Geoff Steurer and 8-year-old Andy were standing in a grocery store checkout line one day when the father noticed his son had been hypnotized by a collection of magazine covers featuring immodestly dressed women.
Steurer had seen that look before with his other boys. He bent down, put his arm around his son and gently turned him toward the shelves of candy as a teaching opportunity unfolded.
“You notice those women don’t have many clothes on and it kind of gets your attention, doesn’t it?” Steurer said to his son. “We probably ought to give them some privacy like we give mom when she is changing her clothes.”
It was an educational moment for young Andy. Steurer, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explained in simple terms that magazine covers are designed to grab a person’s attention and he didn’t know why the girls allowed themselves to be photographed as they undressed. He wanted his son to understand it’s natural for males to be attracted to females, but only in an honorable, appropriate context and manner.
“It’s a tricky balance because you want to set boundaries, but at the same time validate and allow our boys to understand that this is a God-given reaction they are having,” Steurer said. “If we do it gently, respectfully and honestly, I think they get a clear message that, yes, this feels good, but no, not in this way, not here, not right now, not with this person.”
Steurer’s experience is just one example of many methods that parents can use to teach their children how to respect the opposite sex. Parents, especially fathers, can set a standard of respect through their behavior, language, media choices and a number of other actions.
Jill C. Manning, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver, said the first key in teaching children how to respect womanhood is to step back and evaluate one’s personal actions and attitudes to make sure they are truly respectful.
“Modeling respect for others hinges on being aware of what we are modeling,” Manning said. “All who desire to have a more respectful community, society or family, step back and think, where have my attitudes and beliefs come from? Who has had the biggest impact on shaping how I feel? We cannot give something we do not have.”
Love their mother
Manning said genuine love between a husband and wife can have "a powerfully positive effect on the climate in a home."
“It increases a sense of security and stability for children. It gives them a foundation upon which to understand the potential of a positive relationship,” Manning said. “When a father and mother are not respectful to one another, it sets up a template and framework for those children to be hindered in how they see marriage and relationships.”
Manning suggests parents might consider these questions:
"Am I one of the married couples that a young woman or man thinks, 'Boy, my mom and dad don’t get along well, but this couple, this is what I want to be like; that’s what it should be like,'” Manning said.
Steurer said it's important to let children see that mother has a voice in the home. Defer to her, counsel with her and show gratitude for what she does for the family, he said. Let them see you "valuing and appreciating the ideas and thoughtful suggestions that she contributes to the family matters,” Steurer said.
Brad Wilcox, an author, BYU professor and former LDS mission president, is an advocate of openly showing affection toward his wife in front of their children.
"I want them to see how important it is to communicate love, to hug, to kiss. Physical love is not bad," Wilcox said. "Teenagers think it is embarrassing if Mom and Dad kiss, but they like it. ... They can learn from a movie with a couple that is not married, or they will learn it at home with a couple that is married. They will see the difference that one is wholesome, pure and good, while the other is degrading and dehumanizing."
In his April 2011 general conference address, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve described the joy that comes from a marriage where mutual love and respect exist. Elder Scott said his late wife, Jeanene, often slipped affectionate notes into his scriptures. She also safeguarded his written expressions of love for her. He encouraged men to express love and gratitude for their wives often.
“Pure love is an incomparable, potent power for good. Righteous love is the foundation of a successful marriage. It is the primary cause of contented, well-developed children,” Elder Scott said. “It is so rewarding to be married.”
In his 2005 general conference discourse, “Constant Truths for Changing Times,” LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson counseled parents to “help your sons learn manners and respect for women and children.”
Manning said, “Respect for women and men hinges upon basic manners, courtesies and core beliefs.”
Steurer is a fan of being “old-fashioned.” In his family, women eat first and the boys go last. The men also make sure to open doors for women.
“We do things to elevate the women in our lives, to let them know these girls are ... special. It’s our job to make sure they are taken care of first,” Steurer said. “Those are things a father can model with his wife on an ongoing basis, and I think children pick up on that more than anything.”
Much of what our young people are learning about gender roles and how men and women interact is coming from the media, Manning said.
