“If anybody tries to talk to you, tell them you’re our little sister” was my brothers’ way of offering me their protection in my younger years. Where I grew up, being someone’s sister, niece, cousin, daughter or any female occupied male-proximate position meant something. It meant you belonged to someone — emphasis on belonged to.
I was too young to fully comprehend my brothers’ concerns, but I wasn’t too young to notice how they behaved around women, and if that was what they wanted to protect me from then I guess I sort of understood their concern. My parents knew of my brothers’ antics, and while they didn’t praise their philandering ways, they certainly didn’t condemn them either. Their daughters, on the other hand, were to be virtuous and pure, saving themselves and their bodies for their husbands who would most certainly be worn out by the time they got to them.
Eventually, I would grow old enough to identify the double standard in how my parents were parenting us. My mother’s justification remained that the boys could physically take care of themselves and that made parenting them generally easier, less hands on. Girls, on the other hand, well, raising them came with a lot of concerns, challenges even. Girls could end up pregnant, end up whores, end up abused, end up kidnapped, etc. There were so many dangerous paths that a young girl could end up on, all of which ironically led to men, that it was vital that a parent remains vigilant in raising them, and that my parents intended to do. It never occurred to them that the same concerns they had for other people’s sons, people had for their sons as well. It was enough to them that my brothers’ loved their mother and loved their sisters, they never considered what it meant that that compassion wasn’t just automatically generalized to women and girls of no biological relation. And once we no longer had the physical protection of the males with whom we share a biological attachment, which obviously doesn’t last forever, we quickly discovered we were on our own.
The summer I turned 12, my brothers’ left home to join the military which totally changed how my sisters and I navigated our neighborhood. We were all getting older, developing as biology would have us do, and our brothers were no longer around to keep people pretending they hadn’t noticed. That same summer I would experience sexual assault for the first time when my neighbor, Arthur, inappropriately touched me. Despite attempting to appear “normal” in the aftermath, the experience sent my childhood into a downward spiral. I stopped eating, began spending all of my time in my bedroom (which Black parents hate for some reason), and found new and obvious ways to dodge the young man which also meant dodging the school we went to, which I had no issue with. About four days into having “period cramps that felt like stabbing pain,” my school nurse confronted me about lying. She knew I hadn’t even began my menstrual cycle and had no way of experiencing cramps, let alone experiencing them for days. The jig was up, I was going to have to tell her the truth and so I did.
Without my permission or my knowledge, the nurse informed my mother and I arrived home from school to a barrage of blows. How could I have allowed something like that to happen to me? Did I enjoy it? Did I want it to happen? I must’ve liked the attention and girls who like attention eventually get the attention they’re looking for. I didn’t understand how a violation of my body was my fault, but it became painfully clear to me that it wasn’t just my responsibility to be wholesome, pure, ashamed of my body and vigilant with my virtue (all things my parents were raising me to be), it was my job to keep myself self safe from young men like Arthur who weren’t being raised at all.
There’s a difference between being raised and simply growing up around adults, When you raise something, you move it to a higher position, literally, elevating it from one place to the next. With parenting, the goal should be no different. Our role for a solid 18 or more years is simply to elevate our children from one place in life to the next, moving them through the various stages of childhood and adolescence in a very guided, intentional manner. When I was a toddler, I would tantrum when I didn’t get my way. I cried and became angry over the slightest things, as evidenced by the scowl in most of my childhood photos. I took things that weren’t mine, behaved impulsively, had a tough time keeping my hands to myself and had this recurring glued toilet seat dream that took me a while to shake. But because my parents saw it necessary for a young girl to be patient and soft-spoken and gentle and mindful with her decision-making, they addressed those behaviors, even the ones they felt were simply a part of my natural disposition, and they did the same with my sisters, elevating us all to higher levels of thinking and maturity. But when it came to addressing identical behaviors in my brothers, they were overlooked or minimized. They were allowed “to be boys,” even if that meant other people were negatively affected. Even if that meant other people had to clean up after them. Even if that meant they were boys until they weren’t technically boys anymore.
My parents weren’t absent from my brothers’ upbringings, but there was cultivation in my upbringing that was absent from theirs. I was made aware of the parameters of my existence and then told that the quality of my life was dependent upon my ability to exist within those parameters. And my brothers, while privy to mine, had none of their own. They didn’t learn modesty by watching their sisters get lectured on the importance of their skirts reaching their fingertips, they learned that what women wore determined their decency. They didn’t learn to respect the sexual autonomy of young women by hearing their sisters get lectured on the importance of not being “fast and friendly,” they learned that the girls who were “fast and friendly” weren’t deserving of the little respect they had to give. They were growing up around us, they were being provided and cared for, but they weren’t being raised, we were. This is why so many women end up raising their husbands because they find themselves in the same space developmentally at 40 as they were at 14. How else do we make sense of the fact that so many men appear stuck in a perpetual state of developmental infancy, struggling to control urges and impulses, making mindless decisions, only coming to grips with the responsibilities of adulthood once they’ve been badgered by them? Are we really raising our sons, elevating and lifting them, or are we just having fun watching them age?
According to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University, in North Chicago, and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, “Neuroscientists have not nailed down any structural or neural-activity differences except that boys have larger brains proportionate to their larger average body size.” This means the majority of the gendered differences we observe between boys and girls are there because we’ve put them there. When the research says parents spend less time with their sons reading and storytelling, and spend more time openly discussing feelings and emotions with their daughters, all things which develop empathy, we cannot pretend boys are born lacking the capacity for compassion. When the research says parents speak to and interact more with their infant and toddler girls, behavior that builds social engagement, we can’t pretend boys are naturally less social and communicative.
We don’t raise boys with any sense of commitment or integrity, and then turn around and call monogamy unnatural to them. We don’t raise boys to be open and honest about their feelings, and then turn around and preach that it’s difficult for men to express themselves. If we truly loved our daughters and wanted to keep them safe, we wouldn’t just allow boys to fumble into adulthood and pray our daughters don’t fall prey to their process. We would raise kind-hearted, compassionate, committed young men, the kind of men our communities need. And boys don’t learn to be decent men after they’ve been no good for 35 years, they learn on the playground, and in the classroom, and on the football field, and in their childhood homes, because that’s when and where a character is built.