816 North Opinion

Susan Vollenweider: How a woman can help teach a boy to be a man

Head up, shoulders back, purse tight to my body, car keys in my hand, my eyes scanned with each step.

Step, look to the left; step, look to the right. I bleeped open the car door locks when I was a few feet away, looked in the windows on the driver’s side as I passed by, and did a well-practiced quick-in-the-seat-close-the-door move. My son had been following me and when Luke got in the passenger’s side I pushed the button that locked every door.

“Why’d you do that?” he asked.

“What?” I really had no idea.

“The fast walk and door lock.”

He really had no idea.

He really had no idea?

“Safety. Indoor parking lots can be dangerous.”

“But even with a teenage football player? I’d keep you safe.”

Would he?

“Habit,” I told him. “I’ve done it for a long time. Your sister does, too. Actually I would venture that most women do a version of the same thing.”

Had he never noticed this before? Maybe his messed up knee — the reason for us being in a hospital parking lot in the first place — had made it more obvious, but his having to ask made me question my parenting.

What else I had left out of both my boys’ journey to manhood?

I’ll admit that for some “boy stuff” I defer to my husband.

I’ll own up to the sexist nature of both that statement and the act — but I never was a boy, never an athlete, never had their equipment. I was never on a sports team — don’t know what happens in any locker room; I don’t know what the guy-code is on those teams or in social situations…heck, I don’t even know if the guy-code is a real thing, let alone if and how it differs from gender-neutral social interaction.

What I do know from my years as a mom to boys: When Dad got involved in discussions with the boys on topics that were only theory to me, he covered finer points (and got them out faster) than I ever did. Because of his first-person perspective, it seemed more efficient to defer to him.

But was this a mistake? Single moms of boys take care of this stuff all the time; was I participating in some sort of matrimonial privilege?


As we drove away from the hospital, my mind fell faster down a hole of self-doubt.

If Dad could give them first person intel of, say, use of a urinal, what could I offer?

I’ve taken every situational opportunity to discuss crucial topics since both boys could talk, but would the 18-year-old football player who offered to keep me safe in a parking lot be willing to stand up to a guy friend and come to the aid of a girl saying, “no”?

What if he saw a girl who couldn’t even say the word but was in no condition to give consent? I’m confident that he would do the right thing based on all the conversations we’ve had about it, but is there a fresh perspective I could give?

Maybe Dad could tell them better about what it’s like to be a male — what it feels like, tricks for their care that experience teaches — but I most certainly could tell them the same things from my own perspective.

“When I walk into a parking lot, even if it’s the middle of the day, I have to push away feeling vulnerable. I’ve taken classes just so I can get to my car hyper-aware of ways to keep safe,” I began.

And I don’t plan to end any time soon. 

Susan Vollenweider lives in Smithville. To listen to the women’s history podcast that she co-hosts or to read more of her writing visit www.thehistorychicks.com and www.susanvollenweider.com .