Raising Feminist Sons

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* Guest Contributor Shannon Brugh grew up in northern Idaho, but later moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where she received her B.A. in English Literature. After receiving her Masters in Teaching from Seattle University, Shannon went on to teach high school English. In addition to her contributions to Rattle & Pen, she can be found blathering away about motherhood on her personal blog, Becoming SquishyShannon still resides in Seattle with her husband and two young sons, where she is writing a book and constantly trying to convince her children to nap.

Before my first son was even born, I remember screaming in half-seriousness, “Don’t put my kid in a gender box!!” I was looking around at all the sweet baby clothes—boys in blue, girls in pink—and wondering why it had to be that way. From birth children are told what is for them and what is not—based exclusively on their gender. Puppies for boys, kitties for girls. Trucks and foot/base/soccer balls for boys, dollies and bows and hearts for girls. It was near impossible to find gender neutral (or at least, not gender obnoxious) items for the baby growing in my belly. Before I knew the sex of my baby, people dreamed about my potential girl and the tea parties and dress up we would play. They dreamed about playing in the mud and rough-and-tumble with my possible boy. But never did those two paths cross. What if my son wanted to play tea party and wear a feather boa? What if my little girl wanted to play flag football and never wore dresses? Why would one of these be celebrated and one be whispered about? The whole thing made me insane. Why is it that so many things are already decided on behalf of our kids simply because of an X or a Y chromosome? And, more importantly, can we change that?

I have two little boys. Two sweet, rambunctious, energetic little boys. And raising them is terrifying. I am fighting battles everywhere I look. I am racing against the clock to instill in them every kindness, every thought, every hope for empathy I want them to have. One battle sits very close to home, and though I don’t know quite how to fight it, it’s a battle I will spend my entire life fighting.

Raising boys in a society that claims to be equal is not easy. It’s supposed to be equal, but of course, it’s not. As much as many of us would like to believe that it is, it’s not even close. James Brown was right. It is a man’s world. So, how do I keep my boys from perpetuating this problem?

This is where I have to get creative. Parenting requires a certain amount of creativity as it is. But teaching boys who already live in a world that applauds them simply for having a penis, to know, to believe, that girls and women are equal to them is tricky.

So how do we do it? First, I think we have to actively teach it. Confront it head on. We have to talk to our boys about respect and equity. We have to tell them that people should be treated equally regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, creed, or preference in condiments. It does not matter. People are people. Respect them and treat them as such. Then, we need to model it. We need to show our boys (and our girls, for that matter) that there is no way they have to be. They have to be respectful and kind, certainly, but they don’t have to vie for power. They don’t have to love blue or football. They don’t have to subjugate. They don’t have to marry a woman—or marry at all. It’s okay if they like pink. It’s okay if their ultimate goal is to be a daddy. It’s okay if they cry.

It’s a complicated world for our children, and our boys, like our girls, encounter contradicting role models and moral compasses every day. They’re told it’s okay to have feelings, but are then made fun of if they cry. They’re told to treat women as equals, but then encounter contradictory images by the truckload in every aspect of the media. Television, movies, video games, music videos, commercials—every aspect of media shows us that women have their place and men have theirs—and never should they overlap.

Think about the images we’re presented with every day. Have you ever seen a commercial for a cleaning product that was directed at men? Who is shown cooking the meals and taking care of the children? Even our pens and Legos are gender specific now.How do we circumvent these deeply embedded ideas of what it means to be a woman or a man? How do we teach our boys and girls to just be?

I struggle with how to balance it for my children. I know that attempting to keep them away from the offending media is wildly unrealistic. (Unless I want to move to the farthest reaches of Antarctica.) They will encounter confusing contradictory images daily and they will struggle to make sense of it all. I will tell them that women are strong, capable and able to do anything a man can do, but they will see or hear things that tell them just the opposite. They will begin to believe in kindergarten that female is the weaker sex when one day, someone “insults” them by calling them a girl. 

They will receive conflicting messages in our home, where I embody a traditional female gender role. I stay home with the kids. I do the majority of the cleaning and housekeeping. I do the laundry and the baking and attend to the kids, while my husband works outside the home and makes the money. And, to be honest, this is a role I struggle with. In part, because I feel I’m failing at my feminist duties (thank you Lean In), and partly because, at least for a while, when people ask my children what I do, they will likely say, “Nothing.” Or, they’ll say, “Well… she used to be a teacher….” Though in truth, I spend all day, every day teaching. But because my job is a traditionally female role, it is undervalued and looked down upon. It is minimized.

