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On the Subject of Male Engagement

*Guest Blogger: Ben Schillmoeller

“Oh! And you know what else KB? Ben got engaged this weekend. Who knows what “engaged” means?”

“It means, like, when- when you decide you are going to marry each other.”

“Yes that’s right! And what do we say to Ben, KB?”

“Happy Birthday!”

The kindergarteners’ reaction was my favorite. They understood that proposing to your girlfriend and her saying “yes” was a very exciting occasion. They applied that to how during birthdays, an exciting occasion, we say “Happy Birthday! They then interpreted that when we celebrate anything at all, we say “Happy Birthday!” And so they cheered.

As I reflect on the ways that I have discussed my engagement with various age groups, I see an interesting story. It demonstrates how women evolve into highly competent communicators in and about relationships, and men, on the contrary, seem to stop between ages 6-10.

My first graders were the first students I told. It was during morning meeting, and after all of the students share their feelings and weekend stories, they all asked me.

“Ben, How are YOU feeling today?”

“I’m very happy and excited.”

“What did you do over the weekend?”

“Well, I asked my girlfriend to marry me and she said ‘yes!’”

There was a collective “ewwwwww” in the class followed by a collective “congratulations!” It seemed that in 1st grade, just a year after “Happy Birthday,” we made it to an understanding of how important and crucial that is for the making of a family. 

That’s how my parents got married and that’s how I’m here so two other people getting married is good. But WHY would you want to get cooties? 

I can only guess that that thought process explains the “ewwwwww.” It’s important to life and family to get married, but why would anyone kiss people? To this day they still come up to me during snack and recess and ask me if I’m married, only weeks after the proposal. Both male and female students ask, “are you married yet?” I’ll explain how I won’t be until next year, at which point their jaws drop and they giggle at the thought of me marrying my fiance’. These 1st graders have little concept of planning and coordinating a wedding. Marriage is relatively simple: get rings, get a dress, have a party, kiss, and then you’re married.

Unfortunately, I only teach 1st and 5th grade, and I just happened to sub in Kindergarten. I also didn’t get to tell my 5th graders. One of my coworkers (female) was so excited for me that they told one of my students who then shouted it on the play yard. I found this announcement especially hilarious simply because my proposal and fresh engagement to the love of my life at this moment had been reduced to playground chatter. But to a 5th grade female, that was a very appropriate way to spread the news. When I officially told the class, the girls had so much excitement with questions, opinions, advice, and “ewwwwwwws.” The males sat there and shuffled their feet. They weren’t interested.

As males, be it teachers, parents, camp counselors, babysitters, whatever role, we have to open up conversations with each other and our young males so they can have a social network to openly talk about their relationships.

They still are not. Even though I encouraged them to ask me about it, they haven’t brought it up again. That’s okay because the female students still ask me questions about details and the moment occasionally. 

What I saw in my male students was a lack of priority in discussing relationships. There are many complex emotions in any relationship, especially a life-long romantic one (not that I am an expert, but there are plenty of sources that agree it is not a simple feat). My female colleagues had so many detailed questions about my proposal and stories of others. My male coworkers talked in a much more simple and abrupt fashion.

It seems that as we get older, we fall more and more into our society’s gender stereotypes when it comes to handling relationships. Sometime between 1st and 5th grade, males lose the interest to talk about our relationships with each other. It is so strange to me that in a society where sexual and domestic violence, assault, and abuse are such concerns to us, we don’t turn to our schools and start teaching/modeling relationship communication as a cultural skill for our children. 

As males, be it teachers, parents, camp counselors, babysitters, whatever role, we have to open up conversations with each other and our young males so they can have a social network to openly talk about their relationships.

Relationships are a very difficult thing. They’re something that should be communicated about early on. Relationships, whether platonic, romantic, or familial, are difficult and take hard work and honesty to maintain. That is true for males and females of all ages. To talk openly and honestly about relationships with our children from a young age makes sense. I think for the female student body it would be a smooth transition into the content. For the male student body, it would strictly rely on true engagement.

*Ben Schillmoeller is a 1st and 5th grade teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School in Hollywood, California. He is also pursuing his Masters Degree in Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA.

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