Newborn Mountain

Some art inspired by my friend Holly Mead’s new album!

(view more on my Instagram)

A quick little story I wrote about this mystical place:

I was born in the valley below, the youngest of three boys. My father’s name was Julian; my mother’s, Gail. They were a good match for each other—he tall and dark-haired, she small and fair—and they had been married for three years when I came into the world.

I have heard it said that all children are miracles: as if there could be no explanation but magic for why one particular person should appear in this world at this time and not another. But to me it seems only natural that I should be here now: that I should have been born to these people, in the shadow of this mountain.

The land my father worked was not large—a few acres of pasture and a small orchard, with a stream that ran through it all the way down from Newborn’s peak. He had inherited it when he was young, just as I did from him. It is an old story: one man’s land passed to another in time for him to raise his son upon it before he dies himself.

When I think back now, though I cannot remember ever having done so before, I imagine that my father must have been a happy man. He was not rich, but he had enough to live on and more than enough for his family; there were always apples from the orchard in autumn and lambs born in spring. And though he worked hard—harder than any other farmer around us—he did it with a smile on his face.

I remember him best at night: sitting by the fire after supper, telling stories about Newborn’s peak to me and my brothers as we sat upon our mother’s lap listening to them all together. The Mountain was a place of magic to him, and he would tell us tales about it that made the hair on my arms stand up.

I was only five years old when I first climbed its peak with him; but even then I remember being struck by how different it was from any other mountain in the world. It is not very high, but it is steep and jagged: a place of sharp edges and sudden drops. There are no trees upon its peak; only rocks that have been worn down to smoothness by the wind, so that they shine like jewels in the sun.
My father told me once that there was once a castle at Newborn’s summit: built long ago by one of my ancestors who had made his fortune in the north. But it was a ruin now, and no one had lived there for many years.

The castle may be gone, but I can still see its walls in my mind’s eye: high and white-washed, with towers at each corner that rise above them like fingers pointing to heaven. It must have been beautiful once; but when I climbed up onto those ruins as a boy—the first time we went together—it seemed only sad to me then: an empty place where nothing moved or sang except the wind through the grasses on its battlements.

Gender stereotypes that still exist in parenting

While stereotypical gendered parenting might seem to be the result of religious beliefs or cultural norms, even progressive-minded parents can sometimes be guilty of it.

But here’s what I think is funny: it’s fairly obvious that we, as a culture, need to do better to achieve gender equality:

In theory, it seems that we should teach men (who tend to be more disagreeable) to behave more like women (who tend to be more empathetic). And, if you’ve read anything I’ve written lately, you know I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

But in practice, a lot of the things parents do (and don’t do) would suggest that we need to raise little girls more like we raise little boys. (Wait, what? Stick with me here—I promise it’ll all make sense!)

As is often the case with parenting, we need to go beyond prescriptive advice and examine where our parenting behaviors came from, and whether they still serve children growing up in the 21st century. I can think of at least 3 outdated practices; things that parents do with their sons that they’re less likely to do with their daughters. At least one of these is obvious, but the others? Not so much.

Gender-stereotypical toys

This is the obvious one, I think, but it’s also a little tricky. If you haven’t heard this before, it’s actually true that baby girl-monkeys tend to prefer to play with dolls, while baby boy-monkeys prefer to play with trucks:

We’re actually not sure why this is, but it’s also irrelevant; buy your kid a truck and a doll and let them play with whichever one they want! Who cares, right?

The more insidious problem is that the toys we buy for little boys tend to be better at sparking scientific curiosity; we buy them things like LEGO sets, space-themed toys, and electronics (including video games). Luckily, this trend has abated in the last decade or so, but it’s still a problem—especially with low-income parents who are too busy trying to provide for their families to question gender stereotypes.

Spatial language

This problem is closely related, but you’ll probably find it more surprising. When talking to boys, parents are more likely to use what we’ll call “spatial language.” This includes things like naming shapes and using dimensional adjectives (near, far, high, low, big, small, etc.). Often, as parents, we combine them: “Put your toys in the square box on the top shelf.”

You might not think this language matters, but it does. The brains of infants and toddlers absorb so much information, and a study found that toddlers are more likely to use this sort of language themselves when they hear it from their parents as infants.

You know where spatial language is especially useful? In STEM disciplines. Children are at a slight disadvantage if they don’t get used to thinking geometrically at an early age. And the good news is it is indeed slight; the researchers only found small differences in the spatial language that girls hear vs. what boys hear. Still, it’s worth being mindful of.


I saved the best for last; this one might surprise you! You may be tempted to think that roughhousing serves no purpose other than keeping Dad entertained while he plays with the kids. But you’d be wrong!

Roughhousing (or, as it’s more commonly referred to in psychology, “rough and tumble play) seems to be a fairly universal human behavior. We see it in cultures all around the world, and that should be a clue that it serves some sort of useful purpose developmentally.

