A few weeks ago I was at Barnes & Noble looking for a gift for a little girl who had invited my son Bobby to her birthday party. I was walking past one of the display tables in the kids’ section when a book called Rosie Revere, Engineer caught my eye. (For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a book about a girl named Rosie who dreams of becoming an engineer and whose great-great aunt is the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter.) I loved the concept of the book—a female character who is interested in a field that has been traditionally viewed as masculine—and I am a huge fan of Rosie the Riveter. I immediately decided that the book would be a great gift for Bobby’s little friend. For an instant, I sighed and thought about how, as a mother of two sons, I would never be able to buy these types of books and share my passion for girl power and leaning in.
Then I had a thought: By assuming that I could only pass on my beliefs to a daughter, wasn’t I contributing to the problem that made gender equality initiatives necessary? In other words, why couldn’t I raise my boys to be feminists?
The idea that traditional women’s issues—topics such as domestic violence, paid parental leave, and affordable childcare—are men’s issues, too, is a rather recent development. The NO MORE campaign against domestic violence and sexual assault was launched in 2013 (and gained a massive audience with its PSAs featuring NFL players), and the HeForShe movement for gender equality was kicked off in 2014 with actress Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations. Both efforts emphasize the idea that women and men will benefit from gender equality.
With regard to my sons, I know that the younger they are when I begin teaching them about gender equality, the better. I also know that as they get older the lessons are going to get much more complicated than “both boys and girls can wear pink or blue.” I know it’s going to be an uphill battle because stereotypical notions of what it means to be male and female are all over our media culture. Finally, I know that I am going to need my husband's help with the plan because it’s important that our boys see both male and female role-models practicing what we preach.
Fully aware of these obstacles, here are some thoughts on what we as a society can do to raise boys who truly see women as equals:
Avoid gender stereotypes in language use.
So many gender stereotypes have become common expressions in our culture, but they still subtly reinforce the notion that men are stronger than women. For instance, the phrase “throw like a girl” is used to indicate weakness in boys and girls alike, whereas someone who “mans up” is seen as strong and stable.
Discourage aggressive behavior and encourage a healthy expression of emotion.
The expression “boys will be boys” is often used to justify aggressive behavior in young males. It implies that there is an uncontrollable biological urge behind this behavior, and therefore, that men shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. In addition, men have it drilled into them from boyhood that the expression of any emotion except anger is a form of weakness. However, research has shown that suppressed emotions can make people more aggressive.
Don’t divide household responsibilities along traditional gender boundaries.
Boys should see Mom (or another female role-model) tackle traditional “male” chores, such as mowing the lawn, taking out the garbage, or fixing a leaky toilet. They should witness Dad (or another male role-model) performing traditional “female” chores, such as changing diapers, doing laundry, or loading the dishwasher. Boys should also be expected to perform a wide range of household chores across traditional gender boundaries.
Be conscious of gender bias when choosing toys and activities.
It’s so easy to subconsciously steer boys away from toys and activities that are considered “feminine”—especially when stores guide us into this way of thinking by categorizing products as appropriate for boys or girls. Kudos to stores like Target, which recently announced that it is eliminating gender-based signage in its toy, bedding, and entertainment departments.
Find teachable moments in our media culture.
Since it’s nearly impossible to get away from it, take advantage of mass media to draw attention to gender roles and how they are portrayed. For instance, lead a discussion about how stereotypes are perpetuated in advertising and on sitcoms. How many commercials for household cleaning products feature women versus men? How many sitcoms portray fathers as incompetent when it comes to taking care of the children?
I have the next 18 years to practice these suggestions as I guide my sons from infancy through adolescence. I hope that in doing so, I raise strong and sensitive men who believe women are their social, political, and economic equals—and that’s what feminism is all about.
Jennifer Eckert is an editor at National Geographic Learning and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago with one husband, two sons, and three cats.