I'm proud to say that my 9-year-old son is a feminist in training. In 20 years time, this hopefully won't be anything worth writing about. But right now, far too many boys are being raised to believe they are superior to girls. If we want our daughters to have rights equal to our sons, we need all sexes to support the cause.
Here's how I'm raising my feminist son.
I'll never tell my son to "man up." I'll never say, "boys don't cry." I'll never say anything that supports stereotypes about what girls/women and boys/men should be like. The only place for "should" in our house lies in the sentence, "Both boys and girls should have the freedom to develop their personalities and make their choices without the restriction of archaic gender norms."
Clinical psychologist and author of Brave Girls, Dr. Stacey Radin, agrees that the everyday language we use to talk to our kids can have a huge impact on their attitudes toward gender and gender equality. "I would say we develop the concept of gender equality from day one of our children's lives, both in our actions and the language we use," she says. "Children are observant and attuned to the messages and behavior of the adults around them."
Right now, my son is growing his hair. It's almost reached his shoulders — finally long enough for a ponytail. He doesn't want to look like a girl; he wants to look like his uncle, who is in a rock band and therefore extremely cool. It would be much easier for me if his hair were short (less likelihood of head lice and far less time trying to tame it into a school-appropriate style every morning), but I love that he has the confidence to go against the grain and have a hairstyle that many people would describe as "girly."
"Accepting a child as an individual and applauding decisions and choices is critical," says Radin. "I once observed a mom become upset that I allowed my son to wear my heels and parade around the house. He was 2-1/2! She chastised me for encouraging feminine behavior. Rather than defining all behaviors as 'feminine' or 'masculine,' there needs to be an acceptance of children's preferences and temperament."
Why do so many people still refuse to acknowledge that showing emotion is a positive thing for boys (and men)? If my son is upset about something, I'll let him cry it out before we try to find a resolution.
Research published by U.K. mental health charity Mind in 2015 found that 4 in 5 18- to 34-year-old men don't show their emotions when they are anxious, instead putting on a brave face ("manning up," some might say.) Additionally,1 in 5 men think showing their emotions is a sign of weakness. The idea that "men don't cry," is dangerous because it can stop men from asking for help when they might have a serious mental health issue that needs to be addressed. I don't want my son to ever find himself in that position.
Radin agrees that feminism is just as much about nurturing healthy boys as supporting equal rights for girls. "My philosophy about gender is that we must engage men versus alienate them and make them part of the solution," she says. "Otherwise, feminism is perceived as a woman's issue vs. the societal issue it is."
I don't spend my life clapping back at anyone who says something sexist. But if there is an opportunity for discussion with friends or family, I'll grab it. "If a mom hears an innocent stereotype she can probe for understanding and clarify and educate," says Radin. This might mean asking a parent why they won't allow their son to play with dolls or not letting it slide if my nephew says my daughter can't do something "because she's a girl."
"Parents should listen. There are so many openings to have a conversation," says Radin. "You have an opportunity to explore and ask [children] questions to understand their thinking and explain that it's not about being a girl or a boy and build empathy for others."
I try to expose my kids to women and men who are presenting a different view to the cultural norm and highlight powerful female figures in the media and pop culture because, let's face it, it's women who have been marginalized forever. I don't stop them watching TV shows and movies that are gender-imbalanced because that would be impossible. "Only 11 percent of movies could be classified as gender-balanced," said actress, mom of three and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Geena Davis. So when my kids and I are watching a gender-imbalanced movie, I'll comment on how the female characters look, or why the male and female characters fill certain roles, just to flag those issues, and hopefully encourage them to question what they see rather than accept it as the truth.
If I want my son (and daughter) to know that women are just as strong, smart and capable as men, I need to be a strong, smart, capable woman myself. I encourage them to have strong, positive relationships with other strong female figures in our lives. I want them to see women as individuals, not objects. I also work on my relationship with their father to ensure it sets an example to them about how women (and men) should be treated. "It starts with how they are raised," agrees Radin. "It's important to have parents who communicate and treat one another with respect."
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