For the most part, the world is a male-run orb. Males are typically awarded not only more respect than their (seemingly) meager peers, but higher pay, more opportunities, and more leeway in making mistakes (see male politicians for exhaustive proof). Although feminism exists to correct an imbalance, even this has often been steamrolled by people who claim that a feminist agenda necessitates a similar agenda for men—an agenda typically seeking to keep the imbalance firmly in place.
Although it is all fine and well to stand up to institutionalized sexism and speak your mind when confronted with men and women who do not believe in the equality of the sexes, this isn’t quite enough; more often than not, a firm belief in the dominance of men is a long-held belief initially instilled by the parents of the person in question.
Enter: mothers and fathers who believe in and uphold the precepts of feminism.
A Gentle Introduction
To begin, I must first clarify: despite what many claim, feminism is not about usurping the power of men, claiming that women are better, or defaming an entire sex. Instead, feminism seeks to establish equality among genders, espousing the notion that humans are humans, regardless of the organs residing in their lower abdomens.
That being said, a simple introduction to feminism means, if you are a family of children of more than one gender, treating children equally. Try to shy away from typecasting your kids as good little girls and naughty little boys; girls can be mischievous, and boys are capable of kindness. Children are tiny humans: little ladies and little fellows are equally capable of feeling intense emotion, getting into trouble, and staying out of trouble.
I am guilty of this, myself. My first pregnancy, I did not find out the gender of my baby until I gave birth. My second, I thought I would make it easier on my son by finding out the gender beforehand, and was amazed at myself: finding out she was a girl, I felt a pull to buy certain clothes, certain colors, certain toys, etc.—an impulse I in no way felt when I was unsure of the gender. The experience was eye-opening.
Lead by Example
It can’t be said often enough: your example as a parent is going to be your greatest and most effective teaching tool. If you support the ideals of feminism, live them. If you are a male or dad who believes women are your equals, treat them with respect and consideration. If you are a female who believes women are on the same plane as men, don’t skulk and bow down to the whims and opinions of the men in your life. As a woman, be unapologetic in your convictions, and as a man, be receptive to the thoughts and opinions of the women around you.
Treat everyone with respect. Although this might be difficult when you are faced with unbelievable ignorance or bigotry, this is vital: even cruel individuals need respect and consideration. Be careful, here, as offering respect and kindness is not tantamount to endorsing the opinions or ill behavior of others. Instead, it serves as a reminder that you live out your belief in kindness and equality for all. After all, it is easy to show deference to those you admire; far more difficult is treating your enemies well.
Mind Your Language
Language is a formidably powerful weapon; it can be used to uplift, and it can be used to destroy. Similarly, it can be used to instill the importance of equality in your children, or it can be used to suggest to your kids that there is a definite hierarchy between the sexes. This is particularly important because most men and women aren’t actively campaigning against feminism; although there are certainly those who are actively seeking to keep women firmly under the boot heels of men, most anti-feminist (and correspondingly anti-equality) sentiments come from men and women in day-to-day life with no clear aim or agenda.
This is probably most evident in the manner with which people parent. Gender reveal parties, for instance, typically draw a line between what is masculine and what is feminine (a mustache for a boy, and a bow for a girl, or a tiara for a girl, and a gun for a boy). Although these parties and celebrations may seem harmless enough, there is a problematic undercurrent: the notion that there is a specific way to be male, and a specific way to be female. In reality, there is far too much crossover and nuance for a color, an action, or a hobby to be definitively masculine or feminine. Allow your children to pursue their interests and likes, regardless of the gender traditionally associated with them.
Be prepared for some blowback, here, likely from well-meaning family or friends. My 1-year-old son’s affinity for sparkly princess shoes prompted a smile from me, but was a very real cause for concern for others. Although I appreciated the concern, I recognized it was unnecessary, and he has since redirected his affection to books of all shapes and sizes. Thankfully, books offer numerous opportunities to discuss the notion of fairness—including the possibility of a boy liking sparkly princess attire.
Teach, Teach, Teach
Every moment is a teaching moment. Although some teachable moments are going to slip through your fingers, try to see everything as a potential exercise in instruction. Doing so does not require you to launch into a diatribe about the cruelty of sexism every time you see an inappropriate advertisement; instead, offer a simple, concise explanation of why something is right or wrong.
Teaching moments are particularly poignant and convincing when you offer yourself as the proverbial lamb for slaughter. If you notice yourself using sexist language—or even language that might be only slightly questionable—catch yourself, and acknowledge your mistake. Your kids must see you making mistakes and forgiving yourself in order to do the same for themselves and others. Again, how can parents expect their children to treat others with respect and kindness (and, consequently, equality), if you cannot do the same for yourself? Acknowledge mistakes, correct them, and move forward.
Pay Attention to Your Surroundings
Pay attention to your surroundings while you’re out and about. If you notice instances of gender inequality (or any manner of social injustice), take that moment to explain why it is problematic, and how your child can improve the situation. This might be as simple as a little girl in a store being denied the opportunity to choose a “boy toy,” or as complex as an argument between two adults about why a female ought not be a world leader.
Children are not only perceptive, but eerily attuned: you might not notice the chatter around you, but they certainly do. It is far better to be ahead of the curve and explain why these situations occur, than to have your child left wondering why that family is different, or why those people are saying something contrary to what you strive to instill in your own children.
Don’t Be Afraid of Sex
The following might upset some, but here it is: sex is important. Sexual conduct is even more important. Conversations about sex should come, first and foremost, from parents: you are your children’s first resource and support not only regarding sex itself, but gender identity and expectations, body issues, and self-understanding. Although you might feel that refraining from the discussion of your children’s bodies and sex is protecting them in some way, it is not offering protection, but ignorance—ignorance that can, unfortunately, pave the way for physical, emotional, and mental abuse. Both boys and girls should be taught to treat their sexual partners (and themselves) with dignity and care.
Talk to your kids about sex. Refrain from using cutesy words to describe anatomy, and refrain from pretending that sex and exploration don’t exist. Use simple, anatomical names, rather than using words such as “pee pee” and “private parts.” These create an air of mystery around genders, gender identities, and the basics of biology—which, in turn, creates a clear delineation between men and women, as boys will likely go to and learn from other boys, and girls will likely go to and learn from other girls (whose upbringing may not be “progressive” enough to promote equality and accurate information).
Pay Attention to Media
I might lose your interest here, once again, but please hear me out: the average American adult sits before a screen for 10 hours per day. The average for children is only slightly less, clocking in between 2-8 hours, depending on age. Why is this important? The media your child consumes directly influences thought patterns and behavior. Have you ever heard a child quietly singing a song from their favorite movie, or a child happily repeating a phrase you’ve said only once or twice? Background noise matters, and this includes the media you and your children indulge in.
Your media embargo might be limited to TV shows marginalizing or disrespecting a certain people group, or might limit the amount of fairy tale exposure your children receive. Whatever you decide, make sure you are acutely aware of the media your children consume. Watch movies and television shows before allowing your children to watch them, and pay attention to the lessons (spoken and unspoken) within those shows. Misogyny and ignorance are far more prevalent than you might initially suspect.
Live Your Convictions
Raising children is neither a small nor an easy task. Whether you have a partner by your side, are going at it alone, or are employing the help of a village, parenting is extremely difficult, and much of your time will be spent feeling as though you have no idea what you’re doing. As a mother, myself, and having spoken to numerous other parents, I can attest: this is normal, and this is perfectly fine. Within your power, however, is the ability to teach your children that all human beings are deserving and in need of kindness, dignity, and respect—genital differences aside. Embody this belief through your interactions with others, and watch (proudly) as your children do the same.