Raising A Feminist Son: How It Matters, And Why We Need To Start Now
It’s a tough task raising them manlings these days. On the one hand, we’re raising our girls to be strong, fierce, badass, outspoken women, but on the other, we’re pretty much raising our boys the same way we always have been doing all these years. That is creating a bit of a problem. I hear this consistently, conference after conference on gender equality and gender issues, we’re raising our girls differently but have we really put a thought into how we’re now changing the way we raise our sons. Are we equipping our boys to deal with a world where the girls are all they want to be and more? Are we still telling our boys they have to be the breadwinners, they have to be men and not cry, they have to man up and be tough and rough and tumble? Are we discouraging them from so-called feminine pursuits? Are we using ‘girl’ as an epithet when they show fear or emotion?
A fabulous quote by Gloria Steinem quite encapsulates the crossroads we are at in raising the next generation of boys. She says, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
So what is it we need to do to raise feminist boys? It is a question I admit I have grappled with for a long time, ever since the offspring was born and 16 years later, I still don’t know if I have all the answers. I don’t think I ever will, or any parent will, but as all great works of art, our children are also works in progress. So here’s what I’ve learnt along the way about bringing up a boy in this hyper-masculine patriarchal socio-cultural milieu that we have, and trying to ensure that he imbibes and retains feminism not as a legacy from me, as his mother, but as a part of himself. Here’s what I have followed, and some of what I try to follow and some I think I should follow.
Be gender neutral in household chores
Children may not always do what you tell them but they will definitely do what they see you doing. So if the work in the house is divided along gender lines with the father doing certain ‘male’ jobs of repairs and maintenance, and the mother doing the ‘female’ chores of cooking and cleaning, this is what the kids will pick up. Also, if a boy grows up seeing his father do a fair amount of household chores, he will do so too. Role models? This is perhaps the most important thing a man can teach his son that he can and must do his share of work in the home. Make sure the chore distribution amongst your kids and the members of the household is not gender defined. Mix things up constantly.
Are we still telling our boys they have to be the breadwinners, they have to be men and not cry, they have to man up and be tough and rough and tumble? Are we discouraging them from so-called feminine pursuits? Are we using ‘girl’ as an epithet when they show fear or emotion?
Teach him agency and consent and start young
No means no. Teach your boys that they have agency and consent over their bodies and girls do too. Ask them if they would like to be hugged, teach them to ask others before they touch their bodies, teach them to say no if they don’t want to be hugged, tickled, rough wrestled with, teach them to respect another child’s wishes when they say no. Teach them to respect another person’s personal space, the same way they would not want their own personal space respected. If he’s old enough talk to him about the #MeToo movement and why it is so important. Teach him that a no is a no, and silence is also a no, and only a yes is a yes, and how to recognise if they are making a girl uncomfortable with their actions and to apologise if they are.
Ditch the boys don’t cry statement
Boys cry. Girls cry. Men cry. Women cry. Everyone cries. Crying is a normal human reaction to grief, to hurt, to pain, to disappointment and even anger. Crying is what let’s the emotions out and allows you to process something that is disturbing, it is cathartic, it is essential, it does not encourage repressing your emotions. Children cry the same whether they’re boys or girls. It is only as they get older that boys are drilled with the message from society-parents, caretakers, family, school teachers-that crying is for girls. Boys are supposed to get angry. Girls are supposed to cry. Anger shows aggression and power, crying shows vulnerability. We don’t give our boys the width they need to express the full spectrum of human emotion within them. We need to change that. We need to tell them they can be angry, sad, emotional, they can laugh and they can cry. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a boy who cries.
Teach him life skills
Your son and your daughter both need to know how to manage if they’re on their own. This means keeping home, washing clothes, cooking and other household chores. The biggest trouble in getting the boys to do chores at home is that often they see the male members of the family not doing any. Therefore, one must be mindful that what one allows, continues. The previous generation of men have still been brought up with the very patriarchal notion that because they are owners of penises, they have an automatic exemption from doing chores around the house. Girls are much more likely to be asked to help around the house than boys are and girls do end up doing more chores than their male siblings. But this is limiting our boys’ ability to survive on their own, if they have to live alone at any point. And we do them a disservice by not making them learn how to cook, to manage a home, to keep things neat and clean, to wash, to do everything that is needed to keep a home up and running.
Let him learn about both male and female role models
When you talk to boys only about the men who you think they should look up to and emulate them, you do them a disservice by limiting the role models they are exposed to one gender. Boys and girls need role models of both genders in order to recognise that both men and women make up the world, equitably. If you teach them about Albert Einstein, also do teach them about Marie Curie. If you teach them about Ashoka, do speak to them about Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi as well. Talk about the achievements of both men and women, tell them about the milestones these achieved without the lens of gender on their achievements. Speak to him about the women you admire professionally, or as icons in their field. Tell about powerful women and how they’ve changed their countries, their companies.
