The violent death of young Tullamore teacher Ashling Murphy has shocked the entire country. While we can’t influence every factor that leads to men’s violence towards women, as parents, we can help shape our boys’ attitudes
Ashling Murphy’s murder was shocking and horrifying. The chief suspect in that murder investigation is a man. Perhaps this is no surprise. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, 95pc of murders are committed by men. Two hundred and thirty-six women had died violently in Ireland up to 2020, at the hands of men, since Women’s Aid started to record these deaths in 1996.
According to research, there is a complex interplay between individual, relationship, community and societal factors that may lead to gender-based violence against women. You may not be able to directly change or influence some of these factors, but there are some insights from research that might help you to help your son avoid growing into the kind of man who can be violent towards women.
There are two aspects of the socialisation of boys on their journey to manhood that I will focus on in this article. The first aspect is the family circumstances that seem to project some boys into a particular pattern of deviancy. The second aspect is the gender stereotypes that box men into certain attitudes and beliefs about girls and women, and also influence their beliefs about what it is to be a man. I’m focusing on these areas because these are things you can influence as the parent of a boy.
Boys who grow up in a coercive family environment fail to develop good self-regulation and social skills. Boys who are exposed to high levels of stressful family conflict, ineffective but punitive discipline and disengaged parenting, learn to develop their own range of aggressive and coercive behaviour, to try to overcome others’ power or to avoid things they don’t like. This in turn will often lead those children to struggle in school, where they are not liked by their peers (because of “mean” behaviour) and get into trouble frequently. By the time they reach secondary school they are more likely to group together with others like themselves.
What is most interesting is that these groups then tend to reinforce anti-social, violent, aggressive or misogynistic views. One study showed, for example, that teenage boys who talked about any kind of deviant behaviour which got a laugh from their mates, were encouraged to talk more about such deviant behaviour making it more likely to become a norm for the individual which was acted out in increased delinquency in the following two years.
Another study found that the levels of hostile talk about girls and women (derogatory, disrespectful, devaluing talk, or talk endorsing aggressive behaviour towards women), among 17- and 18-year-old boys predicted their actual aggression toward a partner at age 20.
The attitudes that boys and men have about and towards women are predominantly derived from gender stereotypes. Traditional male gender norms still include being tough, being dominant, being divorced from emotions and holding power over women in particular. Female gender norms are more likely to incorporate empathy, sensitivity, devotion and altruism.
When boys don’t fit these norms, they get strong and repeated messages from peers (and sometimes parents or other adults) to conform to what is expected. “Don’t be a sissy”, “boys don’t cry”, “boys will be boys” (as an excuse for aggressive or violent interactions), “man up”, “he picks on you because he likes you”.
The very same traits of competitiveness or dominance are belittled in girls. For example, boys get told that girls are “bossy” (when they show leadership), or “uptight” (when they resist a challenge to their boundaries), or a “tomboy” (shaming a girl for having the same traits as a boy).
These kinds of stereotypes, that limit both boys and girls, are bound into the fabric of the attitudes that many of us will unknowingly and even unintentionally express.
These stereotypes are what boys need to see and hear us challenge. They need to experience their parents as warm, understanding, emotive and engaged. We cannot parent our boys with threat or violence. We must create home environments that balance high expectations of appropriate behaviour with high levels of appropriate responsiveness to the emotional world of our children.
Boys need to hear other boys and men talk about a breadth of masculinity that stretches way beyond the stereotypes of power, dominance and toughness. Boys need to be surrounded by men who are empathetic so they can learn to use empathy. Boys need to experience compassion from other boys and men so that they can be compassionate.
If we are to address gender-based violence in memory of all women killed by men, we must actively socialise boys to be respectful, considerate, responsible, emotionally attuned, and equal in their views and actions.