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Boys to (Real) Men: How to Raise a Feminist Son.

This year, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out with a delightful tiny book called Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. It was in response to a friend who had reached out for some advice: how to raise her daughter to become a feminist. Originally written as a long letter, Dear Ijeawele shares concrete ways in which someone can raise a feminist daughter, from rejecting the need to be likeable to picking out non-gendered toys.

In this era where feminism has entered the mainstream, it’s not uncommon for parents to tell their daughters that they can be anything they want— an astronaut, a mother, a supreme court judge. Parents also now make sure their daughters know that they can do anything they want; every opportunity that has been made available to men should also be available for women.

I can understand the importance of having a society in which daughters are raised to be strong, confident women who refuse to be constrained by everyday sexism and the patriarchy. But what about our boys? If it’s important to raise girls in a way that promotes their strength, is it not important that we raise our boys in a conscientious manner as well?

In the words of Gloria Steinem, “We have begun to raise our daughters more like sons, but few have the courage to raise our sons more like daughters.”

If we want to #smashthepatriarchy, we know that begins with education. And that education is not just the responsibility of our school system, but also of our parents. This kind of education, this un-learning, begins the instant a person is born. While we teach girls about self-confidence and assertiveness, let’s teach boys about vulnerability and femininity.

In my ideal world, this wouldn’t be an essay about boys. This would be a guide on how to raise any child, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, we live in a world still predicated on the gender binary, and as such, I think it’s pertinent for parents today to ensure their sons learn specific traits and concepts, ones which are so often neglected (or outright denied) for boys and men.

Though I have zero years of experience as a mother, I have many years of experience as a friend, daughter, boss, employee and partner to men. It is those relationships that have helped me to see what makes a good man and what we can do to raise boys into good men. So, here are a few ideas on how we can raise our boys to be kind, considerate and respectful men.

1.     Feel and Talk, and Feel and Talk

By now, it’s common knowledge that there is a widespread problem with depression and suicide for boys and men in North America. The research has consistently shown us that the root cause of this epidemic stems from toxic masculinity: society’s direction that boys adopt an unshakable strength and suppress their emotions.

We need to start teaching boys, from a young age, that it’s natural to have emotions and acceptable to share them. Male parental figures and role models need to lead by example. Boys need men in their lives who can show them it’s okay to express feelings and be vulnerable. So often boys are taught it’s okay to express their anger, but must bury any feelings of sadness. To counter this, we need to make a concerted effort to ask boys more ‘feeling’ questions. At the dinner table or on the playground, we need to ask them how they felt about their friend stealing their toy or how that movie made them feel. We ourselves need to talk about when we are sad or struggling to normalize these conversations.

We must teach boys about emotional maturity. That starts with us bringing feelings to the forefront; talking about them and expressing them ourselves. We need to get boys comfortable around emotions. We must show our boys that sharing feelings is healthy, productive and not a ‘feminine’ trait reserved for girls. It’s simple: let boys be emotional.

2.     Be Okay with Being Different

In her book, We Should All Be Feminists, Adichie said: “imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”

Gender is a tricky thing. From the second we are born, a gender is thrust upon us, whether we like it or not. Expectations are placed upon us: how to look, dress, act, speak. We know the gender roles: girls are expected to be nurturing, warm, empathetic, while boys need to be strong, protective and confident.

Tell your son it’s okay to defy those expectations. It is okay to be different from the other boys. Your son doesn’t have to love sports or play with trucks or like the colour blue. He can wear skirts, take ballet, and pick the flowers in the field. Make sure your son knows that it’s okay to be just the way he is. In fact, remind him how beautiful it is to be unique.

