My son has just turned three. The most important women in his life at the moment are his mother (me), his older sister, his grandmothers – and the people who care for him tirelessly when he’s at nursery.
He wears fairy wings to the park, is partial to borrowing his sister’s gold sequin pom-pom skirt, and chose a headband with a big red-and-white bow to wear for his nursery graduation photos.
In no order of preference, he also likes: dolls, dancing, toy cars, having his nails painted and telling stories about ghosts – arms stretched wide for dramatic emphasis.
My son is good-humoured, kind and boisterous, free (for the moment) from stifling gender stereotypes and the pressures to “man up” or “be macho”. Or so I thought.
However much we try as parents to avoid reinforcing gender norms – through careful language, asking others to be more open with their choice of ‘boys’ toys’, or reading bedtime stories that highlight gender equality – it’s still there. All around us, all of the time. It’s there in the throwaway comments, like “boys will be boys” when kids scrap with each other in the playground.
It’s there in the affectionate musings made by friends or relatives when my son is playing with a digger. “He’s such a boy,” they say. “Typical boy, throwing himself off the sofa” – ignoring, or simply not seeing, my daughter doing exactly the same.
“He’ll be an engineer when he grows up,” they boast, when he’s experimenting with a toy screwdriver or pretend drill. “Don’t be such a wuss”, they chide him gently when he cries because he’s fallen over.
I can’t help but notice the differences in the way he’s treated compared to my daughter, who at the same age would’ve been scooped up and cuddled, with kisses applied liberally to a scraped elbow or bruised knee.
It’s even there in wildly popular TV programmes aimed at toddlers, such as Peppa Pig. And that’s why it’s so dangerous. Because we see, hear and read these things without realising it – even when research shows us that exposure to gender stereotypes in youth causes harm in later life.
Teaching our sons as early as possible to be ‘good men’ is crucial – but what does it mean, and when should we start? That was the question I was asked on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour, alongside clinical psychologist Emma Citron and Jordan James, a volunteer from the Good Lad Initiative.
My opinion? It’s never too early to start. We need to embed messages of equality, respect and tolerance in infancy, to bring about any sort of systemic change. After all, the most recent EU gender equality league table revealed that progress in evening out the battle of the sexes is moving at a “snail’s pace”.
Here’s how we can make a difference.
Teach boys what ‘feminism’ means.
Some people balk at the word ‘feminist’ – they believe there’s a stigma attached to it. One friend even told me she associates feminism with “equality, with a hump” (meaning a bad mood, or negative undertones).
I’ve come to love this definition: PEPS. Feminists want political, economic, personal and social equality of the sexes. Hard to argue with that.
Call out gender stereotypes.
Challenge outdated or sexist views, otherwise people will keep on spouting them, believing they’re acceptable. They’re not. To fight fire, you have to be aware of smoke. Don’t hide injustice, everyday sexism or inequality. Point it out – you can’t stand against something if you don’t know it exists.
The more your son, or other young boys, hear you do it, the more they’re likely to speak up – for themselves, and for other women.
But develop a thick skin. A wise friend reminded me that we should teach our children that people aren’t always going to agree with them. Preach.
Don’t limit their choices.
Tell boys they can be whatever they want to be: nurses, teachers, childcare assistants, chefs. The possibilities are endless – and yes, they can wear pink.
And while you’re doing this, challenge heteronormative ideals – girlfriends, boyfriends, both or none at all. It comes right back to opening up their options.
Think before you search (online).
I recently heard that even the biggest retailers divide clothes and toys into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ because customers search for them that way online. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know – but if we stop looking that way, does that mean they’ll stop needing to divide them for us?
If family or friends are shopping for your children, ask them not to buy gendered gifts for your children. My son got a buggy for Christmas, and he couldn’t have been more delighted.
Read books that challenge the norms.
Kids’ books that challenges gender norms can undo children’s previously held perceptions, according to a study by the Fawcett Society. Why not pick a few to read to your children? Also, try the brilliant ‘Julian is a Mermaid’, by Jessica Love – one of my favourites.
Try to present boys with strong women role models in books – examples include Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, Women in Sport: Fifty Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win, or Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.
Teach them about consent.
This should happen as early as possible. Don’t force your sons to hug or kiss ageing relatives at Christmas if they don’t want to. Empower them by reminding them they have the right to bodily autonomy – and so do girls.
Become a role model.
‘Traditional’ gender stereotypes can be reinforced at home without even thinking. Does mum do most of the cleaning, cooking and childcare? If so, swap roles. Dad can cook, while mum takes the bins out. Teach children that fathers can also be feminists.
You can do this with your language, too – and it’s likely they’ll pick up on it. I have a simple phrase I use all the time with my kids if I hear the dreaded phrase, “only boys can...” or “only girls can...”. “That’s wrong,” I say. “Boys and girls are the same. They can do the same things.”
My proudest moment? Seeing my daughter set a bunch of older kids straight in the local playground with exactly this phrase. In fact, she went one better with her brother, coining the wisdom, “everyone has bums” – which is as gender inclusive as it comes (“Girls have vaginas, boys have willies – unless they are born in the wrong body. But everyone has bums.”)
Talk openly to them.
Clinical psychologist Dr Helen McCarthy told me kids love being included in discussions where their point of view is listened to respectfully. Sitting down together for a family dinner can be a great time to unpick any sexist comments they may have heard at school. “Don’t panic if your child seems to hold a view that you don’t agree with,” Dr McCarthy said. “You can say you don’t agree and why – and this can help them shape their own view.”
You may also want to bring up other topics with them, such as porn – in an age-appropriate manner, of course.
And as well as talking openly to them, talk to them about their feelings – and yours. If you talk about your feelings – acknowledging when you’re grumpy, perhaps, and the reasons why – chances are, your sons will learn to as well. Don’t be afraid to cry.
And lastly, redefine what it means to be ‘a man’.
I’m not raising my son to be a ‘man’. I’m raising my son to be a human being.