A Father’s Letter to Young Men (About How to Treat a Woman)

Dear Young Men,

Our confusion about women starts early:

how to treat women

Photo Credit: WilWheaton via Compfight cc

Last spring, a new family moved into our neighborhood. They have a school-aged daughter, and on moving day she was playing alone in her new yard. Meanwhile, a group of six boys played in our yard. When I suggested they go invite her to play, one of the boys cried out, “We don’t know how to treat girls!” The rest of the boys nodded vociferously in agreement.

Our confusion about women starts early.

We’re told they are fundamentally different than us. Women have emotions, but men have muscles. Women nurture, but men protect. Women like to talk, but men like to act. Women want love, but men want respect. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.  We’ve been trained to believe they are alien.

We’ve even been trained to believe they play differently on a spring afternoon.

Our confusion about women starts early.

On a spring afternoon, as the boys nodded violently, I told them I knew the secret about how to treat girls. I waved them in close. They smiled conspiratorially. Then I whispered, “You start by treating them like a person.” They quit smiling. They asked the girl to play and, in minutes, they were all jumping on the trampoline. Same energy, same laughter, same joy. People being people together.

Young Men, we can stop treating women like women and start treating them like humans.

And our subjugation of women began early, too:

For millennia, we’ve been taught to believe they are not only different than us but also less than us. In the United States, the Fifteenth Amendment gave racial minorities the right to vote in 1870; it took fifty years and four more amendments before women had the right to vote. For centuries, we’ve silenced them. We’ve used women as bodies in the most violent of ways and we’ve used them as entertainment in the most subtle of ways—with glances and gestures and jokes and fantasy and plausible deniability about all of it.

Our subjugation of women began early.

We’ve inherited this legacy.

Young Men, we can stop treating women like subjects to subjugate and objects to objectify, and we can start treating them like humans to humanize. Like mouths with a voice and souls with a purpose.

But there is only one way to do so: We have to quit hating ourselves first.

Elliot Rodger didn’t open fire on an Alpha Phi sorority house primarily because he hated women; he opened fire first and foremost because he hated himself.

If there is a golden rule in life and in love, it is this: the quality of your love for another is always limited to the quality of the love you have for yourself. Our rejection of a woman’s humanity is a reflection of our own self-rejection. We fail to embrace her fragile heart and her broken story because we’ve failed to embrace our own fragile heart and our own broken story.

Young Men, we’ve been taught to loathe ourselves if we feel vulnerable and weak. We’ve been trained to think we’re only as good as our next conquest. We’ve been taught to predicate our worth upon being right and righteous. So when we look inside and see all of our insecurity and self-doubt and fear and loneliness, we despise what we see. Feeling an inward emptiness, we seek to fill it up with outward experiences,

like achievement

and wealth

and things

and people we treat like things.

Women obsess about their bodies because they have been trained to believe beauty is found on the surface of themselves, rather than in the center of themselves. We obsess about their bodies for the same reason. Having been trained to believe there is nothing of inherent value on the inside of us, we look outside of ourselves for worthiness. We look at them.

Yet, in the words of Celtic poet John O’Donahue, “We cannot fill up our emptiness with objects, possessions, or people. We have to go deeper into that emptiness; then we will find beneath the nothingness the flame of love waiting to warm us.”

So, Young Men, the only way to change centuries of confusion and subjugation is to go deeper into your own hearts.

Quit trying to win the heart of a woman or conquer the body of a woman. Settle into your own soul, instead. Discover there that your worth is not about what you do or what you have, but about who you are. Find a Love there that can embrace your entire humanity—both the strength and the weakness, both the glory and the mess. And once you have discovered that love, start to give it away to everyone around you. Including women.

Especially women. 

With Hope for All of Us,

A Father

Question:What advice did your father give you about how women should be treated? What is the best advice you could give to young men about how to treat women? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

—————

I recently published a letter to young women about nakedness and power, in which I wrote, “Real power lies in changing the game altogether. And the only way to change the game is to identify with the center of you, instead of the surface of you.” Some readers asked, “Is the burden all upon women to change this centuries-old game of power being played out with skin and bodies? Where is your letter to young men?” This is that letter.

