Years ago, when my son was not yet two years old, I was asked what I was doing to raise him to believe in gender equality.
With my son still so young, I honestly hadn’t thought much about it. But knowing the question was a worthy one, I decided to stop and take a look.
And guess what? I realized we were doing quite a lot!
From that point on, I became more aware of my role and responsibility as a mother to raise a boy who not only believes in gender equality, but is balanced within himself between the masculine and the feminine.
Over the years, I haven’t shared much about what my husband and I are doing to raise our son with a lens of gender equality. Mostly because I didn’t want to impose my parenting or belief systems on others. But as the conversation has re-emerged through recent events — including the Women’s March, the Harvey Weinstein trial, #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale, and the Justice Department’s pushback on Virginia’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment — I decided to share some of what we are doing in our home.
I don’t pretend to have a “prescription” for raising a feminist son, or believe that what I do is the best choice for anyone else. I’m also aware that my experience as a heterosexual, white female married mother raising a white male son in, for the most part, privileged circumstances, is just one perspective.
What I do believe is that it’s important that I at least use my voice to share my experience in effort to stimulate new ideas and activate discussion about what’s possible with our boys.
So here goes…
10 Ideas for Raising a Feminist Son
IDEA 1: Value Yourself As a Woman
As the mother, you are the central female figure in your son’s life. He is looking to you as the archetypal woman. How you treat yourself has a huge impact on how your son perceives women. From a young age, he’s observing … Do you trust yourself? Do you speak up for yourself? Do you respect yourself? Do you maintain healthy boundaries? Do you value yourself? What do you do on a daily basis? I believe that the first and most important factor in raising a son to believe in gender equality is you, the mother. This will influence how he sees and values women and girls as he grows up. Valuing and honoring yourself is one of the most important things you can do to raise a boy to believe in gender equality.
IDEA 2: Make Sure Your Husband/Partner Listens To You
When we are talking about gender equality in a male-dominated culture, I believe the way that the husband treats his wife, sees her, listens to her, and values her has a huge impact on their son. Father. Man. Male archetype. How does dad treat mom? How does he value her? How does he interact with her? A mother and father are the archetypal representations of woman and man for a boy. So, how does man treat woman?
My son sees the way my husband values me, listens to me and respects me. He also sees how my husband supports my work — elevating and amplifying women’s voices. My son gets to see all of this, which I believe has had an enormous impact toward his lens of gender equality.
Also important is how my husband see himself. How does he treat himself? How does he talk to himself? How does he talk to and with my son? With so much conversation now about “healthy masculinity” and what it means to be a man, this cannot be ignored. I address this more below.
IDEA 3: Introduce Your Son To Spirituality Beyond Male-Led Religions
This is a big factor, and one that is often overlooked in the conversation about raising boys to believe in gender equality.
The fact is that most of us have grown up in a male-oriented culture with male-oriented religion. This has an obvious effect on how women and girls are seen — both by themselves and by boys and men. In the male-oriented religions with a “Father God,” women and girls are seen as the under class. The religious texts even support the violation, oppression and silencing of women and girls. This no doubt has an imprint on our psyches and allows for the perpetual inequality and human rights abuses of women and girls.
I’m not saying you should change your religion. I’m simply saying that it’s important that boys and girls learn about the existence of religion and spirituality beyond patriarchy. They should have the right to this knowledge as part of their historical and cultural understanding.
My spirituality is based on the Feminine — the Goddess. It is about honoring and valuing woman — the Great Mother — and the female side of the divine. Around our home, we have statues of goddesses — Lakshmi, Saraswati, Tara, Kuan Yin — different representations of the divine feminine.
I start my day with yoga, meditation, prayer, chanting to the goddess, picking goddess oracle cards and visiting my altar that is a devotional to the Divine Feminine. I take time for myself every morning with these practices. My husband has his own morning practice of yoga and meditation. My son observes all of this. He is with us in the room, and sometimes participates with us.
Our son is exposed to patriarchal religion automatically through the heavy presence of churches all around Los Angeles, through the pledge of allegiance he is required to say at public school, through the “In God We Trust” money that he now handles through his cookie selling earnings, through his friends at school, and through the everyday prevalence of patriarchal religion.
