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Mothers and Sons program helps women raise boys to become non-violent, respectful men

8 March 2021

ABC Illawarra – Sarah Moss

Boys as young as six years old are engaging in a domestic violence prevention program, the first of its kind in Australia to target such young males.

Illawarra Women’s Health Centre general manager Sally Stevenson said there was overwhelming demand for the program from mothers eager to ensure their sons did not grow up to become violent men.

Now in its third year, the Mothers and Sons program, which was funded by the International Women’s Day Illawarra Committee, offers a unique child-rearing program that gives mothers the tools and techniques to help their sons deal with their emotions and express themselves in a healthy way.

It is open to boys aged from six to eight and already has a long waiting list.

Seven years old is ‘tipping point’

“We did our research and realised there was nothing around in Australia,” Ms Stevenson said.

They discovered that while there were programs for boys, most were aimed at older boys, young men or men who had already been violent towards women — something these mothers were not prepared to wait for.

“The tipping point for violence around boys is around seven years old,” Ms Stevenson said.

“It’s a time when they are separating themselves from their mother and struggling to find their own identity,” Ms Stevenson said.

A positive reception

While most boys grow into respectful men, and those attending the program do not necessarily have challenging behaviours or come from backgrounds of domestic violence, mothers are aiming to prevent negative behaviours from emerging.

The program is available free to all women across all socio-economic and demographic areas.

During the six-week program, a female social worker deconstructs the guilt-tripping that society can put on mothers — particularly single mums — about the way they parent, and the stresses and pressures of parenting generally.

A male psychologist works with the boys.

“We do pre and post-evaluations and the feedback has been incredibly positive,” Ms Stevenson said.

Boys should ‘feel supported and heard’

When Malika Reece heard about the program her ears pricked up.

As a mother of two happy, healthy girls she struggled raising a boy, concerned certain erratic behaviours could become part of his ongoing adult personality.

A woman with black curly hair and a white lace top stands in front of a wall
Malika Reece attended the program when she became aware her son was finding it hard to express his emotions in a healthy way.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“He was throwing things, hitting, kicking, screaming,” Ms Reece said.

A boy smiles at the camera wearing a captioned T-shirt
Jesse, who has two big sisters, loves wearing this slogan shirt his mother made for him.(Supplied: Malika Reece)

She said her son, Jesse, was happy to attend the weekly workshops.

“My son was six at the time,” Ms Reece said.

“It was a positive experience all round in that he did learn tools and techniques to help with his emotions, and to express himself in a healthy way.

“It was also really important for me because all the mothers were able to support each other and to understand that we are perfectly human, doing the best job that we can with the tools that we have.”

Ms Reece discovered that while girls tended to be much more self-sufficient, understanding the nature of boys, and what they needed, was extremely helpful.

“It’s important boys feel supported and heard.”

‘So much pressure on boys’

Ms Stevenson said it was also important to recognise what society and culture expects of boys, and what pressures around masculinity look like.

“We talk a lot in the program about what healthy masculinity looks like,” Ms Stevenson said.

“I think that’s an important reflection and practice that takes place in the program.

Ms Stevenson also said programs like this could play an important role in the context of contemporary culture, such as howallegations of sexual assault in Parliament House have been handled.

“The last couple of weeks have been hard on victim survivors of abuse and sexual assault,” she said.

“But it’s also been hard on women who get a sense that the institutions and the men in power are protecting themselves.

“So even this program here in the Illawarra has the opportunity to make change, raising the boys of the next generation to be respectful men who do respond to and support gender equality.”

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