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Features / Captivating talk on ‘raising sons to be good men’

Karen MacKelvie of Shetland Women's Aid with this week's distinguished guest, Dr Michael Kaufman. Photo: Shetnews/Neil Riddell

A LEADING campaigner seeking to redefine the role of men and boys to help promote gender equality gave a persuasive, captivating and highly assured talk to around 100 folk in the Lerwick Legion on Tuesday night.

Dr Michael Kaufman, invited here at the behest of Shetland Women’s Aid, is a Canadian public speaker, educator and writer who co-founded the White Ribbon Campaign – the largest global effort from men working to end violence against women.

The talk chips away at many preconceived ideas of gender and highlights the way young children are socialised into particular roles in male-dominated societies.

Shetland Women’s Aid support worker Karen MacKelvie introduces the talk with evident and entirely justified excitement, saying it had been difficult to get across just how distinguished our visitor is.

Dr Kaufman has worked extensively with the United Nations, with governments and NGOs across five continents, with corporations, trade unions and universities and colleges globally.

It helps immensely that there is nothing stuffy, academic or preachy about the former Toronto University lecturer’s hour-long talk, entitled ‘Raising Our Sons to be Good Men’.

Instead, the immediately likeable Dr Kaufman is warm, engaging, measured and often wryly amusing as he delivers a highly persuasive case for tearing apart the many prejudices and stereotypes about what is expected of men and boys – and how that impacts on women – in modern society.

For the past 8,000 years, humans have been living in male-oriented cultures. Men still predominate in positions of power, be it political, religious, economic or domestic – though Dr Kaufman noted Scotland’s most senior politician is a powerful exception.

As a result, men are paid more and worry less about looking after children or doing housework. That is a raw deal for women but, Dr Kaufman argues, it is paradoxically also worse for men.

“We say to boys and men, you will always be strong, you will be in control, you won’t show feelings, you will not cry,” he explains. “What we’re basically saying is you’ll not only be invulnerable, but you won’t be a human being.”

That can manifest itself in young males striving to prove they are “real men” by resorting to violence, getting into fights with other boys, using violence against women – or turning it against themselves, with higher rates of suicide and addiction to alcohol or drugs amongst men.

Peppering his talk with anecdotes from societies as diverse as Pakistan, southern Africa and North America, Dr Kaufman pleads with “good men” to stand up and speak out to oppose violence against women and in favour of gender equality. Otherwise other men will “assume that violence is okay”.

“This is not about collective guilt or collective blame, but taking collective responsibility for change. We do it out of love for women in our lives – making sure that my wife and my daughter, sisters and friends, never have to experience discrimination or violence.”

Muscly modern-day superheroes are evermore macho compared to their more humdrum 1960s forebears, he identifies. One can’t help wondering what he’d make of the image of “hardy Viking men” boys in Shetland are encouraged to admire.

Dr Kaufman is a world-renowned speaker who talks persuasively about the need to redefine the role of men and boys in 21st century societies.

Dr Kaufman talks of how, as soon as they exit the womb, boys and girls are spoken to differently and lavished with gender-specific clothes and toys. But cute lasses cuddling baby dolls and doughty lads playing with toy tractors are social constructs, not biological inevitabilities.

This certainly hit home. Having recently become a father, I was struck by the binary approach of the gift card industry: pink for girls, blue for boys and little or nothing in between.

Chatting to Shetland News on Tuesday afternoon, Dr Kaufman explains: “This stuff starts from birth. We systematically talk to boys and girls differently, hold them differently, buy them different clothes and toys.

“Babies every day are creating millions of new brain cells, so those seemingly little things, the different toys or clothes, is the stuff that babies are using to learn, not conscious learning.”

The answer, he says, is to challenge stereotypes as we raise our children – giving them equal jobs and ensuring they become fully independent.

“We want our daughters to be able to fix a broken faucet, drive a car, do those jobs associated with men. The only way is to model them as parents so they are growing up seeing men doing cooking, cleaning the toilet, seeing women fixing things up, and vice-versa – sharing those jobs and being that inspiration for kids.

“There’s no genitals attached to who does the baking.”

It might require some slightly awkward conversations with well-meaning friends and relatives, he says: “We’ve got to be honest with our own parents and friends about what we consider appropriate – don’t buy that for my son or daughter, we appreciate it but…”

Dr Kaufman believes that, in Scotland and all around the world, many men are “redefining what it is to be a father”.

“I’m sure, as a dad, you still hear the following line – you say I can’t do something tonight because it’s my night with the kids, and they say ‘it’s great that you’re helping out’. You’re not helping out, you’re being a parent.”

He highlights the patent absurdity of making the same remark to a mother.

“Our attitudes are changing,” Dr Kaufman continues, “and what more and more men are saying, as fathers, is there isn’t a single job that I can’t do except for two. We’re really bad at getting pregnant, and we suck at breastfeeding, but every other job we’re as capable of learning how to do as a woman.”

Rather than “quality time” with the kids, he says men should be looking at “quantity of time, day-in, day-out” – from which quality time should naturally flow.

Dr Kaufman calls for public policies that mirror the Scandinavian model in offering better parental leave for fathers, equal access for mums and dads wishing to take time off work – and ensuring women are as able to pursue their careers as men.

“It’s great for children. They do better in school, their emotional development is better – and we also know it’s good for men. Those doing more of the housework and more of the childcare are actually happier, they are absent less often from work, less often on prescription medications, have to go to the doctor less – and have sex more often!”

It’s time to consign corporal punishment to the past, too, he says.

“We need to be models for our children – as men who never use violence in our relationship, physical, sexual or emotional, whether against a woman partner or another man, and we don’t use violence against our children.

“What our children are ultimately learning is: don’t get caught, and it’s okay to hurt someone you love. They’re not learning self-discipline, responsible decision-making – they’re just learning fear. Keep physical violence outside of our parenting.” 

After attending a seminar in Lerwick – one of four talks Dr Kaufman is giving during his two-day visit – isles MSP Tavish Scott described it as “inspirational”.

Congratulating Women’s Aid for bringing him to Shetland, Scott added the talk had “made me think about the contradictions at the heart of masculinity and with passion and humour”.

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