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Mom Talk: Raising Nice Boys

Written by Suzie Vlček

Photography by Jordan Ferney, Photographed By Sarah Hebenstreit

We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Suzie Vlček talks how she’s taking a proactive stance on her son’s upbringing, strongly encouraging not-to-be-missed qualities such as empathy, equality, and consent. -JKM

My husband and I are pathological people-pleasers. Like a couple of Canadians on ecstasy, we smile, hold doors for thankless strangers, offer up our seats, step aside, and never ask for raises. When someone steps on my foot? “I’m sorry!” We know that it’s a thing, and we’re both working on it. But, apparently not very well because our three-year-old son is now repeating the phrase incessantly.

We have a really sweet, nice boy. So, what’s the problem? The burden of being kind in 2018—a frightening moment in time where nice guys truly finish last—has me questioning niceness as a whole. I can’t help but wonder, if my son is sweet, will he be a “loser”? Like most decent humans, I am tormented, terrorized, and triggered daily with news of toxic masculinity. The leader of the free world is a person who grabs, brags, lies, and certainly isn’t sorry. Whatever narcissist tutorial he snorted in his formative years forbids any expression of weakness. And, the speedball of clichés—man up, don’t be a pussy, never let ‘em see you sweat, boys don’t cry, every man for himself, don’t take “no” for an answer, never show signs of being an actual human being—has created a dangerous landscape of shitty “winners”. Something is wrong with that way of thinking; something is broken. Of course I worry that I’m setting my son up for failure. I can’t help but question, can he survive as a giver amongst takers? As a doormat for unapologetic climbers? I mentioned my concern to a friend (a mother of daughters), and her quick and bored reaction was, “He’ll be fine. He’s a white man.”

So, I thought to myself, just hit cruise control on my son’s upbringing? Should the girls and women just keep running defense to generations of lazy parenting to boys? What does “boys will be boys” even mean? Men are having a moment—a bad one. In this climate of too many #MeToos and tireless mansplaining, there’s plenty of man-shaming to go around. Women are leaning in, marching, and reclaiming their time. Time’s up. The message is clear: be better, men. But, how? I’m a woman. I have been underestimated, harassed, negged, gaslighted, passed over, and counted out. And, I’m falling asleep from boredom as I write this. To feel this over it with the patriarchy and simultaneously be obnoxiously in love with my little boy is a lot to process. And, I’m taking it out on his upbringing. I will never be lazy about what goes into that mushy, frontal lobe.

I’m just going with my gut on all of this, as most parenting goes. But, in 2018, your gut should be on fire, and you should be lit up with passion for a new man-kind. And so, I give you my emotional, intuitive, unprofessional steps to nurturing a modern man. This has worked for my family, and I’m hoping you can find bits of helpful information here, too.

Emote. Show your feelings and accept theirs—all of them. Validate and experience them. Even when my son has totally illogical meltdowns, I’ll say, “Do you just need to be sad for a minute?” They wrap up way faster that way than if I react with, “Calm down!” Crying is healthy, and everyone knows it. Model empathy. If you see someone that seems sad or hurt, ask them if they’re okay. It’s simple stuff. Surround yourself with men of all generations that express themselves in a healthy fashion. Articulate your love all the time, not just on your deathbed.

Equality. You are not better or worse than anyone. If you find yourself in a position of privilege, share. Sharing is rough for little people, so praise them hard when they do it. Never miss an opportunity to high-five them for being kind. Also, celebrate diversity, and get outside your bubble. Read stories about lots of people and their lives. Preach acceptance, tolerance, and compassion. Love others as whoever they are and however they need to be seen. This should not be hard. If it is, perhaps look deeper within yourself about why this may be. It’s important that we work on our shit. Identify and break boring cycles, pronto. Be a feminist. Encourage friendships and playdates with girls. And, remember not all the plastic dinosaurs are a “he”. Be open minded, and learn and evolve with them.

Be brave. Take risks. Fail. Try again. Do this, and help them do it, too. While watching the olympics, we talk a lot about the athletes that fell down and got right back up, and about how hard you have to work to get there. Your kids will be winners, but no one really likes a winner that’s never lost.

Consent. Even Santa at the mall got the memo this year: always ask. Remind your kids to ask their friends if they want a hug first. Respect their space when they ask for it. Maybe they’ll even let you go to the bathroom alone.

Media. There’s no excuse in 2018 to watch bad content. There are plenty of well-written shows and movies (and billions of books) with kind characters and positive messages. Television, games, and screen time in excess turns many kids into cracked-out zombies who can’t self-regulate, so don’t be surprised when they act like assholes. We switched to audio books, and it’s pure magic. Chat with them about what they see and hear. Help them make sense of the messages and all the feelings that are attached.

Stuff. Don’t exclusively buy gender-directed crap. As much as a sparkly, pink, miniature mop and broom set enrages me, so does a “daddy’s little tough guy” shirt. This is so weird and outdated; don’t be weird and outdated. If your boy likes trucks, by all means, truck it up. But, toss in a baby doll or a tea set, too. And, a side note about the toy guns: I avoid them like the plague, but a tiny one ended up in my son’s stocking this year. To my delight, he went around the house checking prices. I know this is a heavy topic, and I have many battles ahead, but right now, it’s a hard no.

Connect. We talk a lot. Way before my son could talk, we talked. We also engage in plenty of eye contact. Be present. Unplug. Ask questions. Listen.

I grew up with a healthy dose of Mr. Rogers and some scrappy single-mothering. Maybe my blend of hyper-feeling feminism makes me a pusher, but I’m truly rooting for a big comeback for men. Let’s detox and foster better humans that are rad to other humans. Let’s celebrate the nice guys, the Charlie Buckets, the Harry Potters, the Ducky’s, the Barack Obamas, and the Carl-Fredrik Arndts and Peter Jonssons (look them up). Let’s even find compassion for the bullies, who are the saddest of us all and need all of the above the very most.

My boy cries when he hears “Hey Jude,” and sometimes wants to smash shit, but he says sorry. And, he means it, and I’m glad. As for his mom and dad, we are saying sorry less, but we still smile at everyone, even dogs. We’re learning to lean in, owning our worth, and showing our son living examples of strength and vulnerability.

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