Raising Feminist Sons by Mandy O’Brien from livingpeacefullywithchildren.com as published in issue 66 of The Mother magazine, October/November 2014. Artwork by Anna Petrova www.etsy.com/shop/pastelanna
As the mother of both sons and daughters, I can tell you that raising boys is different from raising girls. The joys of children are there regardless of what gender your child is, but the obstacles one faces in raising children changes with your child’s (perceived) gender. Many things remain the same whether you have a son, a daughter, or a transgender child still figuring out with whom they identify.
Children require love and guidance. They need encouragement to chase their dreams, make mistakes, and try again. They need plenty of time to play and plenty of time with loving adults. They need opportunities to muck about in the dirt, get messy with art supplies, and plenty of time and experiences to figure out exactly who they are and what they believe.
The difference between raising sons and daughters has nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with who society believes they should be or what they should do based solely on their gender. The way people interact with our children changes with that gender status, starting at birth. A baby boy is strapping, handsome, and strong, while your baby girl is adorable, cute, and sweet. The differences in how they are treated only increase from there.
Walk into most children’s stores and you will notice a disparity between the girls’ and boys’ sections. Girls can safely choose between pink and purple toys, generally consisting of baby dolls, dress up, and art supplies. Boys have a wider range of colours, excluding the aforementioned pink and purple, with emphasis lying among science and technology or gross motor skills. Marketing campaigns are well-versed in keeping the genders separate; gender specificity in everything from toys and clothing to car seats, cutlery, and bedding yields higher profits. In the event that a girl still manages to cross that invisible line in the store over to the boys’ section, it can occasionally be overlooked or presented as a way to support our daughters through feminism. The same cannot be said on how society views those boys who take a stroll across that border, crossing a line which is not meant to be crossed.
Feminism, the seemingly radical notion that men and women, boys and girls, are equal and deserving of the same rights, treatment, and aspirations, is important when raising daughters. I want my daughters to be strong and capable. I want my daughters to have the same rights as my sons when they grow up: voting, the ability not to be subjected to physical violence from their partner or others, or just to dream about having the job which calls to them and to receive comparable payment to their male co-workers or contemporaries. I don’t want their views, or their personhoods, to be dismissed because of their gender. Those reasons alone are reason enough for me to raise my sons in feminist theory. However, citing our daughters as reasons for feminism overly simplifies the matter while failing entirely to address the direct implications of feminism, or the lack thereof, on boys.
As men are not suffering from systemic oppression based on their gender, society as a whole often ignores how misogyny affects our sons. Boys don’t experience the same prejudices inherent in patriarchal societies in the same way as our daughters. The symptoms may be more subtle, but our sons also suffer from these beliefs. The sister of a boy can cross that imaginary gender divide in the store much more easily than her brother. Pink and purple, both equally valid choices among the plethora of colours, are verboten to the average boy. Instead of viewing doll playing in boys as great practice for future dads, it is still viewed as unacceptable by many. The gender stereotyping doesn’t end with play.
Emotions are not considered a masculine trait. Anything other than anger, a secondary emotion resulting from unexpressed feelings, is expected to be hidden. We’ve all heard the phrases ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘be a man muttered at some point by someone. Besides the very primal emotions which boys and men are expected to ignore, other behaviours are also grossly affected. Any culturally deemed effeminate behaviours are discouraged, limiting men in many ways from expression to profession.
Simultaneously, while pressure is placed on boys to act in stereotypically masculine ways, society also encourages a lack of responsibility and ownership through its perpetuation of rape culture, acceptable violence towards others, and cavalier phrases such as ‘boys will be boys’. The expected façade has boys and men donning stereotypical masks and hiding their true selves in an effort to avoid being ostracized by a society which has attempted to control others to the detriment of itself.
Our sons need feminism. They need to grow up hearing, not only that their sisters and mothers and women around them are people deserving of equal treatment, but that they too, are deserving of equal treatment whether they fit stereotypical gender roles or not. Feminism encourages our children, including our sons, to view everyone as individual people, full of talents, beliefs, and dreams.
Raising feminist sons is not so different from raising feminist daughters. In fact, it is the same. There are many things you can do to raise your children in a manner which values them for the people they are in spite of living in a world where everyone is still not considered equal.
First and foremost, talk to your children. Talk to your daughters. Talk to your sons. They need to hear us say that they are worthy. They need to hear that we support them in whatever it is that they do, that they dream, and that they are. You are your child’s best advocate, and they need to know that you are there for them, so that when they need it, you are there to listen to them. We need to acknowledge that the world is not perfect and that there are things we can do to change that. Share your views. Listen to theirs, and be there for them.
Share with your children media which offers a feminist view point. Looking for books with strong female characters for your daughters? Share those same books with your sons. There are plenty of books on the market which show boys in strong roles. Expose your children to the strong girls, too. Don’t equate strength with only sword wielding heroes and heroines, though. Sometimes the greatest strength is required to be yourself in a world which says you should be otherwise.
Honour physical autonomy. Everyone deserves to know that their bodies are their own. Whether we are discussing abuse prevention or personal preferences, it is important that we recognize that our children’s bodies are theirs and to be mindful about respecting their decisions regarding their bodies. When it comes to their personhoods, children should be encouraged to say no to others regarding issues with which they are not comfortable, including forced affection from relatives who insist on hugs or kisses.
Embrace a man’s ability to be a positive role model. Whether those role models are fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or friends, break through the oppressive view that says how men should act with their children, handle their emotions, or what activities they should enjoy. Men can be just as loving and gentle with their children as women. We just have to break through the barriers that say otherwise. At the same time, embrace women as positive role models, too. Boys should look up to people worthy of being respected, not because of a person’s gender.
Be gentle with your children. Conventional parenting with authoritarian rules sets up a false dichotomy of power over children, leading into a culturally oppressed patriarchy. Free your family and embrace everyone for the people they are. Oppression doesn’t merely exist; it is forced upon others. When we release ourselves, and our children, from the mainstream view point of powering over others, we allow ourselves to have power over ourselves. By doing so, we raise a generation who does not struggle to grasp control from others.
Your children will experience many things during their lives, and they need to learn how to deal with their feelings rather than turning them off. Allow emotions. Help children recognize different emotions and come up with strategies to deal with different situations. Emotions are never wrong. Acceptance of different emotions allows us to be true to ourselves. Acting in appropriate ways is learned, and something with which we can help our children.
Work for social change. When we, as parents, actively work for social change and set that example for our children, we are working toward equality from the inside out. Check your privilege. Most of us have some type of privilege. Recognizing that allows us to better understand others. Don’t hide differences between people. Embrace them. Talk about them. Learn from them. Only when everyone is equal will we, as a society, truly be free of oppression.
Feminism isn’t just for women. It is for everyone.