I want to be a strong, female role model for my kids, but I fear staying home won’t provide that. At times, I don’t feel fulfilled by this work either. The separate me gets lost in the rigmarole of everything that has to be done, and that distinctly separate part of me isn’t nourished. I fear that they will see that. I adore mothering and being their mother. I treasure the time I’m able to spend with them, but there’s more to me than that. I want them to know that women are more than vessels for lust and procreation. I fear that, in my role, I’m inadvertently undermining the very values and beliefs I want to instill in my boys. 

On the other hand, I also want my boys to know that it’s okay to want to be your kids—as a man OR a woman. That it takes a strong, loving person to do it. That I am strong.

So, how do I balance this disequilibrium? How do I show both sides and validate both their desire to wrestle, and their desire to snuggle into me and rub their soft cheeks against my arm? How do I show them that women and men can be strong and powerful both in an office and in the home? How do I show them that women can run the businesses and the teams and world if they want to, but may still choose to stay home with their babies for a while? How do I show them that being strong and powerful doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal? Traditionally masculine features and habits and tendencies have come to be equated with the more desirable. Traditionally defined strength and power is lauded in both genders. So how do I show my boys that, regardless of gender, it’s just as “strong and powerful” to choose to be a parent, to be empathetic, to be a caretaker, to express your feelings.

I’d like to try and break down the boundaries, the walls, the boxes that our children are placed in from birth. I’d like my sons to be just as happy—just as comfortable—taking care of a baby as they are throwing a ball around a field.

 SB

36 thoughts on “Raising Feminist Sons

  1. Good for you. Glad to hear it. I think its getting better and i see more work at home dads. The Easy Bake oven people responded to petitions and made a gray oven, instead of their initital pink ones.

    • Love them and be good role model. That’s the best a parent (regardless of gender) can do for a child. With that in place, a child has all it need to be an independent, well rounded individual that will make positive life choices.
      Be a parent. The best parent you can be. That’s the only way to change society – Through raising generations of thoughtful, educated kids.

    • Thank you, Joy. I do think that it’s starting to get better. I hope that as more of us become conscious of how our words and actions effect our children, we can continue to do better for them.

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  3. Today is my first day as a stay at home mom. I left my job as I’m expecting baby #2 any day now. I’ve felt called to be a stay at home mom for a while now and financially it makes sense for our family. What you wrote so mimics what I want for my son (and soon to be daughter) and the struggles and challenges I see ahead as I try to balance that (anyone can be what they want and there is value in staying at home with the family just as there is in the workplace). Thank you for so eloquently expressing these thoughts. I’ll save this and hope to hear more from you in the future.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Megan. I wish you all the best as you begin your time as a SAHM. It’s hard sometimes- for all of us, working inside the home or out- but you are not alone.
      (Check back at Rattle & Pen for more from me and the other amazing women writers here.)

  4. My son is just as happy taking care of his son ( he is the primary caregiver) as he is doing his other favourite thing … making music. The Times They Are A Changin’ : )

  5. This makes me think of the time before I had kids when I fervently believed gender was socialized. Then I had kids. And wouldn’t you know it, daughters of feminists turn out to like barbie dolls. I had a couple of turning points when my daughter was about 3. I took her to the park to play soccer and all she wanted to do was push the soccer ball around the field in the stroller pretending it was a baby. Then one day she and her other 3 year old friends were playing. I gave the cars to the girls and the dolls to the boys. The girls drove the cars around and made the cars stop to have little conversations between drives. The boys took the dolls and blasted them off from the slide.

    Ok, maybe gender isn’t all about socialization.

    My kids are older now and I feel really good seeing all the kids in their school. I find there is so much openness compared to when I was in school. Everyone feels free to be themselves, There are some girls who dress like boys and everyone is ok with it, and some boys who like wearing pink or purple or having long hair and everyone is ok with that. They all understand that men can marry men and women can marry women. It’s all about being themselves now, whether that means they want to dress up like barbie or dress up like a baseball player. I tried really hard in the beginning to dissuade my daughter from doing the barbie thing, but then she’s really just expressing herself. She’s not doing it cos she feels like she has to.

    It was also hard in the beginning trying to keep the tidal wave of disney crap away from my daughter and violent shows from my sons. But you can’t. So I have found it more effective to sit with them as they watch and question things to get them to think about it. “That seems like a silly thing to do. If I were her/him I would ….. What do you think? What would you do? What are some other things they could do? What do you think the consequences of their actions are?”
    Of course, the language has to be adjusted for age.

