My childhood reflected most gender stereotypes as they were perpetuated in mainstream media at the time, despite my hippie parents’ efforts to subvert them. Now, as a parent to a boy and a girl, I find my children also gravitating towards stereotypical activities associated with their self-identifying genders. However, just because my son is into sports and male superheroes doesn’t mean he can’t also be a proponent of gender equality, and there is one thing I’m doing deliberately to help him grow up to be a feminist. After all, if he’s not a feminist, I’m not raising him right.
For too long, most, if not almost all, people conflated the idea of feminism with that of female superiority or, worse, male-hating. That "idea," however, is not the brand of feminism I subscribe to (nor is it feminism, in general). For me, being a feminist means believing there should be equal opportunities for all humans (you know, what the Equal Rights Amendment would require by law, if this country ever got its sh*t together long enough to pass it). It means nothing about one’s gender could ever be the reason for less professional advancement, lower pay, fewer resources or jacked up merchandise pricing. I’m glad I’m raising a boy and a girl, because they are seeing — firsthand — how they are being treated equally, at least by their parents.
There is so much universal talk about what the collective "we" can do to make the world a better place for our daughters, how we have to protect our daughters, and how we have to empower our daughters. While those are all valiant causes that do (and should) require our effort and attention, it's only half the battle. There is no ground gained towards equality if so many women are leaning in, but not enough guys are leaning out.
This is why it is crucial for my son to grow up embodying, and practicing, the ideals of feminism.
For all of my son's short life, my husband and I have made sure to expose our kids to books with female protagonists and films that feature girls in leadership roles. We’ve curbed our use of “princess” when addressing our daughter and “tough guy” when talking to our son. We tell them they can love anyone they choose when they grow up. We don’t praise their looks with words like “pretty” or “handsome.” Instead, we compliment them with “I like your style.”
We've also been saying, from the time they were babies, “Keep your hands to yourself” (because it’s never too early to teach kids about consent).
It is crucial for my son to grow up embodying, and practicing, the ideals of feminism.
But they are out in the big world now, at ages eight and six. Their group of role models has grown as they now have the opportunity to spend more time out of the house, with teachers, coaches, instructors, friends, other parents, and kids on their school bus. In other words, they’re not babies anymore and, as much as this frustrates me as a Type A mom, I don’t have control over their behavior every second of every day.
So there is one thing I’ve been trying to do, every day, to help both my children, but especially my son (as he is more susceptible to being influenced by older boys, who might not display feminist tendencies or be taught feminism at home) to forge a feminist path.
I ask my kids how they are feeling.
Then I listen.
I can’t just tell him to be a feminist. I have to show him.
Boys who grew up in my generation, and the generations before, were not encouraged to value their own feelings. We discouraged boys to cry. We told them to “man up.” They needed to “take it like a man,” and be “tough.” This all "made sense" in the days when strength and brawn were valued over logic and diplomacy — back when you literally had to fight for your life in the wilderness. However, we’ve evolved as a species and a society. In households like mine, where both my partner and I work full-time, our domestic duties are shared. I am as much a role model to my son as I am to my daughter.
Nobody has to be tough to prove anything about their gender. Showing emotion is not a weakness, it’s a strength. The more I can get my son to tap into his feelings, the more compassionate he will become. He will recognize how actions affect others, because he recognizes those same feelings in himself. We have taken the sports out of the game because nobody has to “win.” We only have to empathize with each other.
I believe that showing my son how I value his feelings is leading him on a feminist path. We cannot foster a culture of equality if we don’t recognize inequality, and you don’t truly know something, until you’ve experienced it. Until you’ve felt it.
I am as much a role model to my son as I am to my daughter.
My son won’t have the same experiences as my daughter. I know that. However, teaching him the importance of empathy might, at least, solidify his core values so that he has equal respect for men and women. When I listen to my son when he describes how he’s feeling, I’m teaching him to be a good listener too. It’s not enough for me to encourage my daughter to speak up for herself; I need to also encourage her brother to listen.
I can tell my kid what to do, because I’m his mother. But I can’t just tell him to be a feminist. I have to show him. His father has to show him. The most important aspect of showing him, is to illuminate how feminism benefits girls and boys. We are all better, when we are all treated equally.