As a thirty-something mom living in Brooklyn, I’m in a pretty great environment for raising sensitive, empathic, and emotionally aware boys. My three-year-old boy can wear a dress to the playground with little commentary, and my five-year-old is free to be a sweet and caring boy who enjoys singing over soccer and whose best friends are all girls. But sensitivity alone does not make a feminist, and my goal, as their mother, is to raise my sons as such.
What does raising my sons as feminists mean to me? Simply put, I want my boys to believe deep in their core in the full equality of women to men (or however people identify across the gender spectrum). On a deeper level, I want them to care about social justice issues and recognize racial and class-related inequality when they see it. If I were to ask my boys now if they think girls and boys are equal and capable of the same things, they wouldn’t bat an eyelash before saying, “Yes.” I believe that my boys were born feminists. So the challenge, at least in my home, is not raising them as feminists, but keeping them that way -- before their peers and adolescence, and “society” starts creeping in to undo the hard work their father and I are doing.
In the meantime, here are some of the seeds that we have planted, and that we intend to keep nurturing, to keep our little boy feminists growing into strong and sturdy grownup ones.
1. Teach them about consent when touching people’s bodies. The thing with young kids is that they love to be physical, and in their physicality, they do a lot of touching. It is normal and age-appropriate. But sometimes, in play situations, they continue to touch friends, siblings, and even parents, beyond the point at which the person being touched is comfortable. These are perfect opportunities to teach about consent.
If my boys are tickling me, even if I am laughing, and one of them goes for a body part that I don’t feel comfortable being tickled, I tell them I don’t feel like being touched there. And then I tell them that when a person (even your mom) says they don’t want to be touched, you have to listen and that the same goes for them, too. If they don’t want me touching their bodies at any point in time, they can tell me so (unless I am doing so to protect them).
2. Encourage thinking about and questioning any negative comments they might make about girls. I don’t think it is enough to simply discourage my son’s from making negative comments about girls (their appearance, their bodies, their abilities), and I’m not even sure it is the best approach. I prefer to stay engaged and to force them to confront their thinking to their best ability.
I try to understand why they may have said or thought a certain thing. Why, for example, did my five-year-old say the other day that the way a girl in his brother’s camp performance looked “annoyed him”? My persistent questioning certainly made my son uncomfortable, but I was able to communicate to him, through our conversation, that maybe it was not how she looked, but perhaps something about her as a person that made him feel (triggered) a certain way.
3. Allow them to play outside of proscribed gender roles if they feel like it. For children to reach their full potential, they need to be given the opportunity to do what they love. So let them. Keep in mind, too, that children are not born with any toy or activity preferences, and researchers have found that gender-centric differences emerge in toddlerhood, right around the time that kids become aware of their gender, which is also when societal expectations can end up trumping their innate interests.
I’m lucky to live in a part of the world where little boys can wear tutus and take ballet, as my little boy does, and I know that it takes a tremendous amount of resolve and bravery in other places to do the same. I don’t think this in particular will make my currently maybe-gender-fluid 3-year-old more likely to be a feminist than anyone else’s son, but it certainly will go a long way towards making him and his brother more open-minded and tolerant. His five-year-old brother tells him he looks beautiful in all of his princess dresses, and he saves all the pink-colored candies for his brother. We’ve never had to even have a talk with him about how his brother is a little different than other boys (at least for now). Pink is not a “girl” color in our house. It’s a “Gavi” color (my son’s name).
4. Help them notice when their world lacks diversity and inequality. Today’s feminism, in my opinion, embraces so much more than fighting for the rights of women, but also for the rights of many other groups of people who experience a disproportionate amount of power, privilege, and access to things that everyone should have a right to. These are big concepts for the 5 and under set to swallow, but we are working on small things for my kids to start thinking about as kids having been born with so much luck on their side (being white, being boys, living in an affluent neighborhood).
I’m a rookie at this, to be honest, but from what I’ve learned in talks I’ve attended and social justice group forums, simply asking questions to my sons is a great place to start in raising their awareness. Things like, “isn’t it weird that the back of this cereal box only shows skinny white women? Why do you think that is?” And then taking it from there… There are some great online groups and resources on how to raise non-racist, and social-justice-minded children and in my mind, doing this kind of work goes hand in hand with being a good feminist.