I believe the introduction to feminine spirituality and knowledge of religious history before patriarchal religions has had a huge impact on how our son views the world with a lens of gender equality.
IDEA 4: Trade Off The Work At Home That Matters To you
What does my son see mom and dad doing on a daily basis. Is it equal?
When my son was young, my husband and I decided that we would split the morning and evening routines between each other. At night, one parent would give my son a bath, diaper him, dress him in his pajamas, cuddle with him, read to him, sing to him, etc. — and the other person would get some down time to themselves until bedtime kisses. In the morning, the other parent would take the lead. This was a great system to implement early on so neither parent felt like they were doing the lion’s share of the childcare, and also so my son would experience both of us equally in this role.
As for the cooking, my husband takes the lead on that. He loves to cook. It provides him creative space and he loves to provide in that way for me and my son. The standing joke amongst us is that, when I met my husband, I told him that I don’t cook, but I ‘“prepare” food.
Cooking is something that my son and his dad do together. Cook and bake. Bread, pumpkin pie, ginger bread cookies. My son also bakes with me. Our speciality is chocolate chip cookies. We bake them and sell them to neighbors and passersby on our block. We love it. My son gets the opportunity to bake with both of us.
Who does the dishes? We trade off on this. Whoever is doing the evening bedtime routine with my son, the other person is responsible for the dishes and kitchen clean up. This has worked well.
My husband and I also take turns getting up in the morning and being the lead to get our son ready for school. The other parent can spend more time on their morning spiritual practice. And then it changes the next day. Back and forth.
Who does the food shopping? My husband takes the lead on that. As the cook, he likes to shop for our food and make sure we are provisioned. Where I make up for it on my end is that I do the school pick-ups and spend a quality hour with my son — just us — before my husband gets home from work. I love that time with him. This routine works out well for us.
There’s also a lot we like to do together. Teamwork and partnership.
So, my son is not growing up seeing a mom who does all the housework and a dad who goes out and does all of the outside of house work. Dad is doing dishes, making dinner, vacuuming, cleaning, cleaning kitty litter, taking out garbage, etc. Mom is doing these things too. We share house responsibilities and go heavier on the things we like really like to do.
IDEA 5: Show Equality In Your Decision-Making
In our home, there’s not one person who’s the main decision-maker. In other words, there’s no hierarchy. Sometimes I make decisions. Sometimes my husband makes decisions. Sometimes my son makes decisions. Sometimes we make decisions together. Ever hear that old adage “Wait ‘til your father gets home”? That default to dad as the main decision-maker is sure to skew your son’s idea of who holds the authority in the home, and outside of the home, for that matter. So check yourself — who is making decisions in your family?
IDEA 6: Respect Your Son’s Feelings
Filmmaker and first partner of California Jennifer Siebel Newsom made a film a few years ago that followed American boys and young men as they struggled to stay true to themselves while navigating and negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity, often referred to as “toxic masculinity” — traditional cultural male norms that are harmful to men, women and society overall. The film, The Mask You Live In, features experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media, and offers empirical evidence of the “boy crisis” and tactics to combat it. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend it.
In our home, we always support my son’s feelings. We make space for him to express himself and communicate with us about how he is feeling. We listen to him and value his feelings. I want to keep nurturing this all through his young adulthood. Too many boys and young men are pressured by the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives to disconnect from their emotions. This has very harmful effects on boys, and can lead to things like objectifying and degrading women, and resolving conflicts through violence.
When you honor your son’s feelings, you provide a healthy environment for him and a pathway for gender equality.
IDEA 7: Watch Gender-Balanced Media
My husband and I both work in media. Before giving birth to our son, we were keenly aware of the unhealthy gender stereotypes that media perpetuates — even from the youngest age. If you are not familiar with this, please visit the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. You will be enlightened.
With this in mind, we didn’t introduce our son to any media until he was about three years old. At that time, we chose educational media that did not perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes. This meant that the media had both strong female and male protagonists, and had fairly equal numbers of female and male secondary characters doing non-harmful gender stereotyped things. When my son was in pre-school, our favorite series was Sid the Science Kid. When he got to kindergarten and first grade, The Magic School Bus and Cat in the Hat were added to the favorites.
My son’s first Disney movie was Moana, which not only has a female lead, but also has a goddess as a major character.
