Last year my partner came up with an idea for what to do for our family holiday cards. (We've never actually sent any, but we always brainstorm ideas.) "You know what would be cool? A totally typical picture, but everyone's wearing t-shirts that say, 'This Is What A Feminist Looks Like.' That would be badass. And I think we should put [our son] right up front, because I think some people would find that jarring." My dude sure knows what Christmas is all about: unsettling older relatives. What can I say? Feminist parents raise boys differently.
Ensuring that we parent both our son and daughter as feminists is something that is extremely important to my partner and me. It probably because both of us were instilled with feminist ideals and values from as far back as either of us can remember. Also, of course, because we look around and see that the world is a hot mess and we want to raise our kids to make it better. When we tell people the aforementioned, they get why we think it's important for our daughter. The desire to lift up girls and promote "girl power" (thank you, Spice Girls, for everything you've done for my generation) is pretty pervasive and largely seen as a good thing. However, and for whatever reason, people find raising a son to be a feminist as confusing or mildly amusing. But, like, doesn't this just make sense to teach our white, middle class son about feminist issues? In addition to the fact that we believe these are important values to possess as a person, our son will (almost certainly) have male privilege on his side as he moves forward in the world, and as such will perhaps be better positioned to effect positive social change which, as previously mentioned, the world desperately needs.
So, while most of our parenting basically boils down to the same principles that guide millions of conscientious parents determined to raise model citizens, there are a few things that feminist parents do differently when it comes to their boys, including the following:
Chivalry Is Dead, But Good Manners Aren't
Yes, chivalry is dead, but not because men don't stand when a lady enters the room. Chivalry is dead because it was a bizarre code of conduct that pertained only to French noblemen in the 12th and 13th centuries. It's mostly about fighting, but that which pertains to women is mostly about how to chastely love your friend's wife. (No, really, I'm not making this up. Courtly love is not what we think it is.)
But sure, for the sake of argument, let's define chivalry the way most people mean it: men putting women up on a pedestal and treating them accordingly. Well, if that chivalry is also dead, feminist parents are glad for it. When a woman is put on a pedestal, she cannot be seen as an equal. Moreover I (and I'm not alone in this) believe that being put on a pedestal is a form of condescension, because it implies that a woman needs protection and shielding from the "real world," because she is inherently not only different from men but weaker and more naive. It also gives "good women" a very narrow definition, which, you know, no thanks.
"So are you not going to teach your son to hold doors for ladies?!" Is the most common pearl-clutching question I'm asked when I voice my disdain for "chivalry." My reply is usually, "No, I'm going to teach him to be courteous and respectful to everyone. Men and women, and not just women he's interested in as potential romantic partners."
Boom. Mic drop. #mannersnotchivalry
"Manning Up" Is Not A Thing
Because this term is almost ever exclusively used to mean one of the following:
1) Suppress your emotions and be tougher
2) Be brave
Masculinity has nothing to do with denying oneself the ability to feel feelings and bravery is not inherently male. "Man up" is a symptom of a culture of toxic masculinity, that hurts our sons and daughters alike.
Sports Are Not A Requirement
It's so weird to go clothes shopping for babies. Before they know they're a human, society is telling them what hobbies they should like. All the girl's clothes are pink and have cupcakes, or whatever all over them, and boys clothes are covered in sports images and sporting equipments and anything remotely related to all things sports. Like, "This child doesn't have the hand eye coordination to clap yet, but you think they're interested in throwing the pig skin around?" Unless you want to put your kid in nothing but plain white onesies for the first two years or so, you really can't avoid it. Trust me, I tried. Buy a pack of blue onesies and chances are pretty good at least one of them is going to have some sort of ball on it.
This is reflected in the fact that boys are more encouraged to participate in sports, both in terms of enrollment, when they enroll, and for how long they are encouraged to "stick with it." While feminist parents have no problem with their child (of any gender) enrolling in sports, the fact is that sports are not pushed on sons simply because of their sex. Neither, I should mention, are any other activities (dance, color guard, or theater, for example) discouraged.
Toys Are As Inclusive As Possible...
Feminist parents don't wait for a son to ask for a doll or kitchen set. Instead, they simply buy them for their sons, along with trucks, blocks, and little toy tool sets. Why send the message that there are certain toys that are natural for him to have and others that are "available upon request?" Why limit the ways ours son can learn to play, right? I mean, why wouldn't a boy want a doll? Does someone need to re-watch "William Wants A Doll" from Free To Be You And Me?
Yes, I never pass up an opportunity to share that one. Hey, if our boys gravitate more toward wheels and tools, that's cool, too. (It's also very common.) The point is, we've allowed them to make that choice, rather than making that choice for them and based on pervasive gender stereotypes.
...And So Are Books, Movies, And TV Shows
Little boys have a distinct advantage, in a lot of ways; one particular way being how media tends to cater to the male experience. Most characters on TV and in movies, especially speaking characters, are male. Feminist parents know that representation matters, not just to the people who wish to be represented, but to everyone.
It's important for our sons to know that male is not the default gender and that women and girls have plenty to say and share as well, so feminist parents often have to make a concerted effort to ensure that the media our sons consume is not exclusive. It's not just gender issues, either: the state of racial diversity, to say nothing of myriad other forms of representation, are severely lacking. In short, we have our work cut out for us here.
Dress Up Is Limitless
Feminist parents aren't concerned if their son wants to pretend to be Princess Merida or Ariel or Rapunzel. As with toys, we think it's silly to limit his imagination because, "he's a boy and should be interested in boy things." It's dress up. It's pretend! Seriously, what's wrong with pretending to be a woman or a girl? When I've posed this question, I've only ever gotten two variations of the same answer...
1) Because he's not a girl, to which I say, "He dresses up as a dinosaur, too, and he's not a dinosaur. Do you have a problem with that?"
2) Because he's a boy. When I suggest, "and being a girl is a downgrade?" people usually get very defensive and huffy and insist that's not what they at all mean, but when I ask them if they'd feel the same way about their daughter putting on a Superman outfit, they almost always admit they wouldn't, usually brushing it off with that quintessential, "Well, that's different."
It's not. It's not different. It's not different at all.
Boys Will Be... Held To The Same Standards Of Respect And Accountability As Everyone Else
"Boys will be boys" is a creepy way of affirming that boys can and should be held to a privileged set of standards, because that's just the natural way of things. That's the kind of bullsh*t feminist parents can smell from a mile away.
Privilege Is Real And Explained
Look, you're not going to get very far discussing bell hooks with a two-year-old, but you don't have to start with varsity-level academics in order to lay the groundwork to have important discussions about privilege (male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, ability privilege, etc) with kids. Hopefully, conveying the idea that some in this world have distinct and institutionalized advantages over others, will not be a single discussion but a long series of discussions that span the course of a lifetime.
Consent Is Required And Explained, Early And Often
Mercifully, the discussions about preventing sexual violence have begun to shift away from teaching women and girls to be responsible for avoiding assault to realizing, "Wait a second, we have to teach men and boys not to assault." Despite what some Men's Rights Activists would probably have you believe, this doesn't entail Clockwork Orange-style psychological torture or making little boys feel that being born with a penis is some sort of sin. To the contrary, teaching consent is something any parent does simply by teaching their child good manners. (Hey! Look! My first point has already come in handy!)
Having someone's consent isn't just applicable to sexual situations; it's the idea that everyone must be treated with respect and that we are not allowed to engage them in a way they do not choose to be involved. The only real difference between feminist parents and any other parent hoping to raise a respectful child, is that we may make a more conscious effort to seamlessly incorporate what we've taught about respect and consent from the time they're little into pointed discussions about sexual consent as our kids get older.
Femininity Is Not An Insult
"Like a girl," "girl," "sissy," "pussy," and any other gendered insult or slur is unacceptable to a feminist parent. Being female is not inferior. Having perceived "feminine" qualities as a male, is not shameful. Denigrating or distancing oneself from women is not a measure of one's masculinity. We are having none of that.
In a world mired in sexism and misogyny, feminist parents have an uphill battle in many respects. However, the harder we work, the easier it's going to be for our sons, then grandsons, and so on and so forth. It'll pay off, even if, to quote Hillary Clinton quoting Hamilton, we're "planting seeds in a garden we never get to see."