Don’t Give Up on the Boys: Seven Practical Observations on How to Raise a Feminist Son
By Katherine Hanson
Photo by: Carrie Elizabeth Photography
As a boy mom with no plans of trying for a girl, I can feel a bit left out of one crucial part of the Feminist conversation, particularly about the duty of us moms to raise strong girls.
As a mother to a three year-old boy named Reese and as a female myself, I’ve had a few well-formed and strongly opinionated thoughts about how to raise and encourage the development of independently capable young ladies over the years. But what happens when you can’t funnel all of the lessons-learned from your childhood angst and female intuition into a daughter of your own?
One must look to the boys, then.
In Claire Cain Miller’s popular New York Times article titled How to Raise a Feminist Son, she quotes Gloria Steinham as saying, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
We are raising our daughters to see themselves as equal contributors to the professions of the world while encouraging empathy and an awareness of emotions. However, none of this will work out if we don’t also raise our boys to be mindful and awake to themselves as well.
What good does it do if we raise only half of the future generation to be this way?
Clearly we’re not thinking or looking at the whole picture when we only talk about raising strong girls.
We also have to raise strong men.
Boys too need to be on the receiving end of affirmations, encouragement and emotional support. Not in a way that puts one gender above the other, but to give them the strength and confidence to see themselves as emotionally equal to girls, to also be everything they’ve been put on this earth to be.
What good does it do if we raise up one sex at the expense of the other?
(And just because that may have been done in the past doesn’t make it justifiable to do so in the future with men and boys posed as the lesser.)
The Feminist movement, and all of the progress it has made, is not just about the cause of women being equal to men; it is a big invitation for us all to step forward and explore a better way to exist together on this planet.
In her aforementioned article, Miller makes many good points about raising a Feminist son which I highly recommend parents to read. But what does that look like in real life with a three year-old/almost four year-old boy? Taking cues from Miller’s piece and combining them with some observations of my own, I’d like to offer the below seven practical tips on how to raise a son, at this juncture in his development, with a Feminist mindset:
- Encourage Friendships with Girls:
One of Reese’s best friends is our neighbor Sophia, who is 4 years-old, and we treat his friendship with her in the same way that we’d treat his friendship with a fellow boy. Yes they play with dump trucks, excavators, and foam rocket launchers, but they also play “house” and other imaginative scenarios. When we talk about Sophia with Reese, we ask all about their adventures. We also ask him about what she likes, doesn’t like, and the kind of friend she is, and what makes her unique. Although she is a beautiful girl, we don’t bring her looks into the conversation with innocent and silly phrases like, “You think she’s prrreeeettyyy?” By encouraging his friendship with Sophia and other girls in his life this way, we are hoping to raise him to see girls with a respect for who they are as people and their contributions, not just as a feminine compliment to males or to judge them purely by their looks.
- Let the Boys Celebrate with the Girls:
And when it comes to birthday parties and other gatherings to celebrate important milestones, include both boys and girls as long as you can. Reese’s school has a rule to include everyone in the class when birthday invitations are passed out, and I’ve always loved having his whole class come to his birthday parties. However I’ve noticed many parents of girls this age have begun to host “girls only” parties. Call me crazy, but this really bothers me. What good does it do to encourage boys to see girls as equals when at the first chance you get to do the same for boys, you single them out by assuming they’re not interested in developing those friendships with girls? Girls get that message as loudly as the boys do – there is something “special” about us that is “not special” about the boys. This subtext tells the boys that they have nothing to contribute when it comes to friendships with girls, and it encourages the divide of understanding between the two that might only grow as they get older. I would never have the audacity to not invite Reese’s female classmates to one of his parties under the assumption that they wouldn’t be into a Superhero or Truck-themed party – so let’s not do the same to the boys. I’m just saying.
