When I was a young teenager, I wrinkled my nose when my mother suggested I was a feminist: “No. I don’t have to be militant. All the big sexist issues have been taken care of.” (Oh, young teenage me, you were such an idiot, for this and infinite other reasons.) Later that year, in my psychology class, I was subjected to a barrage of commercials from the 1950s to the modern era, highlighting the sexist ways women have been depicted and marketed to in American advertising. I was shocked by the early commercials; The sexism was so blatant and offensive. But seeing the progression from the ‘50s highlighted that things hadn’t gotten less sexist — sexism had merely evolved and I was just used to the more modern version. I went home that day and apologized. My mom smiled smugly. All this time, she had known I was a feminist, but now I finally admit it, and her goal as a feminist mom was realized.
As someone who benefitted tremendously from having a feminist mom, and whose feminism became a huge aspect of who she is, I was determined to ensure a similarly egalitarian upbringing for my own children. I want them to grow up knowing that the way things exist are not always the way they should be. Sexism, racism, and general inequality pervade every aspect of our society and it will take awareness and effort to set things right. I want to empower and equip them to shatter existing paradigms. I want them to understand where they fit in to all of it, and where other people fit into all of it. I want to teach them about the battles that have been won, the battles still left to fight, and the battles that don't even affect them personally but that they still need to fight for.
I’m not saying I’m going to talk to my toddler and preschooler like a grizzled member of the French Resistance, smoking a Gauloises and polishing a gun as I expound upon the importance of revolution. But there are age-appropriate ways to introduce the core values of feminism that kids will be able to grasp from their earliest days, and this is how the earliest seeds of these complex lessons are first planted.
“No One Is Going To Fight For Your Rights For You.”
Many feminists feel it is important to instill in their child a sense of justice and a sense of taking matters into their own hands, both sociopolitically and in their own lives. Of course, we don’t put it in those terms (at least not until middle school or so). It’s more like, “Be brave and never be afraid to do the right thing.” It’s like the Onceler says at the end of The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” (This is about the part in The Lorax where I start tearing up every time.) Obviously feminist parents aren’t the only ones telling their children it’s important to stand up for what they believe in, but we’re the only ones who are teaching them to believe in the fact that women should have social, political, and economic equality to men. And that’s kind-of-sort-of-massively important.
“If You Have A Microphone, Hand It To Someone Who Doesn’t.”
Mainstream feminism has rightly been criticized for being primarily, even singularly, focused on improving the lives of American, cisgender, middle-class, white women, often at the expense of women of color, LGBT women, poor women, non-American women. But if it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism, and so those within the feminist movement with the (sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical) microphone (largely wealthy-ish, cisgender American white women) need to do better and pass it to people whose voices largely go unheard without one. Again, feminist parents aren’t usually using the word “intersectionality” with their toddlers, but they’re prepping them for the day they do by emphasizing the importance of listening to what others have to say, and giving them a chance to say it out loud.
To continue in the Dr. Seuss theme, here’s why Horton Hears A Who is the best book about activism and allyship that has ever been written: Horton does not speak for the Whos. He listens to them and then uses his size to give them a platform. Horton gets it, you guys, and so I read the book to my kids all the time, because I want them to get it, too.
“No One Is entitled To Your Body.”
Feminist moms don’t make their daughters wear dresses if they don’t want to, and they’re totally down if their sons want to wear tutus. Bethany wants a buzz cut? Go for it! Peter wants a ponytail? Sweet! Or maybe little Matilda is a stereotypical little girl who loves pink and ribbons and princesses and wants long flowing locks and jewelry. That’s just fine, too. Enthusiasm for more permissive personal expression and gender subversion goes beyond just sticking it to the patriarchy. This is completely tied to the idea that you and you alone are entitled to your body. Yes, parents are allowed to override that when short-sighted children want to wear a tank top in the middle of a blizzard or whatever, but in general we want the take away to be “your body, your choice.” This is true of the clothes they wear, how they style their hair, and who they choose to hug and kiss. As they get older and the idea of who they hug and kiss gets… a little less childlike, shall we say… we hope that this lesson of complete bodily autonomy lays the groundwork for healthy, respectful relationships.
Self-Esteem And Body Positivity
We de-emphasize the importance of physical appearance and reject the very concept of beauty standards. We strive to make sure our children know there is no wrong way to have a body: A good body is one that enables you to do the things that make you happy. Of course, feminist parents realize we’re a David battling a Goliath on this one. Our daughters in particular are bombarded with the opposite message early on and often absorb it at a creepily young age. But with any luck, their feminist upbringing will give them the tools to deconstruct all this nonsense.
“There Are No Boy Toys Or Girl Toys.”
I challenge anyone to go ahead and try to take my son’s My Little Pony toys away from him. Or my daughter’s t-rex with laser eyes. I also challenge anyone to tell me that them playing with their toys isn’t the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen in your life. The best is when I see them mix the “boy” toys with the “girl” toys — a baby doll riding a triceratops, or Tinkerbell fixing robots — because it encourages far more creativity than sticking them in a limited, gendered box.
“You Can Be Anything.”
I feel as though most people, feminist or not, say they tell their children they can be anything they want to be. But I also feel that where feminists lead the pack on this one is actually encouraging it. It’s one thing to say to your daughter, “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up,” and leaving it at that. It’s quite another to say, “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up… now put on your shoes, we’re going to a kid’s science fair day, because women are underrepresented in STEM fields because their early interest is not encouraged the same way it is in boys.” Or, “Hey, son, it’s time to sign up for fall sports and activities. Would you like to do soccer again, or, I noticed you enjoyed watching So You Think You Can Dance with me this summer — would you like to take a tap class?” Feminist parents realize that, when it comes to the factors that influence their children’s future careers and interests, there are a million biases that will be based on gender, race, and economics just to name a few. So we are proactive in exposing our kids to a variety of interests that may not be considered a “logical” one based on their gender.
The Desire And Inclination To Constantly Ask Questions
As with Talmudic scholars, the children of feminists are encouraged to ask a million questions and never accept anything as an axiom. “Because” is not a good enough answer for kids. Feminists know that so much of what society accepts as simply “the way things are” is a series of systems designed to oppress and diminish, so questions become powerful tools in the fight to dismantle those systems. This can sometimes be an enormous pain in the ass to feminist parents, especially, I am lead to believe, in the teenage years. (Though speaking as the mother of two small children: it’s a pain in the ass now. We can’t go to the playground because I’m exhausted and don’t want to go! Stop asking me why!) But in the end we know it’s worth it to have raised children who grow up to be thoughtful, curious, and inquisitive adults.
Images: London Scout/Unsplash; Giphy(8)