—————

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Next Post: The Hidden Message in Maleficent (And How It Can Heal Us)

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • fallen

    thanks Dr. Kelly for this :’)
    having grown up in an environment where ‘tough guys show no emotion’
    has led to lots of pain and dehumanisation of the opposite gender
    yet its that polluted core thought that has bound me as a guy to the same repetitive destructive cycle of not being the man i should be
    wish i had a dad like you
    but thank god for your article because it’s like i have you as a dad to bring me up into the right way(even tho i’m already very grown up in age terms) thru the internet.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is a very kind, tender comment. I can see your true self in your thoughtfulness. Be you. Even if you cry tears.

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  • ALEJANDR1971

    In my house we are me and my brother.We are both adults, he is 39 and I almost 43.
    At home our father never cared for “those tasks.”
    I live in Uruguay and Uruguay, Latinos, our culture is “the man produces and provides food” …
    “Women gives birth and care of the rest “…or at least in the older generations.
    My father passed away 2 years ago and their world was that.
    My mother, ourmother was in charge of education, these issues also my brother.
    He was lucky to be a primary school teacher.Having to study psychology and pedagogy.
    But my childhood memories are being the goalkeeper of a mixed team of neighborhood kids.
    I was the male staff frustration because they could never get a goal, one penalty if I was the goalkeeper
    We were all equal,It became obvious as we always
    And those guys including my brother teach their sons that girls can be great playmates … even though we are best goalkeepers them 😉

    • drkellyflanagan

      Alejandr, my sons soccer team has one player who is more tenacious and fierce than all the others. That player is a girl. I bet you were an awesome goal keeper.

  • dee

    Exactly right. Until men learn that they are no better than women, the world will not change. It always bothered me to hear men rant about ‘feminism’. If they think they have to put a label on a person in order to degrade them, they did not rant when the finger is turned towards them. If women are feminist, then men are misogynist. It’s all about balance.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Agreed. Let’s put the labels away, look each other in the eye, and be people together.

  • rdwarf2000

    My father and his twin were the oldest of 12. By the time I was old enough to notice, my aunts and uncles were all the same to me: strong and independent, and they ALL could do the Donald Duck voice. It never occurred to me there was ever a thing the men could do that the women couldn’t. They all played and worked hard and treated each other with respect. My dad never made any speeches about it; it was just that way. My mom was partially paralyzed and yet took care of two babies while my dad was deployed in the Navy. I never knew how fortunate I was to have those role models. My dad taught me how to cook, my mom taught me how to read, and there was always a fair distribution of labor in the house. I never knew how “abnormal” this was…

    • drkellyflanagan

      They all could do the Donald Duck voice. I’m pretty sure we would live in a more beautiful world if all of us, men and women, walked around doing the Donald Duck voice.

  • Maryam Steele

    Love this, as always. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Maryam!

  • Kevin

    Excellent article, as always! My dad’s most memorable words as it relates to women, “treat them like shit. They love it'”

    It’s crazy to think of how many women WERE attracted to that! Thankfully my wife of 19 years was not one of them.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kevin, my best to you and your bride of 19 years!

  • Charles

    I agree with the last half of your post completely. But the first part I am a little confused.
    I am having trouble understanding why recognizing that men and women are not identical necessarily has anything to do with subjugation. By learning that a girl does not think of the world in a masculine way I learned to treat them with more respect. The problem is not that they are different. Boys should be taught to be more nurturing, more loving, more open, etc.. Your example to the boys to treat them like people is interpreted by a young boy to treat them like boys. I would rather tell girls to treat boys like people, i.e. like they would treat a fellow girl. I want boys to be more like girls not vice versa. The last part of your post got to that. But we also need to be diverse enough to accept that there are differences between men and women.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Charles, good point. There are certainly differences, and this post is simply meant to serve as a corrective, because the differences are not nearly as numerous or dramatic as we are taught to believe. In my therapy work with men and women, where you get right down to the center of things, you discover we have far more in common than we have in contrast.

