Whether you have a boy or a girl, teaching your kids about gender equality feels more crucial than ever.
Very simply, a feminist is someone who sees men and women not as exactly the same, but equal—due the same pay and advantages, the same respect and the same power over one’s body.
I am a parent of three boys, ages two, five and eight, and I’ve always thought it critical to raise them as feminists. My commitment to this belief was reinforced a few months ago when I decided to share my personal experience of being sexually assaulted by Jian Ghomeshi. It was an exceedingly difficult story to make public, but I wanted to show them how existing cultural and social stereotypes and systemic sexual inequalities meant that even though I was a lawyer and knew the law, I didn’t share my story, I didn’t go to the police, I didn’t take action. As parents it’s hard not to worry about the world our kids are growing up in and how it will shape the adults they become. Will our boys always treat women with respect, and will our girls feel like they can speak and be heard? All parents—myself included—need more practical tools for encouraging these ideals. This isn’t a revolution as much as it is a daily commitment to be a role model for your kids, to encourage them to be who they are and to share how they feel. We can raise our children to be the change we want—and need—to see.
1. Monitor their media
Most parents have some level of control over what their kids consume online and in the media. This is good—continue on and, if you can, do even more, because screens play a huge part in shaping how kids see the world. “Media plays an important role in forming and reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes. Media violence in particular influences the way kids play and even develop relationships with one another,” says Karyn Kennedy, executive director of Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention, an advocacy and awareness organization in Toronto that also helps kids at risk of being abused or who have been abused in the past. “Kids who are exposed to media violence are more aggressive in how they relate to others and are more likely to solve problems using violence.” Media violence not only desensitizes kids to the effects of aggression, Kennedy says, but it can also dehumanize the victim and reduce kids’ ability to feel empathy. Some easy ways to monitor your kids’ media consumption include:
-Just being around—I moved all our devices into one (loud!) room, so most of the time, one parent is with them while they are watching TV, playing video games or surfing the web. Explain to older kids why you want to control what they see. I tell my eight- year-old that my job is to prevent him from seeing or hearing things that will make him feel bad or scared. For now, it seems to work.
-Review content in advance to gauge how age appropriate it is. It could be as simple as googling and reading a few reviews by other parents. A bit of poking around can pay off.
-Encourage and support networks like TVO and other non-commercial media—the absence of advertising is a huge help. A show may be fine, but the ads can often be totally inappropriate.
-Instead of watching whatever is on TV, use tools like a PVR, OnDemand and Netflix to make better choices. Shows like Canadian Geographic for Kids, The Magic School Bus and Word Girl show smart, strong female protagonists. Check in with Media Smarts, an Ottawa non-profit organization that promotes digital and media literacy or its US counterpart, Common Sense Media, a group that keeps an extensive and regularly updated list of games, apps, movies and shows all reviewed for age appropriateness and positive messages.
The reality is that no matter how hard we try, our kids will still be exposed to content that’s over-sexualized, gendered and often violent—simply because it’s all around us. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that via TV, magazines, billboards and online sites, children view more than 3,000 such images on an average day. Because monitoring can only go so far, we also need to teach our kids from a young age how to look critically at these messages. Watching TV or reading magazines together and then discussing them is one of the best ways to do this. Ask your kids about the characters and images, encourage them to think about who made the show and how they would make it different. Ask “why” a lot. If you pass a poster with a half-naked woman on it, don’t uncomfortably ignore it or hope they don’t see it. Trust me, they already have—so point it out and ask them what they think the advertiser is trying to do there and why? Besides being educational, these conversations are often fairly amusing.
3. Stop the body shame
Having a comfortable relationship with their bodies is the foundation for healthy sexuality in later years—and it begins with the words we teach them. Using anatomically correct words—as opposed to cutesy or bashful euphemisms—for all of their body parts promotes positive body image, increases their self-confidence and encourages healthy communication, ultimately decreasing their vulnerability to potential abusers, according to sex education experts. If (like me) you didn’t grow up with parents who were this open, using words like penis and vagina in conversation with little children can feel odd, especially in public. But push on! It really does get easier, and most importantly, it’s the start of a lifelong conversation about sex that you want to be able to have with you kids. As they grow older, encourage alternative ways of thinking about our bodies. When my five-year-old notices those posters and ads showing women’s breasts, I make sure to also mention that’s how babies get food and that all mammals do this. And don’t forget to watch how you talk about your own body as well. A friend recently shared with me the uncomfortable conversation she had to have when her twin seven-year-olds overheard her saying that having kids had “ruined” her body.
4. Instill the idea of boundaries, then respect them
The idea that no means no can start with play. If they’re playing a chasing or tickling game and one kid doesn’t like it, game over. Implement the concept of regularly “pressing pause” when they’re playing—a quick check-in to make sure everyone is still having fun. Insisting your kid kiss or hug a relative or family friend is probably the most common way we ignore our own kids’ boundaries.
We have to listen if we want them to believe that no really does mean no, regardless of how awkward it might be on the etiquette front. “Children should be taught that only they can decide how they feel about a touch—that they give permission to be touched. When they learn that they have the right to say no or question the behaviour of others—even grown-ups—they have gained valuable prevention skills against abuse and exploitation,” says Kennedy. How do you avoid potentially offending others when hugs are denied? Offer a positive alternative, like blowing a kiss while you hold your child, shaking hands or just waving goodbye.
5. Cultivate their natural empathy
Teaching empathy—the ability to appreciate how your actions may affect others, and then adjust them accordingly—is key to raising emotionally intelligent kids. Studies show that by the age of two or three, children can empathize with feelings of happiness, sadness and anger, since those are emotions they intensely feel themselves. Parents can actively encourage empathy by helping kids to regularly recognize and name what they feel, and then expand on that by asking them to consider how a friend or sibling feels in a variety of everyday situations. Model empathy yourself, too, but there will be times when you don’t. Use those examples as conversation starters to discuss what you could have done better and why.
6. Squash stereotypes
According to Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, gender awareness begins around two and a half. By kindergarten, kids begin chastising their peers for gender non-conformity (designating types of toys, colours or long or short hair as being specifically “boy” or “girl,” for instance). Challenge this kind of language when you hear it from kids. Ask them why they feel that way and make it clear that all kids are free to make their own choices and have their own preferences. Do away with phrases like “Act like a lady” and “Boys will be boys.” Parents can work against stereotypes by never using gender as a reason for your kids to do or not do something—like discouraging boys from figure skating or insisting girls learn to cook. Dreams of being a hockey player, dancer or astronaut are for everyone. This shift has the potential to be uncomfortable for parents—you may worry about your son wearing pink or feel disappointed that your girl isn’t girlier, but you have to put that aside. It’s more important for them to be confident and happy.
One of the most important ways to treat your boys and girls equally: Nurture them as they experience their full range of emotions—make it just as OK for boys to cry and talk about their feelings as it is for girls. A recent study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that the conversations mothers have with their four-year-old daughters tend to contain more emotional words and content than the conversations they have with their sons. Researchers found this practice unconsciously reinforces gender stereotypes to their kids—and may give girls an advantage when it comes to higher levels of emotional intelligence. In the end, it’s up to kids to grow up to be who they really are, regardless of old ideas about what boys and girls should be. And it’s our job as parents to create a loving and supportive environment where anything is possible.
Reva Seth is the bestselling author of The Mom Shift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Children (Random House: 2014). She is also the mother of three boys.