And it does. Roughhousing teaches kids their bodies’ limits; how far they can push themselves before they actually get hurt. This is pretty useful, since kids in general don’t have a strong sense of self-preservation. But it also teaches children emotional intelligence. In the process of roughhousing, they learn to read their playmates’ faces to see what behaviors are acceptable, which ones hurt, and which ones get the most laughs.

But don’t forget the context in which we’re discussing this: gender differences. It’s no surprise that parents are more likely to roughhouse with their sons. What’s worth considering, though, is the fact that little girls like to roughhouse too. I don’t have a daughter, but my dog, Winnie, absolutely loves being chased and tickled, and she’s extremely feminine:

Photo used with permission.

Winnie speaks for little girls everywhere when she says “Play with me!”, because pretty much every kid on Earth likes to be picked up and tossed and swung around. (Dogs, less so.)

So go ahead and give your daughter a loving body slam onto the couch. Tell her it’s for her own good, because it is!

Abolish tipping

A new study from the University of Notre Dame found that more than 2/3 of restaurant employees have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past six months.

This in itself is rather appalling, but the study’s additional findings will probably stand out to you just as much. The researchers found that it’s two common practices of the service industry that contribute to this behavior:

  1. Employees’ financial dependence on customers (i.e., tips), and
  2. Deference to customers with emotional labor (“service with a smile”)

This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When customers hold this much power over service workers, it’s no surprise that the less scrupulous ones will take advantage of that power.

The “good” news (if you can call it that) is that both elements had to be present in order for sexual harrassment to occur. If employees are both dependent on tips and are required to smile and shrug off inappropriate comments, then certain people feel emboldened.

That makes me wonder, though, why require either one in the first place? It’s true, business owners would prefer not to pay their workers a living wage, so that means the elimination of tipping would probably need to be achieved via legislation.

But “service with a smile?” What is this, the 1950s? I think it’s reasonable to expect your employees to be pleasant and courteous to customers—but as soon as someone crosses the line, servers should be able to lose the smile and defend themselves. There’s no place for that behavior, ever. (What are you even worried about? A 1-star Yelp review? Jeez.)

The study

Just in case you’re curious, the study tackled this phenomenon from both the perspective of the customer and the server.

The researchers asked servers how dependent they were on tips and to what degree they were expected to provide service with a smile; then they were asked how frequently they experienced sexual harassment.

But that only shows correlation. The researchers helped to establish causation by presenting hypothetical scenarios and manipulating a) how dependent waitresses were on tips, and b) the waitresses’ facial expressions. Then the researchers asked 229 men how powerful they’d feel and whether they’d engage in sexual harassment behaviors. As mentioned before—both tips and service with a smile had to be present in order for some these men to feel emboldened.

Can anything else be done?

I’ve been writing about topics like this because I think they’re important, but I don’t want to be a downer and give anyone the impression that we’re doomed as a species. So here’s what I think.

We’re living in the 21st century now; consumers are savvy and they prefer to do business with companies that share their values. So I would encourage businesses to really go to bat for their employees; make it part of their brand and what differentiates them from competitors.

What if the menu included a statement saying that tips were included in the prices, and they paid their employees a living wage? I’ve definitely heard of places like that being successful. I think it needs to become more widespread.

How can we raise more respectful boys?

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how to create a nicer society of people. Cultural change is never easy, but it’s important we rise to the challenge.

In this essay, I want to focus on men and masculinity. There are many facets to this, but I think two of the biggest components are reducing sexual violence and increasing cooperativeness.

How can we raise boys who grow up to be respectful, safe, and cooperative men? A lot of solutions seem obvious if you’ve spent time thinking about it, or done any research, but apparently it’s not obvious enough because these strategies are still not widespread. Let’s have a look.

Teaching consent

It’s been nearly 4 years since the #MeToo movement revealed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. Of course, women have always known that sexual violence is a pervasive problem, but this still came as a shock to many men. I have to believe that schools are doing a better job of teaching consent these days, but I wonder why this wasn’t always the case.

This is somehow a controversial topic—some people think that talking about sex will make kids more likely to have sex. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that talking to kids about sex makes them less likely to have sex.

The reason is pretty simple. When you talk to kids about sex, you give them the information they need to make good decisions. And even horny teens will often realize that abstinence is the right decision to make.

But back to consent. What we should tell kids depends a lot on their age. “Consent” is a broad topic and it’s extremely easy to give age-appropriate lessons on it. If you have a five-year-old, it’s as simple as teaching them that you should ask for someone’s permission before you touch them, and others should do the same for you. Only good things can come from teaching healthy boundaries!

