Raising (Dis)respectful Sons by Esther Nelson

I recently spoke with a female relative (I’ll call her Sylvia), the mother of two teenage sons.  The eldest just completed his first year of college.  During our conversation, Sylvia mentioned she was not looking forward to him coming home for the summer, saying that “something” happens to sons as they grow older.  She called him a “troll.”  I looked up the word online.

“In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, whether for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain” (Wikipedia).

I don’t believe Sylvia was referring to her son’s online activity specifically as she attempted to get hold of and describe her eldest son’s behavior.  He provokes people.  Stirs people and things up just “because.”  I saw him do this to his younger brother—something that seemed particularly egregious to me since his brother falls somewhere on the autism spectrum disorder scale—high-functioning, to be sure, but on the spectrum nonetheless and, therefore, is not able to process social situations effectively.  I’ve written about autism and its impact on our family. 

Sylvia plans to speak with her eldest son when he arrives home from college and remind him that “trolling” is not acceptable behavior.  She’s not sure he will hear her.  This is part of that “something” she refers to regarding teen-aged sons.  Deafness is a strand of that disrespectful thread that weaves itself through most of their verbal encounters.  If he continues his provocative, disrespectful behavior, she will insist that he go live with his father for the summer.

I also have two sons.  I recall the difficulty I had while they were in their teens and even beyond.  Both didn’t behave identically towards me, however, I do remember conversations purposively veering off onto extraneous or tangential topics for sport—at least, that’s my take on it.  I often felt “toyed with.”  Interactions with my teenaged sons felt disrespectful, yet on the surface, the exchange remained intact.  Like Sylvia, I also remember thinking that “something” had changed over time with these boys.  As young children, they were open, loving, and eager to please.  As they grew older, our interactions became more and more flavored with what seemed to me to be their need to come out “on top.”  Rarely (if ever) did I encounter an exchange where I sensed a willingness to work together with me to solve a problem.  (Of course, the story of their upbringing is much more complex than this one paragraph, but what I’ve expressed in this paragraph is one part of the complexity.)

My mother, Vera, also had two sons.  She died in 1975 (59 years old) during the second wave of feminism, never identifying as a feminist, yet I’m convinced that had she lived longer, she probably would have.  She had keen insight.  More than once, she surprised me with her astute observations about gender inequality, flying in the face of her evangelical, fundamentalist community that insisted on (and enforced) women’s submission to men.  I remember her talking about the difficulties of raising boys—especially her eldest.  “When you tell your son to do something, he just can’t do it.  He has to change the task even if it’s ever so slightly.  Sons will come up against you just because you are a woman.”

I think we’ve yet to acknowledge the prevalence and virulence of misogyny in our societies.  Mona Eltahawy (b. 1967), a feminist Egyptian-American journalist, wrote an article titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” making the case that hatred of women in Egypt (and by extension all patriarchal societies) is at the root of so much societal injustice, creating the conditions where misogyny seeps through all the cultural cracks, enabling laws and feeding social norms that undermine women everywhere.  She writes about Egypt during the so-called Arab Spring:  “An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed….  Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes [men], our revolution has not even begun.”

My sense is that misogyny—something that all of us seem to absorb osmotically—creates the conditions that allow (even encourage) sons to so easily disrespect their mothers.  Niobe Way, Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, in her text, “Getting to the Root of the Problem,” says, “The patriarchy dehumanizes all humans by maintaining a hierarchical gender binary, which, according to Carol Gilligan, is ‘the DNA of the patriarchy.’ The gender binary asserts that, in essence, girls don’t think and boys don’t feel and that some of us, such as those who are Black, poor or Transgendered, don’t think OR feel.”

Niobe Way writes further: “In my studies of hundreds of boys throughout adolescence, I find that boys’ full humanity is still readily apparent during early adolescence. During this developmental period, boys speak openly about love, relationships, and wanting closer connections to male friends, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters. Then a shift occurs in their stories as they enter middle and late adolescence. Just when they are expected to become, in the name of manhood, only part human and thus not human at all, they begin to sound like gender stereotypes and the violent consequences of these gender stereotypes take hold.”

Niobe homes in on that elusive “something” that Vera, Sylvia, and I have experienced raising our sons.

My former colleague, the feminist scholar and activist Amina Wadud, has two sons and three daughters.  After her children transformed into young adults, Amina noted, “My sons are good, Muslim men.  My daughters, though, ‘get it.’”

Our sons need to “get it” as well.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Categories: Children, Family, Feminist Ethics, parenting

Tags: , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Oh so saddening. “You have to be carefully taught” to hate your own mother and to feel you have to demean her and put her down. This is the antithesis of the values of egalitarian matriarchy where grown men continue to express their love and gratitude for mothers.

