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How To Explain Sexism To Your Kids: An Age-By-Age Guide

My 4-year-old did not understand Mulan. At all. It's not that he's not bright or wasn't paying attention. It's that he was boggled by the basic premise (not the cross-dressing, though). He was perplexed by the idea that Mulan was devalued and excluded from certain activities because she was a woman. On the one hand, that filled me with smug, liberal, feminist pride. It sounds like the kind of thing a caricature of a one-upping yuppie mom would say in a comedy sketch: "Well, my little William is soooooooooo committed to gender-equality he didn't even understand the plot of the movie Mulan," she would say, sipping coffee around a fancy kitchen table with a cadre of other moms, whose seething hatred you could see through the big smiles. Still, it's kind of a nice feeling to know that your kid has been shielded from enough misogynistic garbage that this kind of sexism eludes his comprehension.

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On the other hand, it was distressing. Because I know that one day, probably one day very soon, that's not going to be true. He will know all about sexist societal expectations, stereotypes, and pressures, and that it's up to me and his father to contextualize it and give him the tools to fight it out in the world and within himself. Same goes for his not-yet-2-year-old sister.

Watching Mulan (which, by the bye, is crazy problematic in my humble opinion, and I'm not alone in that assessment) inspired me to think about how I was going to broach and navigate the discussion of sexism as soon as possible with my children. I came up with this plan.

Birth to Age 3

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Your main goal here is just going to be modeling #TheFeministLife. You know the drill: Equitable division of labor between you and your partner, not instilling rigid gender expectations, promoting body and sex positivity. All that good stuff. Largely, this isn’t going to need to be anything you make a big deal of; you just do it.

Sometimes, if the mood strikes you, you might want to narrate what’s happening just to make a point, like, “OK, Mommy cooked dinner so now Daddy is going to clean up. We like to do it that way so that we share the chores and everything is fair.” Then you tent your wicked, feminist fingers, throw your head back and cackle, for your indoctrination of equality and respect shall be… Actually that doesn’t sound insidious at all. It sounds like establishing a culture of mutual respect. Go you. You have begun to lay the groundwork that will make anything that falls outside of a feminist model seem weird or at least notable.

Age 3-4

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Keep doing what you've been doing up until now. In fact, none of these steps ever stop once you've started them. You're not moving from one task to another, so much as you're simply adding more as time goes on. But now, in addition to simply modeling feminism, try taking more pains at this point to overtly counteract the sexist jiggery-pokery that you and your child come across in daily life. Sometimes it will even come from your child's own mouth, like when my son tells me something is "for girls" and in my head I'm like, "Dude, you're wearing pink sneakers purchased in the girl's section and watching TinkerBell. Are you even effing serious right now?"

But don't freak out, either internally or out loud to your kids. Fire-and-brimstone preaching is neither effective nor required since they probably don't even quite get what they're saying. They are likely just repeating a random tidbit they picked up somewhere along the way. Kids being sponges is a good thing, like when they're trying to learn another language or remember which shape is an octagon. But it can be annoying, too, like when someone in school tells them unicorns are for girls or you accidentally scream "f*ck!" within their hearing. (Seriously, kid, I've been trying to get you to say "please" for about 3 years now and nada, but I drop an F-bomb once and you won't let it go? WTF, man?) Instead of getting huffy, just try something like, "Well that's silly. Boys and girls like [whatever has been designated for boys or girls]!" or if you see something overtly sexist, go ahead and say, "Well, I don't think it's fair that they're treating him like that just because she's a girl. Everyone should be playing together."

Age 4-7

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Now the time has come to move beyond simply correcting sexism, but actively calling it out when you see it. Say you're watching Peter Pan. After your head explodes watching and disecting the absolutely horrifying racist American-Indian stereotypes with your child (seriously, who signed off on the song "What Made The Red Man Red"? For real? Holy sh*t, people.), which also plays in well with your feminist ideals, obviously, you can go on to talk about the fact that Tiger Lily never speaks and Wendy is continually excluded from the fun and adventures.

I find it's best to frame these discussions in terms of fairness, because kids are really, really preoccupied with things being fair and they get that better than a lot of other concepts (at least, they are when they want to be treated fairly; They seem to forget about it a lot of the time when it contradicts what they want). Humanize the people who are being stereotyped. ("I wish Tiger Lily talked. I wonder what she thinks about all this. What do you think?") Talk about why the stereotypes don't make sense. Also remember that you're talking with a young child, and this conversation might not last a super-long time, but they're still hearing you and they're absorbing what you're saying (sponges!) and that these are issues that are important to think about.

Age 7-11

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Again, keep up the good work modeling feminism, correcting sexism, and calling it out. Now we're going to make an effort to highlight historical injustices as well as current events. If a story comes up on NPR (because, let's face it: If this article is holding your interest, you probably listen to NPR) about understanding Islamic feminism, engage them in it. Talk to them about slavery and abolitionism and how many of those who fought for women's suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily concerned with eradicating slavery prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. (You can also tell them that those women were imperfect despite their accomplishments and virtues.) Talk about the fact that women account for a small fraction of government leaders in the U.S. and that is just not the case everywhere in the world.

Remember, again, these are kids, and they are probably way more interested in Minecraft than maternity leave policy — these conversations need not be heady or profound or long. We don't want to talk to them like we're professors and they're sitting in a lecture. But drop some knowledge on them from time to time. See what piques their interest. Trust that you talking about this is doing something. By showing them that the world has been simmering in a horrible, chauvinistic broth from time immemorial and that things are mostly getting better but still have such a long way to go, you're giving them a clearer picture of why the ideals they were raised with are so important.

Ages 11-14

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This is where we start getting a little loftier. Your darling is a tween now. Mazel tov! But despite their bad reputation, this is a really fascinating age where they're going to be aching to find new ideas. You've been calling out and pointing out blatant sexism — now's the time to point it out when it's not so obvious to a casual viewer. The kind of sexism that has become obvious to you, but for which your annoying aunt accuses you of "just looking for ways to be offended." Bring up the Bechdel Test and the fact that there are so few women-driven movies released. Point out the ways gender is pushed on young children through the clothing they wear and unfair dress codes under the guise of being "cute" or "concerned." Hopefully, with the background you've given them, they'll see it when you point it out (or, dare we dream, notice it themselves).

Ages 14+

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And now, your tween is a beautiful, surly teenager. They are the perfect age to begin to take the conscious plunge into a lifetime of understanding (and trying to fix) sexism. Recommend (or give them) books, movies, and documentaries on the subject. Ask their political opinions. Let them know yours. This is also the time to begin to very bluntly discuss some horrible subjects that you may have deemed them too sensitive to absorb in the past, including sexual assault*, rape, and FGM. As always, never stop doing what you've been doing since they were born, because it never stops being important.

*Discussing inappropriate touch with children can be started as early as 3 years old, but if you have not yet given a clear idea of what rape is, now is the time. I feel slightly bummed out that we're going to end this whole thing on an aside about rape, so here's this:

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So much better. Godspeed and good luck out there.