I’ve thought a lot lately about what we, as moms, can do to raise a new generation of feminist boys to be men who would never think about inflicting pain upon a woman. As the mother to a young boy of color, I know there are certain things I have to teach my son that maybe he wouldn’t have to learn if he was white or white-passing; for example, how to interact with police.
But I hadn’t thought as much about how to make sure that he never sees women as less than. I just figured that because I was a feminist, it would surely rub off on him. But the same way he has learned about Mickey Mouse even though he’s never been exposed to that branding in our house, I know he’s going to learn about societal expectations surrounding gender and what it (supposedly) means to be a “boy” versus a “girl.”
I’ve already gone to specific lengths to make sure that these assumptions around gender are subverted. For example, my son sees that my husband and I split the household chores evenly, and he goes to a preschool with three male teachers, so he doesn’t think that care-taking and cleaning are “girl” tasks. But there are other, more insidious ways that gender stereotypes take hold, and it’s tough to fight against them when they’re omnipresent. How do we combat sexism and raise boys into men who value and respect women as equals?
One of the first steps we can take is to make sure that boys and girls alike are exposed to stories of success and accomplishment by both genders. Babies as young as one can start to distinguish the difference between men and women, and by the time they’re toddlers, they begin to make connections about what those differences mean. So if they are only read stories where boys are heroes and girls are victims, they start to internalize those messages. If they only see movies where boys are scientists, astronauts, and warriors, then they believe that it is because boys are stronger, smarter, and better. We need to make sure that we consistently drive home the point that just because men may be in more positions of power in society at large, it’s not because women don’t deserve those positions, it’s because of a lack of opportunity.
It’s a never-ending task to reinforce notions of equality because the fact of the matter is that lots of your son’s teachers and peers will likely support and uphold stereotypes around gender totally subconsciously. They don’t mean to play into the “Boys will be boys” mentality, they won’t even realize they’re doing it most of the time. The more ingrained these notions become, the more likely your boy is to buy into the myth that boys are somehow better than girls or that women are less powerful than men. The scariest part of all is that by age 10, lots of these stereotypes become sexualized.
Another key finding of recent studies has been that the more we encourage young children to have friends of different genders, the less likely they are to buy into the gender stereotypes thrown at them by society at large. If and when you see something unfair happening in your child’s friend group, call it out: “Why was Julia picked last to play ball? She’s just as good as all your other friends.” If you’re watching a movie and see something sexist happening, point out how unfair it is that the girls aren’t being treated equally. Let your son wear pink and try on dresses and tutus. Stay as far away as possible from gendered toys and outfits. These little things can and will make a difference.
The power of language is also hugely important when it comes to how we raise our boys. Don’t call your son your “Little man.” Allow him to be sensitive and soft, let him cry when he needs to. A recent study found that Spanish moms were more likely to use emotion words and talk to their daughters about their feelings than their sons. We can’t expect our sons to fully develop their emotional intelligence if we’re not giving them the tools to do so.
Finally, one last note specific to Latina moms and women of color and the way we have (historically) raised our sons and daughters differently: Demand that your son helps out around the home and in the kitchen just as much as your daughter does. We should not raise a new generation of young men who feel entitled to sit around and play video games while the women around them do all the emotional and physical labor necessary to keep a household running. Only then can we be sure that they will grow up to see women as their 100% equals and never as someone who they can take advantage of in any way.