You Can’t Have My Cookie: Raising Boys to be Comfortable with Women Saying No
As a mother, I want what most parents want for their children: safety, success, peace, happiness, prosperity, and fulfillment. I want them to live meaningful lives full of love and fruition. But as a social justice advocate and feminist, I also want my children to understand their role in ensuring that all people have access to opportunity and quality of life. Parenting, for me, means raising solid and healthy individuals who accept responsibility for disrupting systems of oppression. I place a high premium on rearing children who are willing to put in the work (within themselves and within their communities) to create a just, inclusive, and intersectional world. Much of my energy as a parent is invested in teaching my kids to be loving, aware, compassionate, and vigilant.
Yesterday, my youngest son, Nassir, celebrated his 7th birthday. A few weeks ago, he and I were sitting in the dining room, snacking and talking. Of the 4 cookies we had, I decided to take 1 for myself and give him the remainder. He loved these cookies; I only marginally liked them, so it made sense to give him the bulk. With all the impulsiveness and ungainly speed one would expect of a 6 year old, Nassir crammed the cookies in his mouth in a matter of seconds before shamelessly asking, “Mom, can I have yours?”
All my social conditioning as a woman and a mother told me to say yes.Mothers are, after all, the bottomless well of selfless sacrifice, the ever-ready martyrs, the guilt-ridden givers. We are taught that the best of us are founts forever gushing nourishment and appeasement. Especially when it comes to our children. The parts of me that still grapple with this lifelong indoctrination told me to say yes, that a good mother would have no problem sacrificing something as small and insignificant as a cookie in order to make her baby boy happy.
And while motherhood comes with its own set of unrealistic, limiting, and dangerous expectations, women who have no children are not exempt from patriarchy’s insistence that women should give ceaselessly. To various degrees and in myriad ways, women are consistently encouraged to sacrifice and relinquish ownership of our thoughts, ideas, bodies, time, possessions, and selves. Part of Nassir’s education – and my re-education – means critically examining and fearlessly challenging these notions of obligation and entitlement between mothers and children and between women and men.
“No,” I said, “You’ve eaten your cookies. This one is mine.”
With an exaggerated and blatantly calculated sadness, Nassir slumped in his chair. It wasn’t my first time witnessing this melodrama, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how early children learn to manipulate and weaponize emotion in order to illicit mother/woman guilt. Though he hung his head, he peeked out of the corner of his eye, furtively scanning my face, gauging. When he realized it wasn’t happening and that my cookie would, indeed, stay my cookie, he skulked away to his room. I ate my cookie, triumphant in the knowledge that my son and I were doing important work and, in some small way, disrupting the very systems designed to dehumanize and fractionalize us both. Just as girls and women are saddled with expectations of silence, sacrifice, suffering, and submission, so too are boys hindered by toxic masculinity’s sense of entitlement and consistent thirst for domination, and conquest. My work as a woman is to unapologetically own my voice, self, and all that rightfully belongs to me. My work as a mother involves raising my daughter to claim her agency and teaching my sons how to effectively hear, accept, and respect that agency. That means teaching them how to graciously accept hearing women say no.
Sure, it’s just a cookie today, but in a few short years, it might a girl’s phone number, personal space, or access to her time and/or body. Patriarchy and its unholy offspring, rape culture, would have my son believe that he should have access to and is deserving of these things by virtue of being born male in a world that consistently privileges his existence and contributions over those of girls and women. And although as men of color, my sons’ experience of manhood is intersected by racial injustice, they are still capable of wielding their male power and privilege in ways that subjugate women. If I leave it up to the sexist society we inhabit to teach my sons what it means to be a man, there is no doubt that their perspectives about and interactions with women will be oppressive and pathological, no matter how seemingly benign and paternalistic.
And it’s no exaggeration that every woman I know has stories about painful encounters with men who, when told no, became abusive. Often the abuse is verbal and administered in the form of threats and insults yet, in the extreme (but not infrequent) cases, women are assaulted and/or killed for simply refusing to give out a phone number or go on a date. The right to say no is every woman’s right, and yet far too many women are terrified to exercise this right due to the dangerous and, sometimes, life-threatening situations that may ensue.
But it does not have to be this way. Part of what I am tasked with as a mother is to raise sons who define themselves outside of the strictures of toxic masculinity and through a liberated and socially conscious selfhood, resist all systems of oppression, even the ones that grant them access, power, and privilege. This necessarily means raising them to be comfortable with women who are equally liberated, vocal, and firm in their understanding about who they are and what they want. My sons need to first be taught how to recognize women as full human beings and then learn to celebrate the importance and beauty of all human beings in exercising their autonomy. To some, this may sound like a tall order, but only because we’ve been indoctrinated to expect so little from men, to believe their ability to be whole, liberated, loving, people capable of fully respecting women and our choices as unrealistic at best and downright impossible at worst. I reject this notion just as vehemently as I believe in our ability, as mothers, to change the world by intentionally raising children who aren’t bound to oppressive, colonialist, and dehumanizing ways of living and loving.
Later that evening, I found Nassir in his brother’s room, laughing, teasing, and playing video games. As I expected, his generally cheerful and lighthearted mood had returned and despite his initial disappointment, it was unlikely he had given the cookie incident any further thought. However, I knew an important part of this teachable moment was the conversation we needed to have about it. It was important that Nassir not only heard and accepted my no, but also understood it within a larger framework of liberation and resistance. Bright, curious, and wielding an affinity for language and communication that belies his years, he welcomed the conversation. Though breaking down complex and nuanced concepts in a way that a young child could understand challenged my creativity and communication skills (and at one point,forced me to start drawing pictures), I left the conversation feeling closer to Nassir and certain that he was taking some important first steps in his journey of comprehending the social, political and spiritual implications of the “no moment” and what it meant for us as mother and son, as a woman and soon to be man, and for gender equality.
Unlike adults who are deeply entrenched and have more heavy-lifting to do when confronting our conditioning and biases, children usually have a much easier time with appreciating, engaging in, and recognizing the need for liberation as praxis; Nassir was no exception. Though he expressed disappointment at not getting the cookie he wanted, he also understood why he wasn’t entitled to it and why girls (and mommies) often felt pressured to give against our own wishes and interests. Insightful and observant, he was even able to provide examples of times he witnessed people put specific pressure on girls and women to give and sacrifice. I was pleased by not surprised with the trajectory of the conversation. Though only 6, Nassir has always been a relatively precocious child and these kinds of conversations between us were not new. As the conversation wound down, we hugged and kissed and I felt every ounce the proud parent and liberated woman. I felt proud of my son and the small and frequent revolutions in our home that my children would inevitably carry – via their ideas, words, and actions – into the world.