Right now, my sons hold my hand. The older one dances wildly to a song he made up about a duck, accented with a “waddle waddle” and a shake of his bum. My drooly younger one toddles around the house clutching brooms and brushes (his two favorite toys) and wears a “Golden Girls” onesie. I mean, they’re not particularly threatening. It’s hard to think that someday they’ll turn into men: men with hairy legs, deeper voices, significant others.

Did Harvey Weinstein’s parents have any clue that their son would one day make headlines for inappropriate behavior with women? Did Bill Cosby’s? Is there a way to make sure our boys don’t grow up to become lecherous…or worse? I can’t imagine my waddling, onesie-wearing sons ever abusing women, but I doubt any mother could.

I was reminded of this the other day while trying to help my bigger one shower.

“Mom!” he yowled. “Don’t hurt my nuts!”

Gulp. Never thought I’d hear that one, either.

How can I make sure they treat women (and all people, really?) with respect?

I talked to Dr. Anthony Rao, a renowned child psychologist whose practice focuses on boys, for advice. He’s the author of “The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys.”

Rao says that it’s essential to develop empathy in younger boys and to channel adrenaline in older ones.

For young boys, be proactive and teach empathy every day, in ordinary moments. Teach them to look up at people walking by on the street. Make a game out of it, he suggests: “Where do you think that other boy and his mom are going? Why? What is that man thinking about? Can you guess?” Train them to read human expressions and body language. When walking into a store and at the checkout line, always ask them to say hello to other people you engage with, like the cashier. Ask them to help you buy something, thank others, ask for things, and if they’re shy, reward them for trying. Through years of micro practices, he says, empathy develops.
“Very young children are naturally friendly. They go through a stage when they pull back, and often we instill fear in them about strangers. But stranger danger, when over-emphasized, can lower opportunities to develop empathy,” he warns. In short, he says, give them a chance to interact regularly and positively with many safe people throughout the day. And make sure that they see you being kind, helpful and thoughtful about what others might be thinking, feeling or needing.
For older boys and teens, Rao says to “demystify the biology of their bodies.” Teach them the connection between heightened adrenaline and testosterone and their aggressive and sexual feelings.
“It’s uncomfortable for many parents to discuss, but it’s so important to find a way,” he says. Have them channel their adrenaline through highly physical activities instead of repressing it.
“When they’re irritable, angry, oppositional, too pushy or arrogant, don’t tell them they’re wrong or being a pain,” he says. Instead of offering up a lecture and denying their feelings, help them connect what’s going on in their body to a positive behavior. “Tell them to run it off, go outside and shoot some hoops, walk, swim, jump rope and hit a punching bag, to get the adrenaline out,” he says.
Helping boys to find positive, healthy ways to channel the energy offers them a tool to accept and deal with these overwhelming feelings that naturally happen in puberty and beyond. (And, as for me, I’m going to ask my husband to give my son his baths from now on.)