- Allow for Quiet Time to Encourage Conversation:
In her book, Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, Dr. Meg Meeker describes the importance of keeping yourself open to communication with your young man. She says that boys tend to be less persistent than girls when they have something important to say, and making yourself available to your son on a regular basis for when he needs to talk about something that is crucial to his emotional development. With this in mind, I try to create quiet space throughout our day to help encourage my son to express his thoughts and identify his emotions. We also do this with our bedtime routine where either my husband or I lay down with him at bedtime, and we encourage a reflective conversation about this day with four questions:
- What was the best part of his day and why?
- What was something that made him sad?
- What was something that made him happy?
- What was the worst part of his day and why?Sometimes, he doesn’t have much to say, and sometimes he does. Sometimes he doesn’t have an answer to one question or another. But it always stimulates some sort of conversation or questions that he was hoping to get across. He tells us things or asks questions that he wasn’t able during the course of a busy day. It is my hope that my keeping the lines of communication open about the little things, that it will lead to an ease for him to communicate with his dad and I about the big things later in life.
- Expose Him to Female Role Models and Heroines
Like many households with young children, the Disney movie Moana has been a favorite in ours. And for good reason – the visuals, the songs, and the eco-friendly message are all spectacular. But the reason I like it best of all for both boys and girls is that it shows a girl living out a true Hero’s Tale – without a romantic interest as a part of the journey’s goal. Not once is Moana told that she can’t carry out the mission that she’s been called to do because she is a girl. And when a strong male character arises in the plot, they work together, each using their unique skills to complete their mission. This is just one example of the ways in which you can encourage female role models for your son – without the pretense that girls are thought to have lesser capabilities by men. The popular book She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton is also one of Reese’s favorite books. Moms, grandmothers, aunts and friends are all capable role models too, if your son is allowed to see their triumphs and how they’ve overcome hardships in their lives.
- Don’t Adhere to Traditional Gender Roles
I’m thankful to have a marriage where both my husband and I have equal responsibilities for household chores, and our son has seen us both work hard at our careers. In the same vain, Reese is expected to pull his weight around the house with age appropriate tasks. Some are paid chores, and some are not. It is our hope to show him that both caring for a household and providing for it are equally as valuable, and both require a lot of strength.
- No Means No – Respect Physical Boundaries
Teaching the No Means No rule is important on so many levels, but mostly it teaches children that ultimately they have a say in who touches their body, what is done to it (aside from necessary medical interventions), and how to identify when someone is crossing a boundary. We can only expect boys to respect physical boundaries with others if their physical boundaries too are respected. Even though it sometimes hurts feelings of family members, we don’t make Reese hug or kiss anyone (high fives are a great option instead). Or if someone is touching him and he doesn’t want to be touched, we’ve taught him to be confident in politely stating, “Keep your hands to yourself, please!”. By setting the expectation that physical boundaries are ones to be obeyed at all costs, we are hoping to raise our son to instinctively know that the bodies of his peers are to be treated respectfully.
- Avoid the “Boys will be Boys” Rationale
Yes, just by their very nature boys tend to me more rambunctious, physical, and inattentive than girls. However that doesn’t mean that they’re not capable of being quiet, still, and contemplative. Don’t deny them the opportunities to practice being mindful and still. There are many providers of Kids Yoga programs in the Charleston region now that provide excellent age-appropriate opportunities for boys to explore these skills, and our son loves going to the “yoga parties” as we call them. It may not look like what we females think it should look like and it might all be bookended by a game of dodge ball or a wrestling match, but these skills are no less important to them.I’ve come to the realization that the best way I can serve and encourage the enlightened development of girls in my son’s generation is to raise my own son with them in mind. Not in a way that puts young ladies as superior to him, but instead in a way in which he hopefully will ultimately feel as empowered and emotionally capable as they have been raised to be.But for me as a mother, this is not just about raising him to see females as equal in abilities as himself, but raising him in a way to see value in all walks of life.
Don’t give up on the boys. The world needs to hear what they have to say, too