by Kat Kelley
Feminism has long been deemed the territory of women, and recent polls indicate that only 16% of American men self-identify as feminists. All genders play a role in combatting sexism, and the role of parents is paramount. Children learn behaviors, patterns of thinking and the lens through which they see the world from their parents. Parents demonstrate gender roles and can also teach their children to challenge these roles. My parents raised me as a feminist. While my mother taught me the rhetoric of feminists, my father showed me that I was equal and deserving, and certainly not confined by antiquated notions of femininity.
Treat your children as equals, regardless of gender
My siblings and I were treated as equals, regardless of gender. My brother scrubbed the shower, and I mopped the tile floor. My father would let me use his power tools to build dollhouses or shelves, and my parents allowed us to choose the toys with which we wanted to play, although I still loved my water babies and my brother his legos.
Everything in our culture is based on a socially constructed notion of gender as binary and rigid, and while children will learn quickly in school, from their peers, and on television, that boys don’t cry and that girls like to play dress up, parents can actively choose to not reinforce this, to treat their children equally and to provide them with equal opportunities and equal encouragement. This can have exponential long term consequences. For example, 29% of females and 40% of males indicate being encouraged to enter politics by one or both of their parents, and of 18-25 year olds who were encouraged to run by their parents, 50% said they would definitely do so, as opposed to 3% of those not encouraged by their parents. Parents should treat children as equals, and their choices, regardless of whether they conform to gender norms, should be supported.
Demonstrate Healthy Relationships
Fathers have a crucial role to play in demonstrating healthy relationships to their children. Children learn and enact the social “scripts” they see in the household and in the media. A father’s behavior is not only a script for his sons, but rather an expression of what is expected in a relationship, how one should treat their partners, and the treatment one “desrves.” Fathers should treat their partners with respect, sharing responsibilities and making decisions mutually.
In my home, my parents reign side by side, they are a team. They don’t always agree, but they present a unified front and respect and support each other’s decisions. My mother ensured we ate all our veggies and my father insisted that we clean our plates and place our silverware in the dishwasher the right way. My mother led my girl scout troop and my father helped build the sets for the school theatre production.
My father’s love and support for my mother taught me to appreciate, and aspire to be, a strong women. He taught me that I should never downplay my strengths- whether it be in classroom or on the field, to conform to notions of what women should be or how they should look. He’d often laugh, insisting that the boys in my class were intimidated by me, saying that some men can’t handle strong women, and once said he wasn’t sure whether his daughters would be heartbreakers or head-breakers.
Talk about sex and gender
Sex shouldn’t be “the talk” but rather an evolving conversation between children and their parents. In discussing sex, in particular sexual autonomy, and sexual assault and consent, parents can remove the shame from sex, and help their children develop a sex-positive attitude. Teaching your daughters to protect themselves from sexual assault is fundamentally different from teaching your children that they have autonomy over their own bodies, that they must respect the sexual autonomy of others and seek consent in all sexual interactions. Teaching your children that sex is an intimate act to be reserved for when consenting individuals are ready is fundamentally different from teaching your children that sex is an act of procreation to be reserved for marriage.
Parents can also teach their children to think critically about gender, and to challenge gender norms. After watching The Sandlot for the umpteenth time, he asked me why I thought “you play ball like a girl” was considered so insulting, and reminded me of my mother’s prowess on the soccer field. He always mocked the male aversion to femininity, recounting the story of an old friend of his, a female construction worker, who spray painted her equipment pink; while every other member of their crew regularly experienced theft, no one so much as touched her equipment, and yet no one else had the chutzpah to paint theirs as well.
Be involved and supportive of your children
A parent’s support and involvement is not only invaluable in developing a child’s confidence and self-assurance, but it also challenges the persisting men-as-breadwinners and women-as-caretakers paradigm. My father has supported me unconditionally, leaving work early to attend my volleyball games or baking me extravagant cakes for each birthday. He didn’t even roll his eyes as I wore my tap dancing shoes and polka dot dress, running the bases in T-Ball, and boasted of my acting skills when the parents seated next to him at a middle school drama production didn’t realize that I, the male villain, was actually a girl. He started watching rugby after I joined my school’s club team, and when I underwent training to become a sexual assault crisis counselor, he’d listen, asking questions and nodding, as I talked his ears off about all my new feminist revelations.
My father continues to support and validate my choices. From sports and the power tools to sewing and dolls, and at-the-top-of-my-lungs-feminism, he has taught me that I can be anything. And for that matter, everything.