When I had my first child (a girl) almost 10 years ago, the feminist in me vowed to raise her to be a strong and self-assured woman who wouldn’t let gender stereotypes or sexual politics get in her way.
A decade later, she’s doing pretty well on that front. But a few years later when I gave birth to her little brother, I realized something: My son was going to need my feminist guidance even more than his sister. As much as I want to protect my daughter from the pain of objectification and gender inequality, it’s even more important to protect my son from the assholes who are going to want to make him one of them.
Any good feminist knows how to teach their daughters how to resist the patriarchy, but how do we teach our sons not to become part of the problem? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, especially now that my son is entering the cutthroat world of grade school, and here are a few things I’ve been doing to help my sweet little six-year-old grow up to be the kind of man that I’ll be proud of:
1. Teach him that gender is fluid.
This is kind of a big picture one, but adopting practices that remind my son that while there are differences between boys and girls (I’m not going to teach him that the world is genderless because that just isn’t true), those differences aren’t universal to every boy or every girl. Does Tommy like to play with dolls? Awesome. Does Susie want to go to a superhero movie with us? Also pretty awesome.
If you have trans friends and your kid has questions about their gender, answer them. If he makes statements about not wanting to do something because it’s not boyish, challenge that. And if he wants to grow his hair long or wear pink shoes, question your own reservations if you feel inclined to say no.
2. Encourage him to have a wide diversity of friends.
My son’s best friend is a girl named Kaiya who almost always wears a dress and bows in her hair, but also likes to play in the mud and collect bugs. I didn’t consciously lead him to become friends with her (their relationship grew out of the convenience of childcare sharing), but they have been close since they were newborns. Their friendship has taught him to look past gender when looking for playmates. I endure (and, admittedly, even sometimes make) jokes about how the two of them will end up married, but on the whole, their friendship is based on the exact same kind of play that he enjoys with little boys.
3. Let him see your own feminism in action.
I do not hesitate to get into hot-blooded feminist discussions with my husband, my friends, and even strangers, in front of my kids. They know that I’m a writer, that I express my opinion for a living, and that I contribute financially to our family’s well-being. Yes, I cook in our house, but their dad does the laundry. We don’t model traditional domestic roles in our house, so at this point, my son doesn’t even know they exist.
4. Teach him to exercise his own sense of consent.
When my kids were really small, someone told me that their key line when dealing with slightly older children is “Your body, your choice.” It’s something I find myself saying to my kids constantly. You don’t want to be tickled? Your body, your choice. You don’t feel like wearing that particular kind of outfit? Your body, your choice. You don’t want to hug that family friend you barely know goodbye? Your body, your choice.
My son is too young for me to even want him to know that rape culture exists, but I hope the first time he hears a girl (or boy) say no, his first impulse will be to respond with “Your body, your choice.”
5. Use pop culture examples he can understand.
I don’t want to be a killjoy and deprive my kids of shared pop culture experiences, but it’s never too early to start having conversations about what a song or TV show is trying to say about gender. My daughter has discovered the horror that is mainstream pop radio and as much as I’d rather force her to listen to Patti Smith and Bikini Kill records, I let her listen to “her” station and her little brother listens along.
All three of us talk about why Lorde is probably a more appropriate role model than Katy Perry (my son’s second favourite song of all-time is Lorde’s “Team” right behind the universal anthem of all young kids in 2014, Pharrell William’s “Happy”). Some songs sung by male artists make us all feel uncomfortable. (They aren’t entirely sure why, but I’ve heard them both write certain songs off as being “creepy,” which fills me with all sorts of joy.)
Will my son grow up to be a feminist warrior? I certainly hope so, but I also know that I can’t control his personality and priorities. But I do know that as a six-year-old, he respects me, he respects his sister, he respects his teachers, and he respects his friends. And that’s a good start.