepped out of my car, ready to help, too, and heard the boy scream the girl’s name, “Cammmmdennnnnnn!" like he was Marlon Brando in Streetcar. In response, the guy separating them pulled the boy farther away.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the girl — who had been walking away with two other boys — whipped around, charged the restrained boy, and slapped the ever-loving crap out of the kid. The crowd of teens laughed.

I wish I had this on video, only so I could show you the expression on the face of the guy breaking up the fight when the girl charged back at them. “Shocked” is accurate, but it’s also like, What in the f*ck has been happening here and am I hallucinating?


I felt the same way.



It got me thinking about the ways in which we prepare teenagers for love and dating. Had these children been taught by their parents what a healthy relationship looks like? Had he “started it” or had she? If it were the latter, would this boy have a framework to think of that as abuse, of himself as a victim?

As I drove home, I wondered if I’d adequately prepared my own teen sons for the possibility that a female partner could abuse a boy or man.


I certainly tried to prepare them for how to manage their own anger, jealousy and frustration in relation to the people they date. Their dad and I have made it clear that they are not to insult, degrade, coerce, intimidate or attempt to control a partner. Of course, we’ve made it clear that there are no circumstances in which physical violence or restraint is appropriate unless they are protecting themselves without escalating.

But have I told them that a girl can be controlling, degrading or even violent toward a boy — and that it’s still not at all acceptable?

RELATED: 6 Ways Wise Parents Fight Back Against Gender Stereotypes


Busting the myth of male 'toughness'

After this incident, a post I saw in a Facebook group for moms of youth athletes popped into my mind. A mom asked how to handle an opposing team’s coach who said “Your players suck” to their coach in front of the players. She wondered if she should report it.

Nearly all of the replies said some version of, “Don’t report it. That’s just sports. Tell your kid there are always jerks and not to act like a jerk himself. But get ready for it, Mama, this is what it’s like.”

The kids in question were nine. Yes, 9 years old!

Somehow, because these were little boys, the moms in the group believed it wasn’t worth reporting. Because it’s “normal” — and boys should get used to people insulting them. This was shocking to me, even as a mom of two high school athletes.


If I’d heard this said around kids of any gender, I would’ve reported it. Why? Because I want to show my kids that they don’t deserve that sort of treatment and that I’ll stand up for them in the most reasonable and responsible way possible.

RELATED: Domestic Violence Isn't Just A Female Issue

Toss them into the deep end to sink or swim?

While I’ve always wanted my boys to be tough, I never felt a need to “toughen them up” because it seems to me that life can be pretty tough without me needing to add struggle. We will be thrown into trials and forced to deal with pain.

My kids have had to deal with displacement from a wildfire, their neighborhood being destroyed, some of their friends moving away, their grandfather with whom they were very close dying a few years ago, and then all of the changes and losses during the Pandemic. Maybe some kids have it easier, but I bet most kids face struggles of some form.


I don’t think we should coddle kids and turn them into little orchids who can’t survive out in the world, but I don’t think throwing them into the deep end to sink is the answer, either.

Oddly, this is a conversation people only seem to have when parenting boys. I don’t see this sort of “suck it up buttercup” language in regards to girls. We want them to learn to stand up against rude and unkind men, especially those in positions of authority, but we also want to protect them.

RELATED: 6 Warning Signs Your Husband Or Wife Is A Bully

Gender stereotypes and 'toughness'

Think of the image of the dad “coincidentally” cleaning his shotgun when his daughter’s boyfriend comes to visit. Nobody’s worried that a boy’s girlfriend will harm him, pressure him into moving too quickly, sexually, or he will end up altering his bright future due to his partner’s teen pregnancy.


But maybe we should start.

Leaving boys unprotected doesn’t actually make them tougher — it just leaves them feeling like there’s nobody to turn to when someone harms them. It may even make them believe they deserve bad treatment.

What’s more, allowing actions like the girl slapping the boy across the face or the coach insulting little boys right in front of them makes unkind, cruel and even abusive behavior seem normal.

In the case of the coach, asking kids to respect an abusive person in authority also teaches them that men in positions of power have the right to hurt others — and we all know how that story ends.

RELATED: 11 Horrifying Myths And Facts About Domestic Violence


Raising boys who know the signs of IPV (Intimate Partner Violence)

Maybe your son is the biggest boy in his grade just like his giant d addy was at his age, and you cannot imagine he’d ever be harmed by a romantic partner. Maybe he doesn’t tolerate people treating him badly, and thus it feels unnecessary to teach him to watch for the early signs of IPV from a partner.

The truth is, men and boys of all sizes can become victims because a good portion of abuse is about psychological control. He may be manipulated into thinking nobody would believe him or told that she would just say he hit her first. She may have a weapon or some sort of blackmail against him.

There are endless ways it could happen, and the details don’t matter all that much. The point is, it is possible and female-perpetrated violence against male victims is more common than we realize (and it’s notoriously hard data to accurately gather, but researchers are trying).

Preparing your son to believe relationships should be mutually respectful and feel safe for both partners is a good thing for everyone.


Teaching a boy that everyone deserves respect, safety and bodily autonomy also empowers him to make healthier choices in how he behaves in relationships, too. If we can get our boys thinking early and comprehensively about what healthy relationships should look and feel like, it’s possible they may be able to avoid participating in an abusive dynamic from either side.

It’s also possible that this type of empowering information could help him intervene when a friend, regardless of gender, is involved in an abusive relationship. Some kids may never have a single conversation with a parent or guardian about what IPV looks and feels like, and in those cases, peers sharing accurate and empowering information could literally save a life.

I will never know what happened outside of Target that day — if the boy or the girl “started it” or if he “deserved it” in some way. (The scare quotes in that last sentence are doing a lot of heavy lifting!) I don’t know if the boy is in love with a girl who is abusive toward him and, if so, why he stays in that relationship. But I do know that our boys need more than just “toughening up."


RELATED: How To Stop Being An Abusive Person

Talk to your boys

All I can do is talk to my own boys — and all of you — about the opportunities we have to make the world safer for our kids, including this one. Support their emotional growth at every stage of life, not just as teeny tiny boys, but also when they get to the “rough” years of adolescence.

Listening quietly and offering hugs are two of the easiest and most effective ways to show our boys that it’s safe for them to have deep, complicated emotions — and that you will be there for the full range of them.

Talk to them about falling in love, mutual respect, and how love doesn’t mean control or coercion. Talk to them about love-bombing, passive-aggression, gaslighting and manipulation, dishonesty, DARVO, and every other aspect of emotional abuse. Talk to them about jealousy and control and appropriate ways to express anger and frustration. And, of course, talk to them about how no partner has the right to lay a hand on you in anger or coerce or guilt you into sexual activity.


Talk to them about what real love feels like, what it’s like to care about someone who sees you for who you are, who respects your unique spark and passion, and who wants you to grow and bloom and live your biggest life.

Tell them that the best kind of love is one where you help each other’s lights shine bright, not one where someone has to dim theirs in order to avoid upsetting the other.

Our kids deserve all of that and more — including our boys.

RELATED: How To Know If The Abuser In Your Relationship Is You

Joanna Schroeder is a writer and media critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Esquire and more. She is co-author of  Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home published by The Western States Center. For more, visit her Substack