This morning started just like any other morning. The three of us rushed around the house, grabbing breakfast and packing lunches and filling backpacks for school. We were listening to the news, prepared to hear the latest White House tweet, when Savannah Guthrie’s quivering voice shared something unexpected – that her friend and co-host on the Today Show, Matt Lauer, had been fired. You asked me why I stopped what I was doing. You noticed that my voice was shaky, too.
Now that you are both a little older, I choose not to shield you from the news. Sometimes the news reports are ugly and painful. Sometimes they introduce you to issues I would rather you didn’t know. But the news is also the truth of the world that you live in. I want you to see it and feel it and wrestle with it while you are still living here. I want you to face reality even when reality is hard. I want you to ask me all kinds of questions because it’s my job to get you ready to face the challenges of life.
So you are both aware that powerful men have been falling like dominos recently, one after another. We have watched their belief that power and money could make them invincible crumble. And our illusion that we can tell whom we should trust has collapsed, as well.
I thought I could trust Matt Lauer, guys. I really did.
Before you left for school today, we had a conversation about how, even though each new story makes me feel disgusted and sad, we are witnessing a pivotal moment in American culture, a moment in which powerful people – businessmen, politicians, and celebrities – are finally being held accountable for clearly unacceptable behavior. I told you that this means, maybe, hopefully, that you won’t have to worry about your wife being hit on at work someday or your daughters being expected to excuse demeaning treatment to progress in their careers or even keep their jobs. I told you that this change could signal the beginning of a more equal balance of power in high-level positions and that all people will have to start thinking more before they make decisions – because there may actually be accountability for behaviors that were conveniently overlooked before. Ultimately, this is a good and historical moment.
And then I sent you off to school.
But after you headed to the bus stop, I reflected on our conversation and felt uneasy. It wasn’t because I said anything that I don’t believe to be true, and it wasn’t because I don’t see this as a truly significant moment for women. I felt uneasy because I had suggested to you that this watershed is a victory for women alone, that you, my sons, will benefit only indirectly through the women you love.
But that isn’t true.
Sure, this moment matters because there will always be women who play significant roles in your lives – women like me and your grandmothers, your aunts and your cousins, possibly someday your wives and daughters and nieces. All of these women, every single one of them, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect inside their workplaces and everywhere else. I want you to care about women. I want you to be empathetic, compassionate men. I want you to notice and positively impact how other people are treated.
But as a mom of boys, I know that changing our culture in positive ways will directly impact your futures, too. The society that we have created for you, the unclear expectations that we have set for young men – this stuff scares a mom, guys. Because it is probably safe to assume that some of the men who have crashed in the headlines for tormenting subordinates with inappropriate advances or making lewd comments to or about female co-workers were raised by loving mothers who taught them to be respectful gentlemen, too.
So what the heck happened?
I don’t know how to answer that question.
What I do know, my boys, is that you will receive many confusing messages from the snake oil salesman that is our culture. He will tempt you with simple remedies for your insecurities and peddle empty vials labeled “happiness” and “satisfaction” that will never provide the relief that you seek. He will talk out of both sides of his mouth, confusing you with mixed up ideas about what it means to be a man. He will tell you to be a gentleman always but then feed you a steady stream of music and graphic images that depict women as disposable objects rather than smart, respectable humans. He will tell you that nothing is more admirable than being a devoted father and husband but then reward you for showing off your machismo, for drinking too much, for laughing at inappropriate jokes, for choosing work over home. He will tell you that honesty is a virtue but then persuade you that what other people don’t know won’t hurt you. He will warn you that you could be fired for behaving unethically but then convince you that behaving unethically is just what you need to do to move higher and at a faster pace. He will feed your ego with power, convincing you that you are above the rules, and then laugh when that power is ultimately stripped away.
In recent weeks we have seen that the Boys’ Club still exists, that it clearly remains part of the business world in America. It is exclusive. It comes with perks and promotions, a sense of importance and often generous financial rewards for the guys who get in. The men in The Club seem confident and invincible. Really, it must be a whole lot of fun.
Until it isn’t.
So our culture needs to change for the girls in your class at school, certainly, but also for you. It is easy for you to say at 11 and 13 that you will do the right thing when faced with your own difficult choices in the future. But I know that IT’S NOT EASY to choose not to laugh at the boss’s inappropriate remarks when you know what he expects and a promotion hangs in the balance. I know that IT’S NOT EASY to tell your coworkers that rating the looks of the women at the office after a meeting isn’t acceptable, knowing that you may lose friends. I know that IT’S NOT EASY to remember that really big mistakes start with really small decisions – decisions to do things or say things or accept things or overlook things that become the bricks that pave a path toward your own disaster.
As a teacher, I have seen one truth about people proven over and over again: our human nature is to raise ourselves or lower ourselves to the expectations of those around us. I have seen students at a high risk of dropping out or going to jail achieve incredible personal and academic success because of the challenging expectations, consistent support, and high level of accountability provided by other people. And I have seen students who had every reason to be successful fail miserably in school or in life because of the low expectations, weak support, and lack of accountability offered by the people they pulled closest to them. I want you, my sons, to help set a high bar for the people around you. But I want our culture to start setting a higher bar for YOU. Because even though I believe that you are personally responsible for making the choices that you know are right in your life, it will be a heck of a lot easier to do the right thing when the climate in your workplace and your circle of friends demand it.
As a woman, I believe that this is a critical and exciting moment for women and girls in America. As a mom of boys, I recognize that the changes that should and hopefully will come from the recent revelations will help you, the sons I love so very much, to live a better life, as well. The news has been dark and troubling, but there are so many lessons you can learn from the mistakes of other people, boys. Just this week, we’ve discussed that the right thing to do is always the right thing to do. That peer pressure to behave a certain way or to be quiet will still exist when you grow up. That power is intoxicating and can make really smart people behave in really stupid ways. That “what happens in Vegas” or Sochi or wherever doesn’t actually stay there forever. That it is important to have friends whom you can trust, friends who are brutally honest, friends who knew you before you accomplished anything at all. That people make mistakes and that mistakes can be forgiven but that you can never move past mistakes that you don’t own. That if you have created a reputation of behaving inappropriately and someone does falsely accuse you, you are going to have a very, very hard time defending your name. And that it is always wise to imagine your decisions as newspaper headlines first – because the reality is that they could be.
Most importantly, we have been reminded that how we treat one another matters. Please treat other people kindly, boys. All of the people around you, the men and the women.
You will be rewarded for it, even if it means that you can’t be in The Club.
Love you always,