7 Ways Progressive Parents Help Their Sons Understand Their Privilege

Privilege is an aspect of your identity that shields you from the challenges other people face on account of their identities. It's possible to have one kind of privilege (white privilege) and not another (straight privilege). Understanding one's own privilege is crucial in dismantling institutional bigotry and moving through the world as a compassionate, proactive person. So there are ways progressive parents help their sons understand their privilege, and this can done, in bits and pieces, from a young age.

In so many ways, my son hit the privilege jackpot. As of right now he's a cisgender, neurotypical, healthy, middle-class, white boy who does not live with a disability. Now that's not to say my son lives a life completely free from any kind of challenge. He feels big, even for a 7-year-old, so his emotional regulation can be a struggle. But privilege doesn't mean you don't have problems. It means that even if you do have 99 problems, your race/gender/disability/etc ain't one.

As a mom who is also privileged, I believe it's important that I make my son aware of the many aspects of his privilege, including his male privilege (and, certainly, there's a ton of overlap between all the other ways he's lucked out). So with that in mind, here's how I make sure my son knows about his privilege, and then uses it to even the playing field for everyone else.

Don't Shield Them From The News

I'm not saying you should intentionally expose your child to bloody war photography and graphic footage of human suffering. And there are some news stories that, perhaps, might not be the right time to discuss. (For example, my son is 7 and I turn down the volume on the radio when the hosts share a story about child sexual assault within the Catholic church. I'd rather he have a fuller understanding of healthy, consensual sex before he learns about rape.) But having some idea of what's going on in the world is a great foray into being an informed and engaged citizen. It also helps him understand the ways being white/male/cis/etc may shield you from issue that affect others every single day.

Recently, while listening to NPR,there was a clip of a politician evoking the phrase "war on women," which immediately concerned my son and gave me the opportunity to talk about the unfair ways women are governed on account of their gender. The news is full of teachable moments. Even complicated stories can usually be broken down in a way kids can understand that will help them see themselves as being part of a bigger (and, sadly, often unfair) world.

Call Out Unfair Treatment

From casual sexist language (any time "like a girl" is used as an insult) to children bringing that messaging to the playground ("no girls allowed"), to transmisogyny, to your own life experience (a man getting credit for something you said five minutes earlier in a meeting), there, sadly, won't be shortage of occasions for you to point out unfair treatment.

The more your son is aware of what other people experience based on their gender, the better he can understand that he does, in fact, have privilege that shields him from similar treatment.

Start Talking About History

It is enlightening, encouraging, and disheartening to know the long history of misogyny and the ways women (and some men) have worked to overcome it. Helping your son realize that his privilege did not happen by accident or all of a sudden but runs very, very deep can help him examine himself in a fuller context and work to dismantle systems of oppression.

Giving my son a chance to grow up with some understanding of history will give him a good background to understand the bigger picture throughout his life. His understanding will grow and develop as he does, so the longer he has with this information the better.

Approach Media Critically

Things have gotten a lot better since I was a kid, but all media (including children's media) is positively dripping with gender stereotypes, which very often relegate female characters to the background. Rather than merely accept this as the status quo, highlight the ways we're not seeing female characters (to say nothing of characters of color, characters with disabilities, etc).

Promote Visibility Of Marginalized Groups

The more we can see underrepresented groups, the more privileged groups will recognize how our privilege often exists to the detriment marginalized. Above and beyond that, these are people who need to be seen. Their lives often depend on more visibility than they currently have. It's kind of a two for one deal, because one person's oppression cannot be seen outside of the context of another person's privilege and vice versa.

Do Your Best To Avoid Making Cis-Het Men The Default

Imagine your child is given a stuffed animal, say a brown bear. How do you refer to that stuffed animal? If you're like any number of people I have asked this question of over the years, you'll say "he." In fact, unless a toy is specifically marked as "female," people tend to default to male and, spoilers, we don't just do this with toys.

Include women and non-binary people as part of every day life to avoid positioning them as "other." Nothing perpetuates a sense of privilege quite like making everyone else seem like they're an exception to "normal."

Point Out Their Privilege

This doesn't have to be some sort of guilt-laden tirade that makes your son feel like a jerk for identifying as male. It can be a simple, matter of fact statement, for example: "Being a boy means you do not have to deal with a lot of the things women and non-binary people do and that is a privilege and colors your life experience." Any guilt that does occur should happen later on when they may consider what they are doing to protect their privilege even though doing so further marginalizes others. Hopefully, by letting our sons know that they have privilege early on, we can encourage them to leverage their position to empower others.