    And I’m a stay home mom too. I think the feminist – working mom thing is a stereotype. Freedom and respect is about doing what you want to be doing, whatever that is. And in the end, I’ve found that true freedom comes not from trying to change what other people say, think or do, but in whether or not I give a *$%# about it.

    • Thanks for your response, Kaurina! I think you’re doing exactly what we all need to do: allow our children to be who they are and open up dialogues about the things that make us say, “Hmmm….”

    • Loved the post and the discussion in the comments. Regarding gender and socialization, I have a reading suggestion: Check out “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine. Professor Fine looks more deeply into the common experience of “trying gender-neutral parenting and finding it simply didn’t work.” (See especially Chapter 17.) She’s also a very funny writer, so I think you’d enjoy her book. Bottom line: figuring out what’s innate and what’s socialized can be trickier than we think. In our current society, it’s still easy to have “delusions of gender.”

  6. My youngest son (of 3) is graduating from High School tomorrow(!). I was cautious about raising them too pointedly as “feminists”, because I wanted them to be happy (not guilty) about being boys; I wanted them to see girls as more like themselves than different from themselves, and because I was afraid too much emphasis would cause them to brush me off (sour grapes?). So while I did often comment on media portrayals of gender stereotypes and etc., I often just brought up what girls might be thinking and doing not because they were girls, but because they were people. One easy way to do that was to read them books where a girl was the protagonist. I didn’t point out to them that it was (one) reason for selecting the books I did– we read books about boys too of course! but just let the girl in the story do the work of showing my sons what kind of people we are– pretty much like them! And I’ve got some pretty fine young men stepping out into the world, if I may say so myself! :)

    • As a man who grew up thinking he wasn’t allowed to aspire to be a man, I’m glad to see you were concerned to ensure your sons weren’t unhappy about being male. That’s something more feminists should worry about — not just about their sons, but about men in general.

  7. I would urge you to take seriously Megan’s concern about not making a son unhappy to be male. Boys will (unless they are trans) become men; they need to be able to conceptualize that and reflect on what kind of man they want to be. It’s hard to do that if you never allow yourself to think, “it’s good for men to ___.” Not allowing myself to think that is one of the things that’s harmed me a lot.

    Also, be careful to be consistent in the morals you try to teach. Here are three rules my feminist family taught me:
    1. Treat boys and girls the same.
    2. If someone hits you, fight back.
    3. Never hit a girl.

    Well, I was hit by girls, which exposed that contradiction pretty dramatically. If you value your son, don’t put him in that kind of position.

    • This is the interesting complication of the conversation about raising our boys right now. I, too, have a son, and I’m trying to raise him to be a feminist, but also to be, as you suggest, happy to be male–because I don’t think those two ideals are contradictory. My sense is that men who struggle with the principles of feminism are not fully happy and confident in themselves; were they more settled in their own skins and roles in the world, they would likely be better able to treat those around them–no matter their identity–as equals.

      • The problem is, do those “roles in the world” have anything to do with the fact that they are male? If so, then if you’re a male who believes in a variety of feminism that denies that men can have any desirable role in the world that is specific to men, you’re going to have a problem: the only actions you’ll be able to identify as distinctively male will be evil ones.

        This is why I like the work of Joss Whedon, and especially “Buffy” and “Firefly.” He’s very conscious of gender issues; he regards himself and is widely regarded as a feminist. And his work is notable for the strong heroines he creates. Yet the message to men isn’t, there’s no more need for manliness. Quite the contrary, he shows that strong women still need manly men; that men matter to themselves, one another, and women; and that men as well as women can be good in both gender-neutral and gender-specific ways.

      • This. The men who most wholeheartedly drink the kool-aid of male superiority are the ones most invested in putting women down– precisely because they know that they themselves don’t measure up to the myth–

  8. The best way to raise a feminist son is to treat them like a second class citizen. Only then can they relate to the challenges of women and the less privileged in society.

    • I do hope this is sarcasm. If not, I heartily disagree with you, Brenda, and I would be appalled–as the mother of both a son AND a daughter–if I felt there were people in the world actually living by this philosophy.

  9. a world that applauds them simply for having a penis

    Intersex people and female transgender people don’t get applause for having a penis: they get abuse and scorn. If your conceptual world is applauding a set of people, it’s people who succeed at presenting as male and are comfortable doing so.

    • Lix, thank you for reading our blog, and for taking the time to comment. In her short essay here, Ms. Brugh was writing specifically about her own sons–not about all physically male people. However, your concern over the mistreatment of intersex and transgender people is certainly valid, and I think we at Rattle & Pen all agree with your sentiment and believe that all people should be treated with respect and love–by their families, neighbors, community, and government. Part of what I read in Ms. Brugh’s essay–and related to–was her desire to raise her children to share and model this belief.

