Vice President Mike Pence’s adherence to the “Billy Graham Rule” is now widely known (and widely ridiculed). Apparently he refuses to dine alone with any woman other than his wife. He also refrains from attending events where alcohol is served unless his wife is with him.
Despite the insistence that this rule reflects a commitment to propriety and faithfulness, it is still an inherently misogynistic rule. It frames women as seductresses-in-wait. It frames men as impulsive sex fiends. Moreover, it turns a personal decision about one’s marriage into a professional setback for women in the workplace. (Are women expected to find chaperones if they’d like to seek out mentorships or meetings with Billy Graham Rule-following male colleagues?)
As parents, we can—and should—raise our boys to do better than what this rule prescribes. We can raise them to become the sorts of men who reject sexist rules and practices like the Billy Graham Rule. And we can start when our boys are very young.
1. We can raise our boys to view women as people—not as temptresses and possible sex partners
Let’s just stop with the “ladies man” onesies and t-shirts. Let’s stop viewing every boy-girl toddler and preschool interaction as a proto-romantic relationship. (They are not “boyfriend and girlfriend,” they are two small humans playing with, and probably fighting over toys together.) Let’s make sure our boys hear us praising girls more for their intelligence and bravery and creativity than for their pretty hair or clothes or faces. And as our boys hit the tween and teen stages, let’s stop inquiring about every feminine name they mention as if it belongs to a potential crush or love interest. (Let’s stop assuming that all kids are heterosexual, too.)
We can shape the way our boys view girls and women by paying attention to the way that we talk about their relationship to other girls and women
2. We can raise them to seek out strong, competent mentors in the workplace—including strong, competent female mentors
Let’s make sure that our boys regularly interact with women in positions of leadership or power.
Women pediatricians. Women religious leaders. Women sports coaches. Women principals. Women camp counselors.
This early engagement with women mentors can inspire young boys to seek out the guidance of women leaders throughout their lives. Furthermore, it can help them to see strong, competent women as strong, competent women: not as potential sex partners who happen to have leadership skills.
3. We can raise them to become non-sexist, non-predatory and fully supportive mentors to their female colleagues
Let’s closely monitor the ways our boys wield their perceived power—and how we talk about that power.
Let’s stop saying that boys chase and tease and pick on girls only because they have a crush on those girls. That’s not “boys being boys.” That’s boys being predatory and presumptuous.
Let’s stop assuming that boys are always stronger or faster or less dramatic than their girl peers.
And as our children grow older, let’s talk about our own experiences with mentors or mentees of another gender. We can help to shape our children’s values by taking care with how we speak about our lives and values.
4. We can raise them to be people with good character
Rigid gender norms and expectations undermine a person’s ability to develop a good character.
As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in her famous essay, “We Should All Be Feminists,” “masculinity is a small, hard cage, and we put boys inside this cage.” The Billy Graham rule is but one bar of this cage. It is one of many gender-related, character-warping assumptions that confine men and women, boys and girls, to narrow set of behaviors and roles.
We can raise our children to be more than that. To be—and do—better than that.
Let’s raise our boys to be the kind of people who don’t need a rigid, sexist rule to help them maintain the level of honesty and commitment that they and their future partners expect from each other. Let’s raise them to use tact and compassion to navigate situations in which they fear they might stray from that honesty and commitment.
And let’s raise them to spot and call out misogyny whenever and wherever they see it.