How to Raise a Feminist Son
We’re now more likely to tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be — an astronaut and a mother, a tomboy and a girlie girl. But we don’t do the same for our sons.Even as we’ve given girls more choices for the roles they play, boys’ worlds are still confined, social scientists say. They’re discouraged from having interests that are considered feminine. They’re told to be tough at all costs, or else to tamp down their so-called boy energy.If we want to create an equitable society, one in which everyone can thrive, we need to also give boys more choices. As Gloria Steinem says, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”That’s because women’s roles can’t expand if men’s don’t, too.But it’s not just about women. Men are falling behind in school and work because we are not raising boys to succeed in the new, pink economy. Skills like cooperation, empathy and diligence — often considered to be feminine — are increasingly valued in modern-day work and school, and jobs that require these skills are the fastest-growing.
Let him cry: Boys and girls cry the same amount when they’re babies and toddlers, research shows. It’s around age 5 that boys get the message that anger is acceptable but that they’re not supposed to show other feelings, like vulnerability, said Tony Porter, co-founder of A Call to Men, an education and advocacy group.“Our daughters are allowed to be human beings, and our sons are taught to be robotic,” he said. “Teach him that he has a full range of emotions, to stop and say, ‘I’m not angry; I’m scared, or my feelings are hurt, or I need help.’”
Give him role models: Boys are particularly responsive to spending time with role models, even more than girls, research shows. There is growing evidence that boys raised in households without a father figure fare worse in behavior, academics and earnings. One reason, according to the economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, is they do not see men taking on life’s responsibilities. “Put good men in the space of your son,” Mr. Porter said.Give them strong female role models, too. Talk about the achievements of women you know, and well-known women in sports, politics or media. Sons of single mothers usually have a lot of respect for their accomplishments, said Tim King, founder of Urban Prep Academies for low-income, African-American boys. He encourages them to see other women that way.
Let him be himself: Even as adult gender roles have merged, children’s products have become more divided by gender than they were 50 years ago, research has found: pink princesses and blue trucks, not just in the toy aisle but on cups and toothbrushes. It’s no wonder that children’s interests end up aligning that way. But neuroscientists say children aren’t born with those preferences. Until the mid-20th century, pink was the boy color and blue was for girls. In studies, infants have not been shown to have strong toy preferences. The difference, according to researchers, emerges at the same time that children become aware of their gender, around age 2 or 3, at which point societal expectations can override innate interests. Yet longitudinal studies suggest that toy segregation has long-term effects on gender gaps in academics, spatial skills and social skills, according to Campbell Leaper, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Teach him to take care of others: Women still do more of the caregiving — for children and for older people — and the housework, even when both parents work full time, data show. And caregiving jobs are the fastest-growing. So teach boys to care for others.
Share the work: When possible, resist gender roles in housework and child care among parents. Actions speak louder than words, said Dan Clawson, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: “If the mother cooks the food and cleans the house and the father mows the lawn and is often gone from home, lessons are learned.”
Encourage friendships with girls: Research at Arizona State University found that by the end of preschool, children start segregating by sex, and this reinforces gender stereotypes. But children who are encouraged to play with friends of the opposite sex learn better problem-solving and communication.“The more obvious it is that gender is being used to categorize groups or activities, the more likely it is that gender stereotypes and bias are reinforced,” said Richard Fabes, director of the university’s Sanford School, which studies gender and education.Never use ‘girl’ as an insult: Don’t say — and don’t let your son say — that someone throws or runs like a girl, or use “sissy” or any of its more offensive synonyms. Same for sexist jokes.Be careful with subtler language, too. The research of Emily Kane, a sociologist at Bates College, shows that parents enforce traditional gender roles for sons mostly because they fear those sons will be teased. “We can all help by avoiding judgment, and avoiding small, everyday assumptions about what a kid will enjoy or be good at based on their gender,” she said. Boys who get teased could say, “No, anyone can play with beads,” or “I am not a girl, but do you think they’re worse than boys?” said Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University.Read a lot, including about girls and women: You’ve probably heard that boys excel at science and math, and girls at language and reading. Stereotypes can become self-fulfilling. Mothers talk more with daughters than sons, according to a meta-analysis by Mr. Leaper. Fight the stereotype by talking to boys, reading to them and encouraging them to ead.Read about a wide variety of people, and stories that break the mold, not just those about boys saving the world and girls needing to be saved. When a book or a news item fits that mold, talk about it: Why does the mother in the “Berenstain Bears” always wear a housecoat and rarely leave the house? Why does a news photograph show all white men?
“That should start at 3, when they really pick up stereotypes and notice them,” Ms. Brown said. “If you don’t help them label them as stereotypes, they assume this is the way it is.”