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  11. Reblogged this on Our Normal Healthy Marriage and commented:
    I absolutely LOVE this piece! I have been thinking all the same things and had been considering blogging about it. This says it all so well though. I don’t know if I could top it….. so I will share it! Thank you thank you!!!!!!

  12. “We have to tell them that people should be treated equally regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, creed, or preference in condiments.” I think you could start with understanding oppression and understanding why this is extremely disrespectful. It trivializes and mocks people’s identities and the oppression they suffer. Don’t worry spend all your time worrying about sexism – you seem to have that covered. Worry about the forms of oppression that you BENEFIT from, not that you suffer from. You need to recognize your own privilege (white privilege, class privilege, cisgender privilege and I’m willing to bet straight privilege) before you can teach your sons about their male privilege. You can’t end one form of oppression while perpetuating others – rule #1 of intersectionality. And rule #1 of feminism, too.

  13. Love this, Shannon! And as the mama of b/g twins and a gender scholar, I absolutely agree. My little guy is now entering the superhero phase–my little girl is flirting with princesses–and I’m here trying to enjoy it all, while retaining critical distance and figuring it all out.

    (Recently did a TEDx on this all that I thought might be of interest here: Born That Way? http://youtu.be/jM-PNwUHEQ8 Also launched a Pinterest Board, Tots in Genderland, where folks are posting photos of young kids breaking, and upholding, gender norms; if anyone’s interested in pinning, I’m happily expanding the circle – just shoot me a note!)

    Anyway, just wanted to say: keep up the great work :)

  14. I chose motherhood but did so feeling like I had to let go of my feminist ideals to do it in a way that met my idea of mothering standards. Then reality hit. I realized “strong woman” was not the opposite of “loving mother”. That was many years ago and I look at my sons now and see my feminist ideals never left me AND I see how my ideals were shared with my children. My sons have grown and are growing into good men with a respect for equality be it based on gender, partner choice, race, economics, career trajectory, body type, etc.

  15. I don’t think parents should mold their children to their way of thinking, but instead allow their children the space to build their own identities. That’s what my white mother did, and all six of us white children knew nothing but equality. We didn’t have privilege with a white single mother who couldn’t read or write even though she worked two jobs. My white children don’t have privilege either and the neighbourhood we live in is dangerous – moreso for us as some non-white neighbours have been taught white people have privilege and are the reason for all their sorrows. .
    I’ve taught my sons who are now young adults that women worked towards equality by hiring dvds on ‘the equal wage movement’, and other stories of women who have made an impact on society. What I find with most young men in their 20′s is that they feel discriminated against. They say society doesn’t accept that they can do anything a woman can do. :) Being from an underprivileged environment, they have children young and love their babies. They have also been raised to cook, clean, look after younger siblings, etc, etc.

    I agree with everyone who suggests ‘teaching respect is best’ and I wish to add the importance of education and encouragement for confidence to give children options when they become adults. It’s not good to limit choices, IMO.
    Good luck with your sons.

  16. Great post! I know exactly what you are saying about what you represent to your sons if you stay or work from home. Plus the fact, my son listens to his father moan about his job but justify it because ‘he’ puts the food on the table. As they boys get older they exposed to sexism in all directions from social media to porn on the internet and you’re right, they are consistently taught that they need to be the strong gender. I honestly don’t know what the answer is other than keep reminding them of what is right and what is wrong.

  17. We tend to talk to children who belong to groups that historically lack privilege (minorities, women) about problems they might encounter. It’s equally important to have child-centered, age-appropriate conversations about what it means to belong to a group that does possess privilege. They’ll start asking about gender and (biological definition) sex very early in life–it’s the first “grouping” they notice when they begin their early childhood obsession with groups. I obviously don’t know how to answer all of my son’s questions in a way that will encourage respect for women and a love of feminism. He’s eight-months-old, so I have some time. Thanks for bringing this up! The more we talk about it, the better!

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  21. I’m always happy when I read posts from feminists who have sons. I can’t say I’m always happy what I read. I read about their, “happy little boys”. News: they don’t stay boys. And the point behind feminism is- in my observation- solely focused on “training” boys to respect women as equals. What I find consistently missing in the blogs of feminists who raise boys is that the mother, the feminist, likes men. Because their sons want to know that their mother likes and respects men. And doesn’t hate and resent them. That is so obviously the key, I don’t feel I need to go any further.

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