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How to raise a son who is a feminist

Gender equality is a top issue for many parents today, but how does a parent take action to encourage a son to understand, embrace, and support women's rights? One mom creates her own list.

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    This still image is from a promotional video for the United Nation's HeForShe campaign. The campaign encourages men to sign a pledge that they will support women's rights.
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The articles, books, and bulleted lists on gender equality are everywhere in the peripheries of observant parents, each offering a variety of ways to raise an independent girl who will become a strong, confident woman, actively engaged in standing up for her equality in the world. As a woman who was taught to think analytically and independently and who believes that men and women deserve equal rights, I am the first to click on the article, look up the book, and read through the passionate lists, nodding my head in agreement and solidarity.  

At the end of my reading though, the question always seems to remain: but how does a mother raise a son who is a feminist?

First, it seems important to be clear about what is, or better yet, what is NOT the definition of feminism. In its purest form, feminism is simply the belief that women and men should have equal rights. If you place yourself in this category, then you are, by way of using words in the manner in which they are defined, a feminist.  

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If your definition of a feminist includes someone that hates men or sees them as inferior or even evil, or believes that stereotypically masculine traits should be erased from society, then our different definitions will indeed prove an obstacle from this point on.  

As a feminist mother of a little boy who is currently on track to become a young privileged man in today’s society, with all the benefits and responsibilities that that includes, here is my own list of ways I plan to encourage gender equality awareness and independence in his decidedly male perspective.

1. Be an example

As a mother, I simply cannot be the same-sex role model for my little boy, nor should I try to be. I can express myself anywhere on the spectrum of gender that Emma Watson spoke of recently in her now famous UN speech discussing the HeForShe campaign, and as long as I am most honest to myself, I am being an authentic parent and role model. 

But if I am not the same-sex role model, then the question becomes, who is? Or, more specifically, how is my son’s opinion formed regarding the appropriate treatment of women when he sees how his mother is treated?  

If you think for a second that they aren’t watching, that could not be further from the truth.  Their eyes, hearts, and minds are locked in, and storing things away at a remarkable pace.  My son will see and process whether I diminish myself, or allow myself to be diminished.  He will see if I permit something that goes against my sense of right, or if I stand up against something that offends my sense of right.  He will notice how I allow myself to be treated, verbally, physically, and emotionally.  These are the behaviors setting the groundwork for that impressionable little soul as he matures into a male who will, in fewer years than you think, be treating a partner how he has seen the most influential woman in his life treated.

2.Talk, ask questions, raise an issue!

Children are naturally curious and deeply analytical. The stereotypical toddler asking “Why?  Why?  Why?” that can drive any parent to a maddening existential crisis is not a myth. Use a little boy’s natural lack of limitations to encourage questions about what he sees around him. I’ve asked my son relatively light questions such as, “Why do you think it’s almost always women who do the cooking in food commercials?” and he has asked me, “Why are there only men on the football team?”

These help open the door to discuss how many women are natural caretakers in spirit and many men are naturally strong in their physicality, but that neither option is off the table for either gender.

Then there are harder questions that might come later, such as, “Why do you think girls are less likely to be interested in science after age 8?” or “Why are there fewer women in positions of power than men?” Of course, these questions are likely to deepen in complexity and difficulty as children grow into adolescence, and deserve equally thoughtful attention and care in another article (or more likely, multiple volumes of scholarly literature).

The questions and their answers will vary from family to family and person to person, but the important part is asking the questions, and encouraging the budding male mind to look around in awareness and ask, out loud, whatever he deems in need of analysis.

3. He might like pink, and that has to be OK.

In theory, most modern mothers might say they’d be perfectly OK if their son wanted those pink, sparkly rainbow shoes he just saw at the store. But, what if you truly placed yourself in that position – would you spend $35 on shoes that would likely get him teased? Would you really open him up to the reactions at school if he wanted to paint his nails or wear a dress? And if you do allow it, do you then explain the possible consequences, or let him go through the potential pain of finding out for himself?  

We all want to save our children from humiliation and teasing from their peers. What I want most for my son is to be happy, and if you’ve ever been mercilessly teased, you know that’s a far cry from happiness. For the boys that tease and those that are teased, how might it change both sides’ behavior if they are raised to naturally expect equality for both genders? Will that make it possible for the color of shoes on the playground to not even be teasing fodder?

4. Little by little

The simple fact that this is still being written about indicates that there is not yet gender equality in this country, as the wage gap and women in CEO positions can attest to. But with loving and strong, steady steps, I hope to have an influence on my son towards encouraging a natural expectation of gender equality by leading the way through example, education, and expression.  A mother is, after all, the most influential feminist in her son’s life.  

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