How My Husband Raised a Good Man
By Benison O'Reilly - 19th June 2012
I’m just about to reveal myself as an appalling hypocrite. I think I can justify myself, however.
You may recall that in my last outing for happychild I expressed my discomfiture at the idea of parents monitoring their kids’ Facebook accounts. (Not everyone agreed with me I have to add.) Yet only the other day I found myself reading my eldest son’s private correspondence without his knowledge.
In April, M celebrated his 18th birthday with a party at our house. Give or take a few vomiting teens, an attempted theft, a noise complaint, a police visit and a crashed car,* the evening was judged to be a glittering success. M also got lots of presents. After he opened each one he tossed the wrapping and card on the floor of his bedroom, to add to the existing pile of dirty clothes, Coke cans, apple cores and the occasional forlorn university text.
Three weeks went by and despite my nagging he still hadn’t tidied his cesspit of a room. One day I couldn’t stand it anymore and, armed with a garbage bag, vacuum cleaner and clean sheets, snuck in to clean while he was at university. (Yes, I know: big parenting fail, but by this time the health of entire neighbourhood was at stake!)
While cleaning I discovered an eye-catching card on his bedside table. It was only when I was halfway through reading the message inside I realised it was from his girlfriend. The contents made me cry.
M was friends with his girlfriend for years before they got together; he knew her vulnerabilities and troubles. He told me once she’d been badly treated by a previous boyfriend. So what exactly were the contents of that card? In summary, she thanked her lucky stars that they’d got together and that he was the nicest, kindest, most respectful boyfriend she’d ever had.
My son - my lazy, messy, grouchy, disorganised, spendthrift, breaker of almost every teen rule in the book son - was kind and respectful to his girlfriend. My heart wanted to burst with pride. Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I could claim it’s my influence, but this is 90% due to his dad.
My husband admires and likes women, not only for their beauty but for their minds as well. He has three sisters to whom he is extremely close. He had many female friends. He always treats me with respect. And he has modelled this behaviour to our sons, in small acts and seemingly throwaway lines, every single day of their lives.
We should never underestimate the importance of modelling: the ‘do as I do, not as I say’ aspect of parenting. But don’t take my word for it. This is from American parenting academics, Kadzin and Rotella, in a Slate article a few years back:
"The main idea to bear in mind here is that modeling - teaching by example - affects behavior far more than telling your children what to do"
Most modeling influences are tacit...the child just learns by observing. He does not have to understand what the parent is doing in order for the learning to take place.
Modeling does not always dictate a child's behavior - your kids won't inevitably do everything you do - but it's an important and underappreciated way to transmit information, experiences, skills, beliefs, values, and large segments of behavior."
In other words my sons have absorbed their father’s messages without even being conscious of it. It’s not just respect for women they’ve learnt either: it extends to gays, to minorities, to people with disabilities. Don’t get me wrong - my husband has his flaws and we occasionally fight, like all couples. Fundamentally, however, he is a good guy.
I used to worry that my boys, growing up without sisters, would have trouble relating to women as adults. I’m much less anxious about that now.
My husband is five years my junior and in the early months of our relationship I had no expectations it would lead anywhere. Yet funnily enough he took me to meet his mum and dad on our second date. After that meeting I joked to a friend, "I want to marry this guy because of his parents." They were and are absolute darlings. The Bible may talk about the sins of the father, but it seems the virtues of the father can affect future generations, too.
The mothers of the first feminist generation had some big responsibilities. It was their job to model to their daughters that it was ok to speak up, to expect equality in education, in relationships and in the workplace. Daughters absorbed these messages, but unfortunately the world still lags behind - we see evidence of this too often in boardrooms, politics, the media and even the soft porn of music videos. Lots of men still seem to have a problem with women, or at least the unruly ones who don’t ‘know their place’.
My husband is, fortunately, not amongst them. Maybe the baton has passed on, and responsibility for change now lies with the parents of boys. If we can raise enough sons to like and respect women - to treat them as equals - maybe that glass ceiling will finally be shattered. And our future female PMs will be judged on their policies, not their weight or their clothes.