A few months ago, I said something to my 12-year-old son that I’d been wanting to convey to him his entire life: “You know, one day you will have a lot of power and privilege in this world, whether you want it or not.”
So began our dialogue about the status of women in the world.
I have two sons, ages 7 and 12, with a daughter in between. The reality is, just by virtue of being born male, my sons are statistically more likely to have a higher income than their sister, and are less likely to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender.
Feminism is many things to many people. But put simply, it’s about advocating for a society in which women enjoy the same rights and privileges as men. Since men have overwhelming power and privilege, they are in a unique position to hasten change for women. That means that we should be raising our sons to be savvy about gender inequality, and ultimately, to be feminists.
Here are the ways I'm approaching this as a parent:
1. Talk openly about women’s rights — without blame.
Share with your sons some home truths about women’s struggle for equality. For example, mention that women couldn't vote in America until 1920, or point out that most world leaders are male. When I did this with my son, it opened a space for discussion about who goes into politics and why. This then allowed me to talk about things like barriers to entry, harassment and workplace cultures.
Some conversations are for older children, of course. Teenagers could benefit from discussions of rape culture, as well as being aware of ‘slut shaming' and the over-sexualization of women in the media.
It’s crucial, however, never to make moral judgments about ‘men’ in general. Meaningful debate and discussion thrives in a safe zone, free from anger or blame. The very last thing you want to do is burden your son with guilt for being male!
Instead, focus on what an opportunity men have to be a force for good in the world. Your boys didn’t ask to inherit their privilege or their role in how other men have behaved throughout history. They’re just kids who need the full truth and lots of love in order to be fully responsible adults.
2. Role model how to speak about women respectfully.
There are subtleties in how we talk about women that boys pick up on, and adopt unconsciously. Associating morality with the way a woman dresses, or pointing out her worth in terms of her appearance, has implications for how boys perceive the value of women.
Further, demonstrate respect to the older women in your family on the principle that women have value in their wisdom — and not just in the flush of youth or their looks.
3. Show that all women have the ability to achieve success — whatever their choices.
After seven years of parenting my three children full time, I launched two businesses and went from being at home to near-constant writing, teaching, networking and seeing clients. It's important for me to share my goals and aspirations with my children. I tell them that I believe I can achieve whatever I aspire to with enough focus and work. The fact that I am a mother, or even a woman, is beside the point.
If you're a mother, role model self-belief in your own abilities. Whether or not you work outside the home, your sons benefit enormously from your attitude toward how women manifest their choices.
4. Encourage your son's emotions.
Generations of boys have been raised to 'do' rather than to feel. Too often, boys are praised for their accomplishments and not for how they treat their friends — whereas girls are complimented on their looks and empathy rather than their achievements.
To bring this back into balance, it’s important to nurture your son's ability to express and introspect. For example, I make a point to ask my sons about what’s going on with their friendships and how they're feeling about things. My seven year old mirrored this back to me recently when I asked him to calm down and he replied, crying, “But it’s good for me to cry mum! That’s what you say. I'm allowed to cry!”
5. Do not serve your sons.
Unfortunately, it's still common for mothers to serve their sons everything from food to domestic cleanliness, while daughters help with cooking and cleaning. I’m sure this has everything to do with the statistics showing that women still do significantly more housework than their male partners.
Domesticated boys turn into domestic men who share the burden of housework. So I make sure that everyone's chores include cleaning as well as cooking. My twelve-year-old son knows how much I appreciate his contributions. For example, as I was writing this article, he made me a sandwich for lunch and brought it into my office.
6. Champion fatherhood.
As much as possible, get fathers involved in the day-to-day work of parenting, to convey to your boys that dads matter.
Just as it’s important to get boys involved in domestic chores, it’s important to emphasize how much men need to contribute in this area, too. I’m lucky. My children's father is an awesome dad, and I often point this out to my kids, so that they know that this role is as meaningful to me as it is to them.
7. Let feminism open the discussion to other inequalities.
Emphasizing feminist ideals inevitably shines a light on the unequal distribution of power throughout society in general. Male privilege, in fact, is mostly white — and that's worth exploring, too.
Let your discussions wander. Talk about other demographics, the disabled, and racial profiling. Overall, emphasize this truth: Those who have more power have more responsibility to make the changes that can create a fair and equitable society.