What if you have a teenager? Well, of course we should teach them that no means no. But it’s also important to teach them that yes sometimes means no (for example, if someone is too drunk to consent). And teach them the concept of “enthusiastic consent”—that is, you should only have sex with someone who has made it crystal clear (either verbally or physically) that they want to have sex with you. If you’re not sure, then it’s a no until you ask.

Teaching consent is actually the easy part, in my opinion, because it’s totally within your control as a parent. The other interventions that make boys into respectful men require a bigger cultural shift.

Acceptance of yourself and your emotions

Journalist Emma Brown writes in her new book that we’ve spent the last 50 years telling little girls they can be anything they want to be, but we haven’t been telling little boys the same thing. For as long as we can all remember, there has been one primary rule for boys to follow: don’t act like a girl. Luckily, this attitude has shifted in recent decades (and I didn’t experience it much myself growing up), but it still has damaging consequences when we socialize boys this way.

How do girls act, anyway? The stereotype is that they’re emotional, nurturing, sensitive, and cooperative. So, the message to boys is that they better not be any of those things. They’re supposed to be tough, aggressive, independent, and competitive. The result of this is boys who grow up suppressing or externalizing their emotions. There are many men out there who would rather turn angry and violent than admit that they’re hurting over something. I’d like to see the Venn diagram of those men, and those who commit sexual violence; there’s almost certainly a lot of overlap.

But it’s not just about how boys are socialized as children. It’s also about how they’re socialized as adults, and this is where we run into a problem: Men are often rewarded for being aggressive and dominant, and punished for being vulnerable.

The most obvious example of this is in the workplace. Women are often penalized for expressing anger at work, but men are rewarded for it. In a 2008 study published in Psychological Science, Brescoll and colleagues found that men were more respected by their colleagues after expressing anger. On the other hand, “women who expressed anger were consistently accorded lower status and lower wages, and were seen as less competent.”

This is depressing to think about. It’s a deep, cultural problem that will take time to fix. But it’s not hopeless.

In the meantime, there are some things we can do to help boys and men learn to express their emotions in healthy ways. One of these is simply talking about it. We need to teach boys that it’s okay for them to be vulnerable, and that they should feel comfortable expressing their emotions.

This is a big part of the “Man Up” campaign in Australia. The Man Up campaign encourages boys to talk about their feelings and to be open about their struggles with mental health issues. It’s not just a slogan — it’s an actual program that helps boys learn how to express themselves.

There are similar programs being tried stateside. A program called Coaching Boys Into Men asks coaches to take 15 minutes a week to talk to their players. Coaches are influential figures in the lives of their players, so it’s effective to have them talk about issues like consent, respect, and what it means to be a man. These boys may not have this kind of guidance elsewhere in their lives, and it’s important that they hear it from a trusted adult.

Redefine what it means to be a man

Another program, called Becoming a Man, takes a similar tack. It fosters six core values in its high school participants: integrity, accountability, positive anger-expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal-setting. This, combined with the cool name, makes me think that every high school should adopt the program.

This is something I feel really strongly about. We can’t just teach boys about “toxic masculinity” and hope they get the message. As Emma Brown rightfully points out: that doesn’t work, because the phrase makes many boys and men defensive right off the bat (even the good ones!). What a lot of men think when they hear the phrase “toxic masculinity” is “I’m a man, therefore I’m masculine. So, you think I’m ‘toxic’ just because of my gender and you don’t even know me yet.”

It doesn’t matter at all what the phrase actually refers to, or what your intentions are—you’re setting up a frame of conflict rather than collaboration when you use the phrase. It’s much more effective to approach it from the angle of “women are great, men are great, so let’s all be nice to each other.” No one in their right mind is going to object to that! (Some still will, but I’m afraid they might be lost causes.)

So let’s redefine what it means to be a “real man.” Rather than teaching boys that anger is the only emotion they’re allowed to express, let’s define masculinity in terms of its positive qualities like strength and leadership. And by “strength,” I of course don’t mean “picking up heavy things” or “not getting emotional”—I mean resilience and self-determination and those other values in the Becoming a Man program.

Let’s close with one more thought by Emma Brown, because she has a lot of wise things to say about this stuff:

When my daughter was two, she was on the playground and she was just struggling against her fear of going across this rope-netting bridge that was strung high up above the ground. And I told her, “Tell myself, I’m strong and fearless,” and for my daughter that’s what I wanted.


I realized I didn’t want to tell both my kids that. They should think of themselves as strong and gentle, that telling a kid they need to be strong and fearless is like telling them they have to choose only the traits that we have associated with masculinity.

I think we’re continuing to find effective strategies for increasing cooperativeness, promoting equality, and reducing sexual violence. It may not be happening as quickly as we’d like, but that’s no reason to give up hope. Let’s keep working toward it!

The Choice of Champions

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The Evolution of a Theme Legend

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Become a Legend

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