When I was pregnant, I imagined what life might be like if I had a little girl. I envisioned teaching her to stand up for herself, buying her dresses with science symbols, letting her get dirty, and being an example of a strong woman for her. I wasn’t going to stereotype her or allow anyone else to, thank you very much. In short, I considered how to teach her to be a feminist.
But I turned out to have two sons.
(Unless they are trans.)
At first, I thought I had to reconsider my whole approach. After all, most of the things I imagined sharing with my theoretical daughter – my love of the outdoors, science, and geeky things – are typically coded male.
But I realized that the same principles applied to raising a feminist, no matter what gender my children are. While the world may try to reinforce my sons’ male privilege, it’s my husband’s and my responsibility as their parents to do better. The patriarchy hurts everyone and boys need feminism just as much as girls.
Here are a few of the ways we’re trying to teach our young sons to be feminist:
Providing toys that are both “girls” and “boys” toys, as well as those not associated with a specific gender
The toy aisles at major retailers are hopelessly gendered. Even when retailers take down the Boy/Girl signs, it’s still pretty obvious which toys are meant for which gender. Just the fact that action figures – which are clearly dolls – live in a different place than Barbie speaks volumes. Thankfully, our household has mostly managed to avoid this issue so far. We mainly buy from local toy stores that have arrangements that are less segregated, as well as ethical retailers online. In addition to buying toys that aren’t associated with a specific gender, we’ve also made an effort to buy toys that are coded feminine, including a dollhouse, toy kitchen, and baby doll. Sprout is always using his toy kitchen, cooking up meals like his dad. We also make an effort to not identify Sprout’s toys as specifically male or female. Even though he loves trains, that doesn’t mean they’re a “boy thing.” They’re just a “Sprout thing.”
Having non-stereotyped male and female characters in the media they read and watch
Boys dominate children’s media. Female characters who aren’t stereotyped are few and far between in TV and books. To counteract that, we purposefully look for books with interesting, engaging female characters. Sprout doesn’t watch much TV, but Peg + Cat and Puffin Rock in particular have good female characters. I haven’t watched it because we don’t get Disney Jr., but I’ve also heard great things about Doc McStuffins. The blog Sacraparental has a list of 13 children’s shows with non-stereotyped female characters.
Respecting and not putting down “girly” things
When I was a young adult, I purposely rejected “girly” things. (My princess prom dress aside.) I saw many things that were traditionally coded female, such as an interest in fashion, as shallow and inconsequential. As I learned later on, this was a pretty sexist attitude! Now, I try to treat both traditionally male and female interests with respect, especially around my kids. I never want them to look down on someone because they enjoy fashion, interior design or makeup.
Teaching them not to suppress emotions, but respond to them appropriately
Childhood is full of big emotions. When your world is relatively small, everything is a really big deal. I never want to imply to my kids that crying is shameful. (Making fun of people who cry easily was another sexist thing I did – until I became a mom and started crying at beer commercials.) At the same time, screaming at someone when you’re upset isn’t respectful or kind. We’re trying to balance respecting Sprout’s emotions while also teaching him how to express them appropriately. A lot of the positive parenting advice is great for this.
Rejecting early sexualization
There’s a lot of commentary and criticism around our society’s sexualization of young girls. But there’s a shocking amount of sexualization of young boys too – but as the pursuer, not the pursued. Comments like “Watch out, little girls!” or shirts that say “Hola Ladies” imply that even the youngest boys are inevitably destined to chase after girls. But these attitudes contribute to the “boys will be boys” perspective that waves off sexual assault as just something that happens. It also tells boys that the only relationship they can have with girls is romantic, excluding any possibility that they might be gay or even just want to have a non-sexual relationship with girls. We act really hard to avoid those stereotypes and push back against anyone who might perpetuate them around our sons.
Demonstrating how our family personally breaks traditional gender roles
Having my husband stay home is one of the best decisions our family has ever made. Sticking with his previous work schedule (nights and weekends), would have wrecked havoc on our family life. He gets to use his skills at home – cooking, patience with small people, flexibility – while I get to use mine at my job. Our kids have a creative, funny, amazingly loving caretaker who is also willing to let them step back and do their own thing. And our kids will see that their dad and I value caretaking work. While society undervalues caretaking, our kids will know that it is worthwhile, whether they or their partners (or neither) choose to stay at home.
Teaching them about consent
So often, we want to tell little kids to “keep your hands to yourself!” After all, you really just want them to stop pinching their little brother or randomly kissing people. But understanding why they need to ask for consent before hugging someone is essential for their future as teenagers and adults. Rape culture is based on the idea that boys and men have the right to women’s bodies. So we teach them both about stopping when someone says (or otherwise communicates) no, as well as asking before touching someone in the first place. We also try to emphasize that consent can be situational – just because someone has given consent before, it doesn’t mean that they will again. For example, most of the time, I’m fine with my kids touching my hair. But the other day, I had a nasty sinus headache and really, really didn’t want to be touched anywhere on the head. So even though Sprout wanted to play with my hair and it would normally be fine, I explained to him that I didn’t want him doing it that day. Everyday Feminism has a very good guide on talking to kids about consent.
While I’ll never have a child assigned female at birth, I hope that I’m raising two feminists. Because we need more feminists, no matter what their gender is.
For more on learning on how I’m learning more about social justice and trying to teach my kids, check out the posts Raising a Peacemaker and How I’ve Confronted My Own Racism. Plus, you can always get updates by following the blog’s Facebook page.