When I found out my second child was a boy, I panicked.  “I do not know how to do boys,” I thought.  Having a girl was easy for me. I know the ins and outs of owning a vagina and growing boobs and all the nuances that go along with being the one with less power in most social dynamics. But I don’t know anything about the care of penises—starting immediately at birth with figuring out if we should circumcise or not. And, to be honest, I spent a great deal of my younger years hating men as a result of how I had been treated by many of them. Now that I was going to birth one, I had to figure this men thing out.

When I feel completely ignorant about a topic, the first thing I do is find a book about it.  So I got a book about raising boys, The Wonder of Boys. It said that boys need a mission and an adventure, and if you can tie everything to one of those two things, you can get them to take out the trash or go to school or whatever it is you want them to do, and they will then become fabulous humans. It probably said some other stuff too, but that was fifteen years ago and I have had another child since then, and that’s the gist of what I remember.  It made me feel relieved.

My understanding of the world has changed since I’ve become a mother, partially because I have children now, yes, but also because I have examined more about what it means to be a woman in the world, and how that affects me and my daughter. And the shadow that awareness leaves behind is the question of what it means to be a man in this world. How do I raise sons that are happy and healthy and treat women with respect and dignity?

Sometimes in the current ire about sexual harassment (which is 120% justified, and some men need to be shipped to a desert island with no food or water immediately), I think we lose sight of what we can and need to do with boys to help them grow up to respect women and themselves.  If my boys only see my anger at men, what will they learn about being men themselves? How can I teach them to become men who value their emotions, and who aren’t perpetrators or collaborators or overlookers?  

That question seems so large that when I think of it, I want to take to my bed, binge watch Law and Order, and eat sea salt caramels.  But face it I must, because I am raising two boys and I do not have the luxury of maintaining the status quo. Especially in this time in history, when Nazis and pussy-grabbers are out in the open and gaining even more power, I have to show them a different way.

If my boys only see my anger at men, what will they learn about being men themselves?

I have seen a few things along this boy road that give me hope. One day, we were leaving the grocery store and an older man was staring in our direction. At first I thought he was staring at me. Then my middle son – 13 at the time – said, “That creepy man is staring at Grace.” After I was done realizing that the baton had been passed from me to her in the lecherous-men-staring category, I was able to see that my son was PISSED that the man had the nerve to look at his sister with impure thoughts.  So I said, “Remember how this feels when you are tempted to stare at a girl that way. It’s okay to admire and look, but that is different from that stare you just saw.”

I’m writing this for International Men’s Day, which is November 19th and feels very much like something none of us are in the mood to celebrate right now. The focus of the day is “helping men live longer, healthier, happier lives.” As the mother of two boys, I’d like that focus to be, “how to raise boys that aren’t assholes.”  In my parenting attempts to do so, I have given them some missions, which will also have the added bonus of helpiing them live longer and be happier.  

The first of these missions is to be aware of their own feelings, and express them when they feel safe enough to do so.  The second is to be aware of how women are marginalized, and to be adventurous enough to take a stand to change that. The third mission is to respect their bodies, and others’ bodies, and to know that every person, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation or any other difference, has the same amount of value and personal agency as they do.

I asked my fourteen-year-old son what he thinks is important in order for boys to grow up to be happy, healthy men to live a long time.  He said they shouldn’t eat too much red meat, they should marry a good person that they truly love, and that if they don’t like their job they should change it.  Sounds like great advice to me. My eleven-year-old just said, “good nutrition.”  Don’t let him fool you, he would exist on candy and macaroni if I would let him.  I guess personal agency doesn’t extend to what foods are available at my house.

I feel I have more questions than answers about how to raise happy, healthy men who live longer.  As more time passes, I grow more certain that I will not have it all figured out before my boys are grown. But as with this entire parenting gig, I’m just holding good intentions and winging it.

Brandie is a two-time breast cancer survivor who credits writing and her other creative endeavors for helping her be happy to be a survivor instead of six-feet-under. She is a Masters’ Level Intern at a counseling private practice where she counsels cancer survivors, survivors of family violence, and other adults and couples. She teaches yoga and Ayurveda classes in McKinney, Texas, and nationally for Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp.