As a strong-willed person, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that my son is revealing himself to be just as stubborn as I am. But like a lot of feminist parents, my partner and I are very focused on figuring out how to raise our boys to be amazing men. We know that the combination of a strong personality, social privilege, and dominant cultural messages about masculinity can be incredibly dangerous. We don't want our son to grow up to hurt others or perpetuate injustice. We want him to be a force for good in the world.
We also don't want him to have to spend his entire adulthood unlearning social norms that limit his ability to be his full and wonderfully genuine, unique self. We don't want him to adhere to certain traits society passes off as "masculine," that make him a less empathetic friend, partner, or citizen. My partner and I know, firsthand, how tough it is to have to overcome toxic messages from our own upbringings, and how difficult it can be when fighting cultural socialization in order to have genuine relationships and lead authentic, fulfilling lives.
Fortunately, our own understandings, as unapologetic feminists, and the many lessons we observe from watching other feminist parents, give us a great starting place for helping our son grow up to be a great person which, it turns out, include the following:
Teach Them What Real Heroes Look Like
As boys, our sons will be bombarded with lots of problematic hero imagery, from companies marketing products covered in superheroes and authority figures to them, to well-meaning family and friends buying them “boy gifts” for birthdays and holidays. So, it's on us to make sure that they get a balanced view of who can be a hero (read: everyone, not just straight, cis, usually white men), and to teach them how they can be heroes in real life. Encouraging them to direct their energy towards things like standing up against bullying, interrupting sexual harassment or other gendered violence (for starters) helps them feel good about themselves while simultaneously encouraging them to do good in the world.
Educate Them About Boundaries And Consent From An Early Age
Feminists raising strong willed boys know that we have an especially urgent responsibility to make sure they recognize and accept that they, and other people, have a right to assert their own boundaries, and that they understand the concept of consent. We know that it's on us to raise sons who don’t engage in sexual violence or other forms of violence and abuse.
Give Them Language And Permission To Own All Of Their Feelings
We know that without our guidance, other people in their lives (and the culture they live in, more generally) will teach our sons to channel all of their emotions into anger. So, from an early age, we take every opportunity to help our sons identify their feelings, and teach them that it is perfectly normal and OK to have them and express them and never, ever, apologize for them.
Help Them Understand Their Privilege And Use It To Dismantle Oppression
As boys, our sons will have considerable privilege over children of any other gender, in addition to any other parts of their identities that may be privileged. We need to make sure they know what privilege is, and help them understand how they can use their privilege to interrupt oppressive behavior when they see it. Their strong personalities can help them be especially influential in stopping their peers from making sexist jokes, or engaging in bullying or street harassment, and so forth.
Help Them Develop A Body Positive Outlook
Learning that all bodies are worthy is essential for everyone, but it's especially important for strong-willed boys who are likely to end up as leaders in various areas of their lives. They can use their determined natures to do anything from influencing peers to stop bullying, to encouraging companies to create more representative media.
Help Them Develop A Sex Positive Outlook
Raising sex positive kids (as in, kids who understand that sex is normal and healthy as long as it's safe and consensual) should be a major goal for feminist parents. Making sure our sons are knowledgeable about their own bodies, and other people’s bodies, and avoiding shame around sex and reproduction, goes a long way toward ensuring that they grow up to be respectful sex partners (and parents, if they so choose).
Feminist parents of strong-willed boys try to raise sons who are not only open to the truth of their own sexual identities, but respectful and supportive of other people’s. That means we don't assume anything about their sexual identities beyond what they let us know, and ensuring that they see a variety of kinds of people in their lives and in the media they consume.
Teach Them To Be Media Literate
Feminist parents recognize how common oppressive stereotypes are in our mass media. We know we have to teach our sons to question what they see. This includes, and is especially important, when they're older and porn becomes an issue. It's important that they understand what they may see in porn is staged, just like other shows and/ or movie, and that it's not necessarily a realistic depiction of what they or their partners should look like, how they should behave sexually, or how their future sex partners will want to be treated.
Build Their Shame Resilience
Despite our best efforts too support our sons to be whomever they want, it's inevitable that they will interact with other people who have restrictive ideas about gender, and who will try to shame them for deviating from those certain, prevalent ideas concerning masculinity. Helping them understand how shame and shaming works will help empower them to recognize and name it when it's happening, and to refuse to be controlled by outdated social norms. Fortunately, for them, their strong-willed natures will assist them in resisting outside pressure to conform to ideas that don't serve them.
Keep Them Out Of The "Man Box"
Feminist parents who want to raise sons to be amazing men recognize that means they need to be able to own all aspects of their individual identities, not just the parts that fit into patriarchy’s narrow and toxic definition of manhood (what many folks refer to as the "Man Box"). Because we're feminists, we don't denigrate traits or anything else that's associated with femininity or other genders, or denigrate our sons for doing things that are considered traditionally feminine. We don't suggest that there's only one right way to be a man. We also don't shame or punish our boys for expressing emotions, least of all by exhorting them to “be a man.” They'll become men in their own time, and better ones if they're free to be who they want to be, not just who patriarchy demands they “should” be.