3.     You Are Responsible for Your Actions

Instil in your sons the idea that they are responsible for their actions. From a very young age, boys often learn that they can be abrasive and destructive without scolding or repercussions. Far too often our response to their actions is ‘boys will be boys,’ allowing them to evade responsibility. When a girl throws her doll, we say, “oh sweetheart, don’t throw Sally,” but when a boy whips his Batman across the room we just laugh. By doing this, suggesting these actions are acceptable, we reinforce aggressive behaviour in boys and set the stage for male violence.

4.     You Are Not Entitled to Anything

Similar to instilling a sense of responsibility in our boys, we also need to ensure that they do not grow up feeling entitled. While both girls and boys grab things without permission in their early years, it’s a trait that is quickly socialized out of girls but allowed to remain in boys. Too often, young boys are given free reign to do as they please. If we start teaching our boys that they must ask for a toy or an activity, teach them to ask for permission, we will begin at an early age to segue into discussions on consent.

If we raise our boys to ask for a sip of our juice, rather than just grabbing our cup, they will learn not to simply take what they want without regard for another person. We know all too well that boys often grow up with the idea that they can take whatever they want, which is inevitably women. For example, if we tell boys they need to ask permission to hug their friends, they will begin to grasp consent.

Most importantly, we need to show our respect for consent. Too often, people do not implement their own principles, insisting that young children hug and kiss strangers even if they do not feel comfortable doing so. We need to lead by example, asking our sons (and any young folk) permission to hug/kiss them, showing that no body can be touched freely.

5.     Use Your Voice

Boys are often instilled with confidence from a young age, but that confidence is rarely channeled into being an ally. Teach your son confidence, and then teach him to use that confidence to speak up for others. Tell your son that it is his responsibility to support others when they are down and out, to speak out against bigotry, and to tell his friends when they are being mean/offensive. We need to model what this looks like. If a boy sees his parents or a role model using their voice, he will be more likely to do the same.

 6.     Create Fierce Friendships

It’s well known that women often have deeper, more connected friendships than men. This is once again linked to the problem of men being reluctant to share their emotions with friends for fear of being seen as ‘too feminine.’ Teaching your boy that it’s okay to be open about his feelings will allow him to work towards creating stronger, more meaningful relationships with his friends.

Also encourage your son to be friends with girls. Gendered friendships begin early, normally in elementary school, so try to make sure your son has at least a few gal pals. Make their birthday parties coed and enroll your son in activities (painting, soccer, chess, etc.) that has both male and female members. The director of Stanford says, “The more obvious it is that gender is being used to categorize groups or activities, the more likely it is that gender stereotypes and bias are reinforced.” 

7.     Care for Yourself and Others

Teach your son how to take care of himself. Teach him the importance of knowing how to care for his home and himself and his loved ones. Teach him how to fold sheets, clean the washroom, and cook some simple meals. Teach him that he cannot rely on others to do this for him. Start this early, making sure he helps you and your partner in the kitchen or sweeps the floor once a week as a part of his chores.

Teach him that when he is older he needs to share the domestic burden with his partner. This happens more organically in same-gender or gender non-conforming relationships, but the division of domestic labour in heterosexual couples is still one sided. Teach him that domestic work is not reserved for women and it is not a burden he can push onto her. More importantly, show him this. Whenever possible, make sure that the division of labour in your own household is not gendered. If he sees his mother always cooking, he will come to consider than the norm.

8.     Play!

Last but certainly not least, let boys embrace their boyhood. Let them jump in puddles, climb trees, make fart jokes and build forts. It is crucial that we work to deconstruct gender norms and ensure our boys are conscientious citizens. But at the same time, it’s also important that we let boys, whose high energy is so often deemed an impediment to learning, release that energy and play. If we don’t let boys blow off steam, we leave them to become pent up and express their energy in negatives ways.

Remember, Gender is a Construct

I share these ideas for parenting a boy, emphasizing certain traits and skills, because we so often neglect these for people we label as male. But in the end, these are notions we should try to instil in all children, regardless of their gender.

The world needs more kind, caring and compassionate people in this world. Let’s try to raise them to be this way.

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