  • Kelley Bailey

    As a woman who is raising a son I have 2 advice statements. Find a woman who is equal with your intellectual abilities. This stimulates respect, cohesion, & a feeling you are in this marriage together. And 2nd find a woman who isn’t high drama. This can push a man away, have him shut now, not trust his wife with his heart, and distract from the meaningful aspects of life together. Both of these qualities is usually accompanied by discernment & wisdom….finding the right time to approach her husband on issues (not pouncing the 1st moment she sees him), allowing him to process thoughts before demanding an answer or opinion and….and among many other favorable characteristics….a general countenance and disposition of kindness/sweetness.

    • purpleglo13

      Thanks so much Kelley. I love what you have said and it is great advice for both men and women.

  • Samantha

    The first and second halves of this essay reflect two different (but complimentary) solutions. But while the second half is right, I worry about providing excuses or justifications for bad behavior. We cannot let the message that men need to look within bury the message that regardless of how you feel about anything, women are not objects and no means no.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Samantha, the second half of the letter is not intended as excuse but as solution.

  • Doug Scott

    Thanks Dr. Kelly…this is awesome. As with all of your articles, you’ve gotten to the story under the story. This resonated with me as a daddy to two young girls, as well as the sensitive middle child of a dysfunctional family. The latter created a good deal of baggage and self-loathing that I continue to try to get through…and the former helped me see women as beautiful inside and out and worthy of greater love and respect. Thanks for putting legs to both.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for this, Doug. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how your former and latter or so closely connected: when we see the beauty in our kids, it confronts us with the beauty inside of ourselves, and our self-loathing begins to evaporate.

  • CJ

    I had 3 fathers….the one who made me but abandoned me, the one who adopted me and eventually worked out his alcoholic rage on me, and the stepfather who sexually abused me. My experience of fathers has always been negative. They taught me that men are weak, selfish and violent. They taught me that it’s dangerous to trust men or depend on them. I have never given a Father’s Day card. I always envied kids who had loving, attentive fathers.

    • drkellyflanagan

      CJ, I think this Father’s Day you should give a Father’s Day card. But give one to yourself. Say to yourself what you’ve always needed to hear from a father. And then know it’s just as true when it comes from your own heart.

  • LaShawn

    Thank you as usual for this brilliant article. Well, I didn’t grow up with my father technically speaking. My mother and father divorced when I was two years old. They had a very turbulent/violent and dysfunctinal connection. My father re-married about four-years after the divorce from my mother. There was a court ordered arrangement for my father to pick me up every two weeks for the weekends. He was a manager at a prominent restaraunt and spent many hours at work. I didn’t spend time with him but his wife and my half siblings instead. When I did see him he would regularly bad mouth my mother openly in front of his entire household. I spent my childhood and teenage years being confused about my parents. In my adult life I made many poor decisions in regards to my romantic interests; not just due to my father’s role but my mother as well (she had a married man for a mate after my father) and I was also sexually abused as a child. I now sit here at 28 years old and I’m grateful to a higher power for the progress that I’ve made, but with that said I still have a long way to go before I heal in total. The biggest hurdle I have in my relationship is communication and control issues. Somy advice to a young man on how to treat a woman would be LISTEN to her, not just hear her story. That way you’ll understand the place her pain comes from and where her pain may effect the relationship ( my partner didn’t do this for me because he sees me as an object). If a person full heartedly listens to me I take that as they truly care about my journey as a human being. We all have a story to tell and I think some guys and people in general are caught up in their own story so much that they don’t take the time to listen to what another has been through.

    • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

      LaShawn, we are all works in progress, aren’t we? I think you show a lot of wisdom to recognize the importance of really listening to each other to understand where a partner is coming from and how this experience fits into the broader story of who she is. It is an act of trust to be willing to communicate the story to someone, an act of love to listen with a heart to understand. Thank you for trusting to share your story here.

      • LaShawn

        Thank you very much Shel Llee. My life is a strange one. I have a tendecy to connect with so called strangers more than those labeled as family and because of that I don’t mind being open about my experiences. I believe we are all family, no matter your physical appearance or blood line inheritance. You made my day by just listening to and responding to what I had to say. Thanks again. God bless.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    I think that a lot of what we learn about how men can, should, and do treat women comes not from explicit statements about relationships, but from what we observe. Certainly in what we see that people can and do get away with in their relationships and in their passing interactions, there is a pretty low level of civility that invades male-female interactions. But there are also more elevated examples of how women and men do interact – in homes and in workplaces, in churches and in communities – and I’m not convinced that I see that happening because of our differences, but because of our humanity.