    My second reaction is that the kind of nit-picking argumentative one-upsmanship you describe seems quite typical of male academia and there they practice it on each other, not only on women.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Carol, it’s true what you say about the “nit-picking argumentative one-upsmanship” so prevalent in male academia, demonstrating (to me) how Gilligan’s theory–the DNA of patriarchy–made up of hierarchy and gender binary plays itself out. Men in patriarchy struggle with each other in order to come out on top (hierarchy), but there’s only room for one at the top within the system, yet they continue to struggle. A few men “get it,” (understand the futility and injustice of the system) but that doesn’t seem to turn the tide within our patriarchal system.

      And I imagine the expression of love and gratitude from sons towards their mothers in egalitarian matriarchy rings with an authenticity that’s missing in our current culture where that expression often seems empty as it comes laden with sentimentality.


  2. i am the mother of two sons, both in their 40s now, the eldest one joyfully and frequently maliciously “trolling” in our family over decades, sometime for no outcome that i can see except his pleasure in the act. Autism also permeates my family intergenerationally; i only found out last year at the age of 67 that i am on the Spectrum, the first in our family to get a diagnosis. i am grieving my sons both of whom openly hate me and the elder who abused his first wife. i rarely speak about this as the shame is huge, as huge as the judgmentalism i generally receive. creating feminist sons is a huge problem in our misogynist society. i am still processing the role of Autism in my family.


    • Thank you morriganconstance for writing so movingly about your own experience with sons and autism. I was particularly struck with this: “i am grieving my sons both of whom openly hate me and the elder who abused his first wife. i rarely speak about this as the shame is huge, as huge as the judgmentalism i generally receive.” I hope for the day when autistic people find a comfortable space within society. It seems (to me) that in the past decade or so, there has been more of an effort to educate the public about ASD. We’ve a long way to go, though. It’s also a long haul, getting our sons to understand the pervasiveness and ubiquity of misogyny. Speaking/writing about it out loud is a first step. Again, thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks Esther for sharing that your mother had never been a feminist, and that was true, sadly for me also. Luckily my first job after college I had a very feminist boss, a generation older than I, but she kept me strong regards being a feminist and she insisted I be proud of it. Humorously, one day there was a women’s march about 3 or 4 blocks away from where I worked. So my boss walked in and said, “what are you doing here, go out there and join the women’s march.” So I jumped up laughing, and my boss laughing too, and out I went and what a great experience that women’s rights march was for me then.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I divorced my husband when my son was five years old. I raised my son as a single mother while I earning my Ph.D. Probably not the best context in which to raise a son because I was busy all the time. To this day (he’s 51), he has stories about living with a mommy who’s writing a dissertation. By the time he was a teenager he was revolting in all meanings of the word. We had really rough couple of decades, but now we’re friends. He understands the social ills of patriarchy, but because both his mother and his wife are feminists, he doesn’t carry the plague of misogyny. Hooray for my son!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Barbara, for sharing your personal experience regarding your son. After her divorce, my daughter began dating again. She noted that men in their forties were perpetually angry. Once they get into their fifties, they begin to mellow somewhat. As a result, she dated older men (almost) exclusively. Am happy for you that you and your son emerged from the tumult as friends.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Hooray, indeed, Barbara! Endings like this of you and your son’s story are always good and welcome news :)


  5. I think we’ve yet to acknowledge the prevalence and virulence of misogyny in our societies.
    Shall we talk about the new surge of anti-abortion laws in the US south?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This topic interests me so much as my middle school boys and their peers show such disrespect to their mothers, disrespect they would never direct at their fathers or exhibit in front of an adult male. But I saw a difference since they were toddlers. They would melt down and tantrum for with me but would have much more self control with their dad. They were so much more needy with me than with their father. They demand so much of me than of their father. We aspired to a feminist household but I did the mothering, the caregiving, the nourishing, much more than my husband. And while I thought I was the glorious Goddess Mother, with my attachment parenting and my boundless love, my little boys may have perceived things a little differently. I have come to realize that these past 14 years of Mothering has, in their eyes so perceptive of hierarchy, looked a lot more like Servitude. And this teen disrespect may stem from my role in their eyes as servant mother.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Eva, I think we are up against something larger than our individual efforts can ultimately manage. In spite of your aspirations for a feminist household (a worthy goal, to be sure), the forces of patriarchy with its inherent hierarchy are huge. We need a cultural shift. Cultural shifts happen slowly. Even so, there are people committed to bring about changes that reflect a more just society. In the meantime, life is hard for individuals (especially mothers of sons). I learned to do things that seemed counter-intuitive to me at the time after I got to the point where I shouted at one of my sons: “I’ve got nothing left to give you.” At that point, I started putting more focus on myself and finding my own way in the world. I also stopped doing many of those nurturing things (cooking, cleaning, washing clothes) they came to expect. Lots of upheaval, to be sure, but I wasn’t willing to lose myself in the process of parenting. Good luck to you.


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