Teaching Our Children to be Feminists

Being a parent is hard, and full of paradoxes.  You want to keep your child safe and protected at all times, while at the same time giving her wings to fly.  You want your baby to explore her world and discover its secrets, yet you don't want her to discover anything that could cause her pain or sadness.  You worry constantly, while telling yourself that everything will be fine in the end.  You want your child to be happy and confident and joyful, but you realize that sadness and guilt and hurt feelings are necessary emotions for learning compassion.  Most of all, as parents we want our babies to thrive, to grow into successful, smart, compassionate children and adults.  The expectations are constantly evolving and intensifying.  As my little one continues to grow and learn, I envision how I will parent her, how I will teach her life's important lessons, and what kind of person I hope for her to become.  I think about how to incorporate our family values into the decisions we make along the way.  It's important that she learn feminist values from an early age so that she will have the capacity to see the world for another's point of view and equality will be the norm for her.

(As an aside, I want to differentiate between equality and fairness.  Life isn't fair, it's never going to be fair, and I think it's beneficial to learn this from an early age.  Bad things happen to good people and the world is full of elements that are out of our control, but we learn from every experience and move on.  Equality, on the other hand, is the direct result of our attitudes and actions.  While we may not ever achieve fairness, we can and should strive for equality.  The future of the world depends on the thoughts, ideas, attitudes and actions of our children today.)

Ady was born in a monumental era.  The Presidential Election was just a few days after she was born, and we've seen terrifying and at times unbelievable changes in these 5 short months.  Ady participated in her first "March on Washington" at 2 months of age.  She is growing up in a family where both of her parents work, both cook, both clean, both change her diapers and pick out her clothes, and both love her unconditionally.  Dad doesn't "babysit;" Dad is a parent and contributes to the parenting as much as Mom does.  And Mom and Dad thank each other for their contributions to the family, in recognition that teamwork keeps the household going.  I believe that Ady will learn feminism from the examples we set for her and the discussions we have as a family, and that this basis will help her better understand the world and its challenges and diversity.  I am inspired by some of the books I have read lately (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jodi Picoult, Gloria Steinem, Colson Whitehead, Yaa Gyasi, Trevor Noah, Barack Obama, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Phoebe Robinson) about race, gender, and culture.  My book club just finished discussing two essays by Adichie, which were inspiring and thought-provoking and on which many of the ideas in this post are based.

I just saw the remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, and I absolutely loved it.  Emma, a political activist and proclaimed feminist in addition to her career as an actress, was perfect for the part.  Belle was, to some extent, a feminist in the original animated feature, but in the new movie she not only loves to read but she teaches another young girl to read, and instead of reading about Prince Charming, she reads about far-away places and worldly endeavors.  Belle is not at all interested in looking for a prince to save her, because she's not a fragile princess.  Belle appears to be the most intelligent and scientifically-minded individual in her town, even inventing a machine for washing clothes.  She is brave and true to herself.  While watching the movie, I thought, what a great example for my baby girl.

I'm not going to pick a side in the debate about whether it is more challenging to raise sons or daughters, because I have only experienced mothering a daughter at this point, and I think both experiences present their own obstacles.  Raising a daughter means teaching her for stand up for herself, to be confident, and to not let her gender create barriers.  Society wants girls to not be "too anything" (too talkative, too shy, too assertive, too passive, too demanding, too humble, too domestic, too undomesticated, too feminine, too masculine), but to achieve a fine balance and to be well-liked, a task which seems daunting.  Yet, I do believe it to be more difficult to teach sons to embrace feminism and equality when they may not experience or even witness the effects of inequality or discrimination, and that in itself is a challenge.

So how can we teach our children about feminism?  These are some of my thoughts after reading some of Adichie's work and other relevant books:

1.  Treat every child as an individual, celebrating her unique qualities and attributes, allowing her to be the best version of herself that she can be without comparing her to others.  Adichie writes in her essay Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, "If we don't place the straightjacket of gender roles on young children, we give them space to reach their full potential."

2.  Choose his books wisely.  I am appalled at the lack of diversity that exists in many children's books and the stereotypical gender roles that are often portrayed.  As parents we should try to seek out those books and learning materials that show brave and kind characters with various skin colors and from many cultural backgrounds.  There's nothing wrong with exposing children to classic stories (albeit, outdated ones), but maybe we reverse the genders when reading out loud once in a while, or discuss what we like or don't like about the story.  I am obsessed with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Fran Cavallo, and also a cute story called Bloom by Doreen Cronin.  
Here are some good resources: Books That Help Kids Understand Feminism50 Feminist Books

3.  Allow our children to speak their mind, to be honest and brave, and praise them when they do so.  Also allow our children to express their emotions.  It's okay for boys and girls to cry and talk about feelings.

4.  Give children options.  Girls do not have to wear pink and dress as Cinderella.  Boys do not have to play with trucks.  Let children explore the toys and clothes that make them happy.  Maybe they are just playing make-believe, or maybe they are beginning to explore their identity, but either way their choices should be limitless.  There's nothing wrong with a girl wanting to be a princess or wear pink, as long as she knows that she has other choices.  

5.  Surround our children with positive role-models -- women and men in science and health care, women and men in nurturing roles, people who come from diverse backgrounds, and those who value hard work.  Little girls should see smart and independent women, and little boys should see kind and hard-working men who respect women.  Jaycob and I are so fortunate to have a wonderful group of friends and family members who are kind, successful, intelligent, open-minded, and supportive of our little girl and who will teach her by example.

6.  Teach our children to see the world from the perspectives of others, and discuss the struggles that people in this world face as a result of their skin color, place of birth, religion or gender.  Cultivate empathy by discussing how our actions affect others.  Discuss current events.  Teach our children to acknowledge the very real struggles that people around them face, to appreciate the life they have been given, and to use their talents to help others.

7.  Encourage children to be active and play sports.  Show them examples of male and female athletes who are successful because of their athletic abilities.  Teach them to do their best in sports and not hold back out of fear of standing out.  Teach them the power of teamwork and sportsmanship, because this will translate to other avenues.  These same concepts apply to music and other "teams" or groups.

8.  Question the language we use.  Are we always telling our daughters that they are pretty?  Are we always telling our sons that they are brave?  Are our girls "darlings" and our boys "buddies?"  What is this teaching them?  Adichie states, "Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions."

9.  When someone says you run like a girl (or throw like a girl, or do math like a girl, or talk like a girl), say THANK YOU!  Let's face it, there are some unmodifiable difference between girls and boys (hence the lack of females in the NFL), but different does not mean better or worse, and girls should embrace their talents and athleticism.

10.  Finally, this quote of Adichie's stood out to me: "Teach her that to love she must give of herself emotionally but she must also expect to be given.  I think love is the most important thing in life.  Whatever kind, however you define it, but I think of it generally as being greatly valued by another human being and greatly valuing another human being."

As parents, we are all just doing the best we can.  By embracing feminism, encouraging diversity and difference, acknowledging the struggles of others, and giving our children choices, we are also supporting each other as parents. 

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Images from TodaysParent.com


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