    However, I asked my 6 year old how men should treat women after receiving this piece this morning, because I wondered what kinds of messages are permeating through the thick cloud of do’s and don’ts. He told me they should be treated with respect, and gave me examples of what that would look like. I asked if he would like to be treated those ways when he was a grown up man, and he agreed he would, so we agreed that respect was something that people want from each other.

    He went to camp for the morning where he was nervous about meeting new kids. I picked him up 3 hours later, reluctant to leave his new friends. On the drive home, he told me that the only boy he knew before camp began had been working to exclude the girls in the group, explaining that he just doesn’t like girls. My son said he continued sitting next to him, but didn’t want to talk to him much anymore. He related the articulate, sound argument one girl made in response. She was not cowed and she would not be excluded from a group she had every right to be a full participant in. Good for her.

    And we discussed how my son would have felt to have the girls at camp today deciding not to play with him because they don’t like boys. His hypothetical reaction revolved around reduced self esteem, sadness, and feelings of diminishment. We talked more about the wonderful kid he is and about how the qualities he has can describe boys and girls just as well. I reminded him that in both the real situation and the hypothetical one, nothing has changed about the person being excluded: it’s the person excluding who is moving from being an open, friendly kid to one who is unnecessarily hurting someone else. Doing that changes us. Encountering someone like that in the world doesn’t make us any less than we were.

    Too much of the performance of masculinity uses the crutch of just acting in opposition to what is feminine. But being your own man – a much braver and more heroic adventure by far – requires embracing a whole self that has a much richer human experience than the narrow one allowable when one is fiercely clinging to cultural notions of simply “manning up” enforcing gender boundaries so that “boys don’t cry” and making sure that everyone “playing for our team” knows that calling a boy a “girl” or a ruder anatomically-based insult is the purest form of degradation. Masculinity is more than running away from what it means to be feminine. But celebrating a masculinity that relies so heavily on this invites misogyny. And it diminishes men.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shel, where do you write, and how can I sign up?

      • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

        Can’t you tell? It’s just right here and you’re already King of the Hill.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Ha! I’m no king and the ground looks pretty flat to me. : )

  • Jason Garo

    Well, I was taught that women were second class citizens by my father…that is me putting it in a “nice” way. I have been fortunate to have a son that doesn’t see women/girls as a foreign object, in fact, he holds them in a high regard. He’s got a certain valiance about him that doesn’t come from the way Garos are taught to treat women. His mother has done an amazing job in my many months of absence; I dunno, maybe I can blame/thank watching Glee? 😉 J/K. However, I would say this project of men treating women like people will only work if women see and treat themselves like people. Like the old saying goes “the man is the head, but the woman is the neck”. I’m not saying men shouldn’t step up and be men, they absolutely should; I’m saying I need women to not twerk in front of the entire world…good post, Doc!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jason, I love what you said about Isaiah showing you a different way of treating women. I’ve been thinking a lot about how our kids show us a better way, if we can only pay attention. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with, Kristi, but I’m sure a lot of it also has to do with a dad who is willing to look at his son and admire him.

  • Pal Lineberry Ingold

    My Dad always told us that if you can’t keep company with your self, then how will others keep company with you? A life lesson I’ll never forget and have passed on to my children. Great article and insight. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Pal, that’s a great lesson from your dad. I’m stealing it. : )

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  • Alex Reynolds

    This is a wonderful letter. I had several male influences or fathers in my life and it’s not surprising the view on women was always the same. Something to conquer, something to use to satisfy my base urges. Be a man and tell her where to go, what to do, and who to be. I was always at odds with this as I didn’t feel it was right. However I did follow that advice for a number of years and have regrets on how I treated the women in my life.

    I made a change and got to know myself and when I was ready I then met my wife who could also love me for who I am.

    I am now a father to a 2 year old boy and will help him to respect and treat women as people by modeling that behaviour and living it my entire life.

