Can Parents PreventTheir Sons From Sliding to the Right?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

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Recently, I walked into my kitchen and the morning light hit my stove’s greasy backsplash in just the right way to reveal a finger-traced drawing of a dick ’n’ balls spraying a few fingertip-dots of jizz. Who, I wondered, was the artist who chose my stove’s grease for their canvas? I asked both of my sons (they are 13 and 10), and they convincingly denied having done the doodle — I’m a connoisseur of their drawings, and, indeed, the style wasn’t one I recognized.

We briefly speculated about which of their friends might be the artist, but I’m more amused than anything, and I don’t really care who drew it. I have no need to shame a kid over it. The drawing did remind me, in all its forward-gesturing glory, that adolescence is creeping into my house, and it’s time to look alive, parenting-wise.

I’ve never been much for the “boy-mom” thing. Beyond the obvious gender-politics ick, it’s part of what I think of as bumper-sticker culture: the labeling and characterizing of every surface of our lives, for, I guess, fun. Very childish behavior. Making my kids’ putative gender identities a badge that I wear alongside my own? Why is this cute? Anyway, I’ve tried to raise my sons in a spirit of loving gender agnosticism if not neutrality, while of course honoring their passion for trucks, the NFL, and bag-tagging each other at every opportunity.

We had a good gentle run, but now my elder son is becoming conversant in such concepts as “sigmas” and “looksmaxxing,” and whatever best intentions my husband Gray and I were working with need to be recalibrated for a new set of much more challenging identity-defining conditions. So it was with great interest that I recently read about a new study indicating that across the Global North, young men and young women are aligning themselves with sharply divergent politics. Women are leaning more progressive, and men more conservative. Not just a little divergence — a big one.

This did not come as a huge surprise to me or Gray. He teaches humanities at a local college, where I have taught too, and we’ve often talked about how tricky it can be to keep hetero boys involved in classroom debates. Many of these young men seem very anxious about saying the wrong thing, and will often refuse to participate, sometimes projecting a provocative kind of defensiveness that is its own argument. As much as I think cancel culture is a fake problem in media, it feels very real to young men when they’re sitting in a classroom. Whatever they are feeling, it feels real as hell. Insisting that they’re imagining their enemies doesn’t help.

After the study came out, there was a lot of speculation as to what might be causing this ideological schism. Is it capitalism? Men’s-rights influencers? Is it the dreaded woke mind virus?

There’s no mystery about why young women are becoming more progressive, but it’s harder to understand the factors behind the increasingly conservative young men. My friend Greg sent me a fascinating piece of analysis by Dr. Robin James, who argues that central to the move toward conservatism among young men is a sense that they’re an aggrieved party — that they are being robbed of entitlements. James explains this in financial terms: In today’s social world, which borrows much of its logic from the free-market economy, success isn’t figured in terms of just doing steady business year after year. It means going viral, experiencing a crazy run of success and earning a windfall. This is true in the realms of art (think superstars who started out making TikToks in their bedrooms), finance (crypto), and consumer culture (Stanley cups).

Applied to people, it maps to feminism and its mirror, misogyny. Feminism feels unfair to these young men because it’s based on the premise that women started from a position of inferiority (many young men find this hard to believe, because they were literally born yesterday) and now get to enjoy the glory of having beaten the odds. For young men to experience the same narrative of success, they feel they need to start from a position of disempowerment. Blaming women for their troubles is an easy route to that position — it’s way easier to explain and understand than, say, the neoliberal dismantling of the public sphere, and the alienating effect that can have on our everyday life.

James writes, “Femininity is figured as resilience, or the ability to flip sexist damage into spectacular success. Popular misogyny is the masculine complement to that: It takes perceived loss of status as an injury and then makes a spectacle out of overcoming that damage through things like podcasts, social media, and rap songs.”

Overcoming obstacles is the most hallowed narrative in our culture — it’s a place where capitalism’s growth imperative dovetails with the progressive appetite for stories about emancipation. So for young men, and straight white men in particular, to feel like valid participants in the storytelling of selfhood, they feel the need to start from a place of grievance, because otherwise there’s no way to bounce back and beat the odds. James cites the gender-studies scholar Michelle Murphy, who has argued that girls’ venerated place in our culture right now is the quintessential example of this mobilization of human capital: “Her rates of return are so high precisely because her value begins so low.” (This argument is the entire basis of the Barbie movie’s success.)

The appeal of a grievance-based identity makes it hard to convince straight white boys that they in fact have plenty going for them, and that they have no reason to feel aggrieved. Doing this convincing, whether it’s in the classroom or at the dinner table, requires a light touch. It’s very easy, and very satisfying, to be doctrinaire — social media encourages and rewards it. I think many of us adults are so entrenched in social-media political discourse that it feels dangerously transgressive to allow a teen to articulate beliefs we disagree with at our dinner tables. When you spend your days reading infographics reminding you that being silent means being on the side of the oppressor, having a flesh-and-blood oppressor-in-training eating your spaghetti and meatballs can feel like a waking nightmare. But coming down too hard risks playing right into the paranoid hands of masculinist discourses of male disempowerment.

My own feeling is that we progressive parents of white sons could ease up. It’s possible to model and enforce ideological ground rules for your family while also allowing young people to bring up their questions and TikTok-based information without fear of a parental freeze-out. For those of us (like me) very firm in our political beliefs, it feels good to stake your position and defend it well. But as adults, we need to figure out a way to help our young people work through confusion without feeling shunned by their own families. This can mean letting reactionary and unformed pseudo-ideologies breathe the same airspace as us while we invite patient conversation. It might feel dangerous to let a teenager argue that sexism works both ways, but it’s far more consequential to make him feel like that position is forbidden. No one should get canceled at the dinner table.

Social media has poached our brains in an incredibly lame way. I suspect that progressive-leaning white parents’ own anxiety about our reputations plays a part in our conversations with our teenage sons, and they can feel it. Teenagers are more attuned to vanity and artifice than any other species, so try to hide your own at your peril. When my voice raises as I start lecturing a teen about why he needs to recognize the importance of the history of Indigenous people rather than simply appropriate all the slang he’s learned from Reservation Dogs? He clocks that, and I wonder what it makes him think. I hope he files it away as something that’s probably true, rather than stacking it alongside a growing pile of reasons why white kids can’t seem to get anything right.

The lesson we owe our teenagers is that our identities are not brands — that as humans, we are capable of much more than that. Ascribing to an identity of grievance is an extremely limiting way to define yourself. It’s like taking on “Nike” or “Supreme” as a personality — kiddie shit. We owe our young people the dignity of a nuanced, three-dimensional set of beliefs, which means we have to let them figure it out in safety. Maybe that means letting them make fun of us a little bit. Maybe it means poking fun at ourselves. Having principles should feel good, not stressful. That’s something we can model for our kids.

Anatomical graffiti is a proud tradition that I am happy to have in my home. But raising teenage boys is likely going to require way more tolerance than this, and I hope I’m ready. My husband and I have tried to raise our sons with softness, and we’ve done well so far. But as they leave my iron dome of maternal influence, my softness has to extend to the parts of themselves that I wouldn’t choose for them. It’s hard work, respectfully debating a tragically underinformed teen about things that we deeply care about. But who said parenting was easy?

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