Opinion

How to raise feminist boys

Everyday practices for teaching sons about gender equality

"I don't want the pink cup," my 6-year-old stepson says. "Pink's for girls."

My 12-year-old son takes the pink cup, fills it with juice, and takes a gulp. "It's not," he says. "Pink's for boys, too."

It was a fleeting moment during a typically frenetic family mealtime. But it made me pause and smile. Against all odds — namely deep-rooted societal sexism — my efforts to raise a feminist son appear to be paying off.

So much of feminism focuses on widening options for our daughters, and that's obviously imperative — I'm raising feminist young women, too. But we need to widen options for our sons at the same time. "It's important to raise boys to be feminists not only so they can be strong allies for disadvantaged people, such as women and minorities, but also because it is healthier for the boys themselves," says Taryn A. Myers, Ph.D. associate professor of psychology at Virginia Wesleyan University. "It lets them know that it is okay to experience and show emotions, which is much more psychologically healthy than our current thought of 'man up' and 'real men don't cry.'"

It's also part of a wider effort to improve society for all. "If we want to make a difference in the rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, etc., we need to teach boys not to do these things — instead of teaching girls how to protect themselves," says Myers.

These patterns can be hard to break, because they tend to be passed down through generations. But while I wouldn't say raising my son (and daughters) to be feminists is effortless, it's definitely not rocket science. Little things go a long way if you put them in place from the very beginning. For instance, all the kids had (and have; my youngest daughter is 14 months) a wide range of toys available to them — not just dolls and a play kitchen for my girl and trucks and a wooden toolbox for my boy (yawn). I don't follow outdated gendered color rules, and I try to model by example at every opportunity.

Role modelling is a huge part of teaching kids about gender equality, says Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., CEO of Buddy&Soul and a visiting researcher at Cambridge University. "It starts with either mom or dad driving the car, and paying at a restaurant," she says. "It continues with the mother having a role and a standing in the world and in her own eyes. Beyond this, it's all about treating our children as people, not as a 'girl who must help mom set the table' and a 'boy who should go out and play ball.'"

Indeed, ensuring kids have a powerful mother or female figure in their lives is important, Miron-Shatner says. "If it's always the mothers who chaperone school trips because the fathers are working, making money, and being important people in the world, it's hard for a child to internalize that women and men are — or should be — equal."

This is the definition of radical feminism, Miron-Shatz explains. It's not about burning bras or hating men. It's simply viewing gender roles as equal. "In this sense, 'radical' means 'coming from the root,'" Miron-Shatz says. "When you're raising your boy to be a feminist, you're teaching him to be a better, more equal person."

Direct conversations about all aspects of gender equality are also vital. Myers advises talking about consent early but also practicing what you preach. For instance, don't make your boy hug anyone he does not want to hug, and help him get comfortable asking for permission to hug or kiss someone.

Some of the biggest hurdles for parents trying to change the narrative about gender are those thrown in our path by others, whether that's fellow parents who describe my daughter as "boyish" because she'd rather climb trees than paint her nails, or male characters on TV and in movies who never cry.

Emily Kane, professor of sociology at Bates College and the author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, says her research clearly shows that parents worry a lot about how the world will judge their kids if they don't conform to gender norms. "When parents enforce gendered expectations it is often out of fear their children (especially their sons) will be teased, ostracized, or otherwise excluded if they don't fall into line with those expectations," she explains. "We can all help by avoiding judgment, and those small, everyday assumptions about what a kid will enjoy or be good at based on their gender."

It surprises me that even in 2020, when #MeToo is still fresh in our minds and issues like the gender pay gap, gender identity, and abortion rights are demanding media coverage and at the center of social media conversation and debate, parents still don't think gender equality should be on their radar. Instead, many rely on the timeworn "boys will be boys" and "girls will be girls" adage, which assume that gendered patterns in childhood are rooted in nature.

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about other parents. "They may certainly reject what you are doing, and you may have to explain to your son that not everyone believes that all people are equal, but that in your household, you do," Myers says. Similarly, you can't control media messaging, but Myers suggests turning troubling TV and movie moments into opportunities to talk to our kids about appropriate ways to address conflict in real life.

Now that my son is almost a teenager, I have to have faith that the work I've put in up to this point will serve him well over the next few years, when he becomes increasingly independent and starts to figure out what he stands for.

"Education is like a compass you build into your child," Miron-Shatz says. "They will know right from wrong, and will be more likely to act in the right way, either as a teenager, or afterwards. We can't always be near our kids when a challenge arises, but it's our duty to create that internal compass in them."

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