The previous generation of men have still been brought up with the very patriarchal notion that because they are owners of penises, they have an automatic exemption from doing chores around the house
Don’t gender segregate the things he plays with
If he wants to play with dolls, so be it. If he wants to play house, that’s fine too. If he’s playing with cars and trucks and action figures, that is completely fine too. We’ve done our children a disservice by dividing their universe into pink and blue from the nursery itself. Gender specific toys, gender specific clothes, dividing our children based on these notions of gender is terribly limiting. But children start putting themselves into gender specific groups and play with gender specific toys and games when they enter kindergarten, younger children are quite happy doing as they please. Girls can play with science kits and boys can play with dolls. Putting these in different baskets for both, limit skill development, social, physical and emotional for both boys and girls. Also parenting now needs us to be mindful of the fact that there will be a spectrum of gender identification for our kids that we didn’t grow up with. Let the boys play with anything they want. The important thing is that it needs to fulfil their explorativeness, curiosity, and help them develop skills that will eventually assist them in navigating the world as they grow.
Why is it that women end up being the primary caregivers for the family? Even in double income homes, with both parents working, the onus on caregiving seems to rest primarily with the women. Perhaps this has to do something with how we raise our daughters to be empathetic, and compassionate and not our sons. We need to make sure we’re raising our kids, both boys and girls to be kind. It is when children learn to care for others and be kind, that they become empathetic. Let them babysit younger siblings, let them care for a sick pet, let them tutor younger kids who need help, make them responsible for taking older relatives down to the park or to the doctors.
Be non judgemental of his friendships with girls
When children are very young, they play equally with kids of the other gender. But as they grow they begin segregating themselves into gender specific groups. The boys will play with the boys, and the girls will band together. What this does is limit activities to what the group considers acceptable for ‘boys’ and also limits the boys in their ability to interact with girls, they become more susceptible to myths, stereotypes and biases, conscious and unconscious about girls. This is, of course, exacerbated in gender-specific schools and colleges, where the opportunity to interact with the opposite sex is also limited. When boys have equal opportunity and interaction with girls from childhood, there is less likelihood of them thinking of girls purely on the basis of romantic or sexual partners.
Teach him to speak out for those who have no voice
Bullying, groupism and harassment is something that boys grow up with and the stereotype isn’t something that needs to be or should be propagated. Very often boys go along with the bullies and empower them because they don’t know how to stand up for the victimised. And they think of it as a game rather than as something that would have serious repercussions for the one bullied. Teach your boys that they must stand up for one who is being targeted and victimised. Boy or girl. Teach them that it is stronger to stand up for what is right than to go along with what is wrong.
When boys have equal opportunity and interaction with girls from childhood, there is less likelihood of them thinking of girls purely on the basis of romantic or sexual partners.
Don’t use ‘like a girl’ derisively
Watch what you say, how you say it. Kids pick up not just the words, but the subtext of the words. Sexist jokes, gentle jibes about a woman’s weight, a boy who is emotional, sensitive being ‘like a girl’, a boy who expresses fear being called a sissy. These stay, these last, a child’s mind absorbs this and retains this. And as they grow into men, they transfer these misconceptions about being a girl and a woman onto the women they will meet with, deal with at work, fall in love with, get married to, to their own daughters when they have them. Confront your own subconscious biases and confront them, you will pass these on if you don’t deal with them.
Show him stories about girls and women as much as stories about boys and men
Whether in books or at the movies, make sure you get a good, equitable gender mix of the kind of stories you expose your children to. Let them not begin thinking that only men’s stories are the ones that get showcased and spoken about. Tell them about the men and the women who have broken the mould, talk about stereotypes when you come across them and why they are just wrong and need to be called out. Call out the stereotypes and the misogyny you see in the news, in movies, in popular culture. Point out why you think it is wrong. Talk about misrepresentation of women, or why movies that have women only as sex objects, or decorative elements do women a disservice. Tell him about inequalities in representation of women’s stories. Call out ads that objectify women in order to sell products.
Tell your son why a boy can play doll, and a girl can be a wrestler. About why both sexes are different and yet equal. That being tough is fine and being gentle is fine. And that boys and girls both have their place under the sun, and the sun shines equally on both genders. And before even talking to your son about feminism, talk to him about equality.
The new economy is expanding to including jobs and roles that didn’t even exist when we were growing up, and our children, boys and girls, will have careers in jobs and fields that don’t even exist today. Doesn’t it then, become and urgent and pressing need to make sure that our boys and girls have the skills, both technical as well as emotional, required to navigate the new world order? Also, with the pervasive misogyny that seems to be getting more aggressive in this new hyper-masculine socio-political order, it becomes all the more essential to raise compassionate, sensitive men who truly believe that men and women are equal. While we can’t control the messages and the misogyny pop culture and the news seems to disseminate or insulate our boys from it, we can definitely include them in the conversations around and about feminism so they become allies rather than antagonists.
Have I succeeded in raising a feminist son? I don’t know yet. I do know he’s a work in progress and he will go out there into the world with empathy, compassion and the confidence to let himself cry if he feels like it. And that he can call out misogyny when he sees it and not participate in it or encourage it. That to me, is the first step in place. The rest, we can keep building upon.
Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.