“Do we show tolerance of any kind to violence or immoral themes that denigrate and show disrespect toward men or women?” she said. “When we teach them that’s not a show, magazine or website I will support that’s a powerful message.”
Kids will notice what their father reads or watches, Steurer said. Is he changing the channel when something inappropriate comes on? Does he discuss it with his children or does he go silently and imply he is OK with it? Or does he have the courage to express his values?
“To me, that is an opportunity missed way too often by dads,” Steurer said. “He doesn’t have to be preachy or self-righteous, he just needs to let him know where his values stand. I think those things say a lot about how he feels about women.”
In situations where it's impossible to avoid inappropriate media, Wilcox used to tell his missionaries to "look at her eyes."
"When it's in front of their faces, I would say lift your gaze. Don't see body parts, look up and see her eyes because that's where the real person lives," Wilcox said. "I tell the girls, don’t dress in a way that will pull anyone’s attention away from your eyes."
Did you know that in American culture, practically every swear word is rooted in disrespect and violence toward our bodies or women?
“I could talk a long time about this,” Manning said. “All swear words show disrespect for some of the most sacred things in our culture. Make sure your language is respectful.”
Manning believes there is a need for women to be leaders and model self-respect. Women should avoid criticizing themselves, the therapist said.
“Think of the mother who is regularly talking about how overweight she is and how she looks. That’s problematic and gives a negative message to children,” Manning said. “I would love to call out and invite women to be leaders and be mindful of how they carry themselves. Consider the messages they give to loved ones and out in the world about how they expect to be treated, how do they treat themselves and other women. I don’t think it's good enough for us to be saying that only men need to be better at this."
Manning, who specializes in research and clinical work related to pornography, sees pornography as a symptom of a larger cultural problem regarding respect for women. Many of her clients struggle to understand how participation in pornography is fundamentally disrespectful and causes harm.
“I’ve had pornography users and sex addicts say they view it because they really appreciate and love the beauty of women, to which my response is, 'If you really appreciate and love women, you would understand that pornography is the antithesis of that, the complete opposite,'” Manning said.
Manning co-authored an article last year referencing a 2007 study stating that males and females are more likely to view women as sex objects when exposed to sexually explicit material. She said that if a young person is guided and taught well at home, many of the toxic and worldly messages about men, women and bodies are less likely to distort their thinking and attitudes.
"If we arm them with truths and accurate information, and teach in a layered, step-wise fashion over time, they will be more resilient to sexist ideas and more likely to adopt respectful, appreciative and loving views," Manning said.
A sudden change in behavior is another myth Manning sees in her work.
“Some think it’s OK to engage in certain behaviors, date a certain way or participate in certain shows or media when single, but when married, they will show so much love and respect to their wife,” Manning said. “It doesn’t work that way. That does spill over into how you will eventually treat a spouse and how you will teach your children.”
Sometimes men and women make it hard for others to respect them because of the clothes they wear, the language they use or how they act in public. There isn’t a clear answer for that, Manning said, but perhaps it’s a good opportunity for a family discussion.
“We can recognize that not all people are like that,” she said. “But stand on guard so when we see it, we don’t let that influence how we see all men and women.”
Another way to teach young children to respect women is to learn about and discuss women’s issues around the world. A young teenage girl in Pakistan sparked the idea for Manning. Taliban gunmen shot Malala Yousufzai in the head and neck in an assassination attempt last October for promoting girls’ education. The teen champion of girls’ rights survived and has been nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. The Manning family has been following her story with great interest.
“We looked it up as a family. We discussed girls and education, and how blessed we are. It was one of my favorite family home evening lessons,” Manning said. “There are some plights that women have in the world that we are not really in touch with here in North America. ... Issues like that help our young people to understand what is going on in the world. Help them start catching a vision of why being well-mannered and showing respect today to those around us matters, that is has an impact and a ripple effect.”
Many LDS Church leaders have spoken about the importance of honoring women.
In his April 1999 remarks, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve said women are a blessing in our lives.
“You young men need to know that you can hardly achieve your highest potential without the influence of good women, particularly your mother, and, in a few years, a good wife.”
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