    P.s. To those women who I did treat as “women” I have been lucky, and have been able to apologise for that behavior and more importantly have been forgiven.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good stuff, Alex. My best to you and your growing family!

  • Kirsten Kelly

    As usual, a lovely article, Dr. Kelly. I would love to hear your insight, though, on the opposite side of the coin. (Maybe a future article…?) My husband and I (early 30’s) have collectively had roughly12 friends divorce over the course of several years. In most cases, the wife has determined that she hasn’t had her needs met in the marriage, opted to have those needs met by someone else and eventually threw in the marriage-towel. In nearly all cases the husbands were willing to reconcile, go to counseling, work on it. The wife was not. It’s bizarre to me this trend I’m seeing in marriages around us, almost an epidemic. My own parents’ marriage ended in precisely the same way. It feels like entitlement to me, that marriage is a giant pool of fulfillment that you can fill up on at any time, and if it runs dry, well then you just move on. Don’t try to re-tap it or pray for rain, just move on. Have you noticed this? Why the sudden shift of overbearing men to over-entitled women? Maybe the pendulum just swings until it finds balance… Thanks for your time, sir!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kirsten, coincidentally, next week’s (June 23) blog post on marriage will address this to some extent. Not necessarily with regard to gender, but with regard to exchanging entitlement for acceptance in a marriage.

  • Jayani

    Thank you soo much Dr. Kelly for yet another beautiful, mind-blowing post. I’m in the process of trying to decode the practices society imposes on us to follow and trying to live my life in a way that doesn’t burden my heart. With every post that you write, I gain a little more clarity to come to that state. I agree whole heartedly that men and women, although there are some differences between us, deep down we are all humans thinking and feeling in a like manner. It is society that has shaped different conduct for each sex. Life should be about being happy and allowing other to be happy, giving and receiving love. We should be free from judgment. Not just between men and women, but even between different races, religion and nationality, we are all still the same. Instead of encouraging the concepts which cause separation in society, we should focus more on unity. Thank you more bringing more light into my life Doc

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jayani, you are very kind. Thank you for taking this to the next level and applying it to people of different groups, not just different sexes. And you’re welcome!

  • Kary

    Spectacular Dr. Kelly. I’ve sent this to my 19 year old son and most of the men I know. Every heart counts. Every soul has value. Everyone of us yearns to be known. You’ve captured those simple truths in this post. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Kary!

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  • Andréa Cazoul

    Dr. Kelly, I’ve never read such a thing. This is so good, as a woman, to hear that kind of thing. Well, I’m only 18 and I’ve not lived a lot but I still know how it feels to be rejected because our body doesn’t fit society’s criteria. I’ve always been a little too big. Though, I’d like to feel better in my own skin, finally accept who I am ! I don’t think I’m ugly in the inside but society made/makes me have doubts: if my body isn’t acceptable, will I be able to find someone to accept me for what’s inside ?

    I wish you could open people’s eyes a little more !
    My mother isn’t any kind of Kate Moss. And my dad loves her ! I think that growing up seing this taught me not to give too much importance to bodies and much more to souls.

    I’d have so much things to ask you if I could !
    Reading you soon,

    Andréa

    P.S: Please excuse my English. I’m French and I study english in uni and I stil hope to improve my skills of the language 🙂

  • Omar Stamp

    This is garbage, you lost me at “subjugation.” Not even gona read the rest, and not even going to try to make a point to someone like yourself who’s clearly a male feminist. Man bad, Woman good right? Moron.

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  • Jeeeeeeeeeeez

    oh dear, I hate this self deprecating crap.

  • Joanne

    Thank you for this. I was second of four girls growing up. While my father was a very loving to his daughters , he did abuse my mom. This was hard for me to watch and my mom never sought help or even talked to us about it. Im still trying to heal still trying to find my voice.

  • Annoymous12235

    I think saying men hating themselves is why they dehuminize women is a weak excuse. “We have to quit hating ourselves first” ???? Excuse me?! That is an excuse to hate women, not all men hate themselves, some of them are just JERKS. Not to be rude, but this article was weak. When you say that “We’ve been taught to loath ourselves when we feel vulnerable or weak” … “Women have emotions, men have muscles.” Are you saying men loath women? idk thats what I got from this article…