When you found out you were having a son, your first thought probably wasn't, “How can I make sure he is an advocate for gender equality?" Yet, it’s important as parents to consider this question and actively take steps to help our sons advocate for girls and women. Between high incidences of rape on college campuses, exposure to online pornography, disrespectful webpages featuring sexted pictures of nude young women, and a disproportionate representation of women in high-ranking leadership positions in businesses, it’s clear that our work is cut out for us, despite the impressive progress we have made over the past century. Read on for 10 ways to raise your son to be a gender equality advocate. In the process, you’ll likely make him a more empathetic and kind citizen.
1. Read to them.
Books are a gentle yet powerful way to introduce young kids to the world, whether it echoes the one they are familiar with or introduces them to a totally different existence. For young kids, books like Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist are fun and rhyming reminders of how girls can kick butt in traditionally male-associated professions. For older kids, books featuring modern day sheroes like Sonia Sotomayor, Jane Goodall, and Malala will help them understand gender issues around the world. Check out A Mighty Girl for comprehensive lists and suggestions. Books are pretty much our family’s favorite way to broach a complicated subject. Author and illustrators have worked hard to find just the right words and images to explain the topic, doing the tough work for you.
2. Encourage them to play pretend and reverse roles.
Play pretend and creative/ imaginative play are integral for kids’ growth and development. It’s undeniably fun to try out a different personality and gender, but pretending to be someone else has a potentially higher purpose: it can help kids develop empathy and understand what it might be like to step into someone else’s shoes. Kids are naturally self-absorbed in their younger years and don’t necessarily always consider the feelings of others. Play pretend is a safe space of sorts for kids to work out what they are observing and noticing in every day life. See how they react when someone tells them “you can’t do that because you are a girl.”
3. Challenge gender stereotypes early and frequently.
We are amazed and dismayed at how quickly kids pick up gender stereotypes. “Ballet is only for girls.” “Girls don’t play with trains.” “I don’t want to wear blue; it’s a boy color.” It’s easy to assume that kids will grow out of making these judgments, but sadly, time typically only reinforces them. Once they are old enough, you can ask them “Why?” they have these beliefs. Usually it’s something a friend or a friend’s older sibling told them. Be prepared with plenty of resources and examples to show your kiddos (and their playmates) that challenge stereotypes. Since you are the parent, your word is pretty powerful by itself so saying a simple, “That’s not true” will go a long way in dispelling these gender myths. If they are too little to have a vote, consider signing them up for activities that would help expand their horizons of what is appropriate for boys or girls and that you think they would enjoy regardless of their gender (ballet, soccer, gymnastics, etc).
4. Meet kids at an age-appropriate level.
Your preschooler is not going to “get” the nuances of mansplaining, and that’s okay. The idea is not to lecture your kiddos until they begin to dread your speeches. Simple ways to help promote gender equality: treat all of your child’s friends the same regardless of gender, encourage them to have friends of both sexes (which may include arranging playdates for little ones), get them involved in activities early that may buck gender norms. Teaching a six-year-old boy to sew a button on a shirt will likely be met with less dissent than trying to instruct your 14-year-old. In Ten Conversations You Must Have with Your Son, author, father, and school headmaster Tim Hawkes, describes these activities as an important part of life preparation, saying a boy who is 18 should be able to do things including tend a garden, iron a shirt, cook at least three nutritious dinners, budget, and use modern technology and social media in a competent and responsible fashion.”
5. Make gender issues a focus at the kitchen table.
Dinnertime or breakfast is as good a time as any to bring up gender issues and roles. The current election has brought gender stereotypes to the forefront of people’s minds, but if you don’t have any interest in the political process, there are tons of other topics that you could discuss (another recent example was how the media responded to athletes of different genders at the Olympics). For older kids, discussing gender roles and glass ceilings in the business world, unequal access to education for girls around the world, or even whether teachers at their middle or high school seem to respond differently to boys and girls during class will likely spark a lively debate. For younger ones, meals are a great time to point out interesting news stories that focus on inspiring boys and girls, such as boys who knit hats for kids in the hospital, girls who are having success as engineers, astronauts, etc., or who have started their own businesses.
6. Give them a glimpse into the past to show them progress.
Whether through books, plays, old newspaper articles, or movies, kids can absorb a lot about the inequities of the past. The fight for gender equality is far from over, but showing kids how uneven life used to be for women will likely be shocking and surprising. It may also demonstrate how the status quo at one particular time seems truly outdated within just a generation or two. Women only earned the right to vote less than one hundred years ago! If your parents or grandparents are alive, involve them in the discussion: kids will love to hear straight from the source about how different life was for Grandma and Grandpa.
7. Actively reinforce interchangeable gender roles at home.
My daughter loves to clean and scrub. My son would rather pick up leaves and twigs in our backyard. In our house, however, chores are gender neutral— they both help with cooking, walking the dog, clearing the table, etc. That goes for parents too. My husband is on toilet cleaning duty as much as I am, and he is much better at doing my daughter’s hair. He’s a doctor, so he isn’t around for all of the daily chores, but he pitches in whenever he’s at home. Not only does this effort help demonstrate that everyone shares responsibility for the upkeep of our home, the experience (which is not always without complaints) becomes family bonding time.
8. Encourage kids to speak up when they see someone being discriminated against because of their gender.
Silence is not golden when it comes at the expense of someone else’s gender rights. Teach kids to be upstanders, or someone who “recognizes when something is wrong and acts to make it right.” Being an upstander isn’t always easy (for kids or adults), but it’s a lifelong skill that is helpful for multiple areas of life. Peer pressure is super powerful; wouldn’t it be awesome if your child was the one to start an equality revolution at his school?
9. Let them see you follow your own passions, regardless of gender.
Kids watch everything you do (well, except for when they become teenagers and not watching you or listening to you becomes the thing to do). Living your life according to your passions and desires sends a powerful message that they can do whatever they dream of and work hard to accomplish. If you feel so inclined, you can up the role model ante by volunteering for organizations that work on women’s issues, access to education worldwide, female voter registration, girls’ STEM opportunities, etc.
10. As they get older, discuss sex and how it relates to gender and encourage kids to ask questions about what they don’t understand.
Talking to our kids about sex can be super awkward, especially if our own parents headbutted their birds and the bees talk (or simply didn’t give us any talk at all). Our society often focuses on the male experience of sex, and sex ed in schools, if it even exists, generally focuses on scare tactics or black-and-white situations that don’t reflect the complicated social situations teens experience as they get older and intimate. (For more on this: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape). It’s clear from the rape culture that exists on many college campuses and the fact that cyberbullying over sexting is rampant means that discussing these issues is no longer optional. Even if it’s uncomfortable for both of you, make the discussions a place where kids can ask questions. LGBTQ, transgender, cisgender, gender fluidity; there are plenty of terms that are used today that simply did not exist or were not openly talked about. Helping kids understand what they mean is another step away from ignorance and toward understanding.