In the first grade, we attended a school event, where unbeknownst to us ahead of time, they played the movie, Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse (a choice made by the “Dad’s Club”). My son watched five minutes of it, then walked away saying it was too scary and violent. I agreed. We’re not into superheroes.
At school, they offer a “superhero” dress up day. My son declines it every time.
My husband and I have been intentional with the media choices, but not forceful. We talked to our son early on about gender stereotypes. He is aware. He now gravitates toward gender-balanced and gender- positive media.
IDEA 8: Keep Guns and Violence Out of His Daily Diet
When my son was just a year old, my husband and I were standing in line at a Target store with my son in my Ergo carrier on my front. The woman in line behind us smiled at my baby, smiled at me, smiled at my husband, and then said with a chuckle looking at me: Just you wait.
In that moment, I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. But then I saw her gesture to what she had on the conveyer belt: Three toy guns. No, not just guns, rifles.
“That’s all my boys ever ask for,” she said.
I gave her a blank stare, turned to the cashier, paid for my baby’s pajamas, and off we went out of the store.
Out in the budding spring of Southern California, my husband and I began to unravel that moment. I felt flustered at the thought of moms across America buying their sons toy rifles. “She doesn’t have to give in to her sons,” my husband said. I agreed. “If her boys later down the road were asking for knives, drugs or alcohol would she be getting those for them too?” I wondered.
I was so incensed by this that I wrote about it in The Huffington Post. I concluded with: “What will I do if and when my little boy asks me for a toy gun?”
“I will say no, we don’t play with guns in our family. We don’t believe in playing games that take people’s life away, even if it is a pretend game. We believe in the value of a human life.”
I am proud to say that six years later, my son has never asked for a gun. In fact, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with guns. When his uncle unknowingly gave him a Star Wars Lego Set for Christmas (we don’t do Star Wars), my son on his own accord immediately threw out the guns that were part of the kit. Then he went ahead and built the spaceship, which he loved.
When he went with his class to see the Nutcracker at the theater, and then received a gift of a Nutcracker holding a a gasket afterwards, he immediately traded his with a friend who had one without a gasket, even though it was slightly broken.
No video games probably goes without saying. The gaming world is one of the most misogonystic and violent industries. If you question this, make sure to re-visit Gamergate.
IDEA 9: Read Books By Both Female And Male Authors
What children read has a huge impact on their psyche and how they see the world. The books they are exposed to says a lot to them about who has authority and who should be listened to in the world. That’s why it’s important to read books with your son by both by female and male authors, and when he’s old enough to read on his own, expose him to both female and male author choices.
One of our favorite series is the The Magic Treehouse, written by Mary Pope Osborne. The protagonists are a brother/sister duo, each with their unique personality and equal power. It’s an adventure series that covers time travel, world cultures, political history, natural science and lots of wonderful magic.
IDEA 10: Be Mindful of Gendered Language
There are so many words in the English language that give favor to men. Not only words like policeman, fireman, postman, etc. — but words like manmade, mankind, human, and history.
My son actually cringes every time he hears the word “history.” “What about herstory?” he says.
He often corrects me when I say history. We are looking for a new word.
Sometimes my husband slips when speaking to me and my son and says, “You guys.” My son says, “No, it’s not you guys. Mommy is not a guy.”
You don’t need to be rigid about it, but be mindful, and help your son do the same.
BONUS: Nurture His Political Awareness & Social Justice Engagement
My husband, son and I marched together this past weekend at the Women’s March in Los Angeles. My son was thrilled. My husband and I have been honest with our son about the political history of gender inequality and women’s rights. He is only seven now, so we don’t go into too too much detail, but we share enough to help him understand the challenges women have faced through the decades and centuries. We also talk with him about the importance of people who are willing to stand up to the status quo that is oppressing people. He is proud to be one of them.
Tonight at dinner, my son, unprompted by any discussion about gender equality, blurted out, “It’s too bad that women and men can’t decide who should have all the power, because the answer is easy. It’s what I always say: Both.”
I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. I’d love to get a larger conversation going on this topic. Thanks for reading!
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed. is a women’s leadership coach, strategist, writer and consultant. Her life’s work is devoted to elevating women’s voices. To learn more about using your voice, making an impact, and being a leader of change in this world, visit tabbybiddle.com.