Raising Feminist Boys
1 in 3 women and girls will be assaulted in their lifetimes by men and boys. We hear this statistic often but rarely hear how many men in 3 are abusive/will assault a woman. Yet someone is hurting all these women. As a parent of boys I feel a huge responsibility to make sure that my sons do not perpetuate violence against women.
I believe if we want to stop gender based violence and we need to start thinking about and changing how we parent boys. Here are some techniques you can use with your sons to ensure they grow up being respectful of themselves, women and other people.
· Figure out what your values are, as a parent, as a family and then do a simple values exercise with your kids (I’ve done this with 4 year olds). There are lots of exercises online you can access to figure out what your values are. After you know yours sit down with your kids and have a family meeting where you work out what your values as a family are (I personally think respectfulness should be on everyone’s list). Get the buy-in of all family members that this list is agreed to by all parties. Put this list up on the fridge or somewhere everyone will see it. It doesn’t have to be long — it might have 2 things on it, say “Kindness and Respectfulness” for example. Depending on the age of your kids smaller, simpler lists can be better. Refer to the values of your family whenever an opportunity arises: “You just spoke very rudely to me, is that aligned with our family’s value of respectfulness?” etc. You are reminding your kids of the values of your household/family.
· Have your kids do their own list of values. Ask them to write out what kind of person they’d like to be. Ask them what is their highest vision for themselves? We’re talking about personal qualities here, like loving, friendly etc. Have them sign and date it and put it up somewhere where they can see it.
· When your kids to something unaligned with their own vision for themselves show them their list. Here is how the conversation would go in my house:
Parent: “Do you feel your actions just now are in line with the kind of person you say you want to be?”
Kid says no. (If they say yes then they need to change their values list and you’ll need to have a long chat with them about why they think it’s ok to be disrespectful to others and what consequences there are for disrespectful people in your household).
Parent: “Ok, then how do you feel that the person you want to be would respond? What actions would that person take now?”
At this point the child usually suggests apologising and making amends. All you are doing here is reminding them of the person they say they want to be. That bit is important; you’re holding them accountable to themselves. This is conscious values-based parenting. Everyone is practising values-based parenting but most people aren’t aware of what their values are, they are unconscious values for the most part. Knowing your values is a life changer for everyone and is a great parenting tool to pass on to your kids.
· Become super aware of and what gender stereotypes are and how your family life may be perpetuating them. In my house I deliberately give my boys jobs considered to be traditionally ‘women’s jobs’ — the washing, the dishes etc. I don’t want them growing up to think that some work is ‘women’s work’ and some men’s. Challenge when you see gender stereotyping happening by having conversations with your kids about what you see. “What did you think about that ad for a vacuum cleaner? Did you notice anything odd about it? Did you think it was giving the message that vacuum cleaning is a woman’s job?” If there is a man in the house he should be role modelling a feminist approach to parenting and his partner/house mate etc. Kids primarily learn from role modelling so any men in your son’s life should be actively trying to role model being a good feminist male ally.
· Teach your kids to be critical thinkers. Ask questions of them when they are watching TV, playing games etc. “How many girls are in that TV show? Do you think girls are evenly represented in the tv shows you watch? Why do you think there are less women and girls in tv shows?” Have these conversations with your kids often enough and they will gradually learn to have these conversations with themselves and sometimes even with their friends. The same goes of course for critically assessing how boys and men are being portrayed in media. Ask them what messages they are getting about how boys and men are supposed to be, there are just as many toxic and harmful messages about men as there are about women and all of them should be challenged.
· Expose your kids to as many different types of women and men as possible. If possible make sure your kids meet a variety of people in all shapes, sizes, colours, nationalities, sexual orientations etc. If that isn’t possible then you can talk about people you see in the media or have pictures in your house of different types of people. The world is for the most part trying to sell us two very strict ideas of womanhood and manhood. These ideals are almost impossible to achieve. Being male and being female is so much more than being a beautiful, thin, white, blond woman or being tanned buff and handsome if you’re a guy. As early as possible start having these stereotype busting conversations with your kids. A few days ago my 11 year old son alerted me to the “patriarchy vibe” (his words) in a game my 8 year old daughter was playing on her tablet. My daughter defended the game saying it was about making the women into superheros with powers. “Yeah but the women are all thin and attractive” my son said. So we were able to have a conversation with her about how the game was selling one body type as the ‘right’ one, one body type for women as an ideal. As my daughter knows loads of women in all different shapes she was able to critically look at the game from that perspective. I didn’t stop her playing the game, but it was a great opportunity for us to talk about body shapes and how everyone has a different boy type yet in the media one type of body gets shown a lot more.
· Talk to your sons about privilege. Explain to them the privilege they have as boys and the power and responsibility that comes with that. I’ve taught my sons that they have a responsibility to use their privilege to call out other boys and men. One of my sons is an avid gamer and loves following other gamers on youtube. One day he noticed that one of the men he watches said something sexist in a video, so he commented under it and called this grown man out on his sexism (my son was 10 at the time). To my great surprise the youtuber apologised and said he wouldn’t do it again. My son wears badges calling for reproductive rights for women and his friends often ask him about them. He explains to his male friends why boys need to be supporting women’s rights. I tell my sons that they need to look for ways they can be allies to women, it may be as simple as noticing when a man is only making eye contact with him and ignoring the woman (something I have experienced a lot as a woman) and calling the man out on it “I notice you’re only looking at me, why are you not making eye contact with — — — -?” Calling out other men and boys on their sexism is a great way to be a feminist ally. Watch that your sons don’t start policing their feminism of girls and women though. Sometimes they can be such good feminists that they can despair of the girls in their life who aren’t feminists so it’s important to explain that their remit is really in calling out other men and supporting the women and girls who want their support.
· Discuss ideas of masculinity and femininity with your kids. What do they think it means to be masculine or feminine? Do they understand that every individual has aspects of masculine and feminine aspects? If they are pre-teen or older you can discuss the gender spectrum with them in greater depth, and how gender binary is a social construct. There are loads of great books for smaller kids to help them learn about gender non-conforming people and transgender people which can be great starting points for conversations about gender.
Everyday life throws up many opportunities for discussing feminist ideas of equality with your sons. Teaching them to be critical thinkers from a young age will stand them in excellent stead throughout their lives and hopefully they will share their feminist values with other boys and men and we can live in a world that is safe for women and girls.