13 Ways to Raise Young Feminists
Not too long ago, a disturbing trend swept the Internet. A bunch of high school and college-aged girls and young women holding signs, proclaiming why they don't need feminism. It made my soul hurt. It made my Equal Pay bumper sticker weep.
Do they even know what feminism is? Are they scared of looking like man-haters? I couldn't come up with any other explanations. After all, without feminism they wouldn't be in college. Without feminism they wouldn't have credit cards, birth control, or maybe even jobs. The list is long. And maybe it's feminism's fault for not drawing everyone in, for not keeping up with the needs of young women, for not being intersectional enough quickly enough.
But in the last few years, it seems that more people understand feminism is a goal of equity for all people, inclusive of all sexes, genders, races, abilities, and LGBTQ identities. And to me, feminism includes the desire to do something about it.
If you're raising boys, don't stop reading. This is for you, too! As much as we need girls who become confident and empowered women, we need boys who become men who value caregiving, men who can identify their feelings beyond mad/sad/happy. Men who step back once in a while to elevate the voices of women who aren't heard enough. Men who respect women, their bodies, and their choices.
You can start right away with these 13 ways to raise your children, tweens, and teens to be feminists.
1. Encourage them to socialize together
When your kid hangs out with children of all genders, they're less likely to stick to rigid gender stereotypes. Girls are also more likely to play with toys that encourage spatial skills when they play with boys.
2. Switch up roles at home.
If you're in a hetero relationship, think about your household tasks. Does one of you always cook and clean? Does one of you always mow the lawn and take out the garbage? It's easy to settle into roles, often unspoken, for how you and your partner split the chores, and how you assign them to your kids. Switch it up sometimes, especially for problem-solving tasks. Even if I simply scotch-tape a book together, I'm sure to tell my kid "Mommy's fixing this."
3. Use real life role models.
Books are great for role models, but the real life ones will have the most impact. Introduce your children and teens to men in caregiving roles, such as nurses and teachers. Surround them with doctors and dentists and plumbers who are women. Try to find a male dance or piano teacher. These role models thwart stereotypes that there are "girl jobs" or "boy jobs."
4. Make girls question authority.
We all want our kids to say "please" and "thank-you" and respect their elders. But if they're TOO polite, they might avoid risks and fail to take up space in the world. If they complain about an injustice, ask them what they're going to do about it. We need girls to know they can change the world.
5. Teach boys to be kind.
I love the kindness movement spreading among children and teens. Young people with compassion and kindness is the first step to a world filled with more love and less hate; more acceptance for people who might not look or act like you. Girls often spearhead acts of kindness, but let's include boys, too. It will help them to see girls and women as full human beings, not objects, and embrace a wider definition of masculinity.
6. Avoid labeling your kid.
People have called my daughter "sweet" and "polite" and "mellow." The last one gave me belly laughs because she's incredibly strong-willed. But these adjectives are simply synonymous with female. They don't actually speak to who she is. When we call our child or teen "shy" or "rambunctious," "a girly girl" or a "tomboy" WE define who they are. Avoid labels, even if they're so-called positive, to give them the freedom to change and grow and be more than their sex.
7. Question the media EVERY darn day.
"I wonder why there are 5 boy characters and only 1 girl character."
"If you'd written this story, what would the characters say/do instead?"
"Is that something you see kids wearing to school?"
Ask them these questions constantly. They'll think you're a little bit annoying, but they already do, right? The critic's hat will become second nature, and they will start to practice media literacy (without even knowing what that term means). Check out more resources at Common Sense Media.
8. Make them think about the world.
Children and teens can be, quite naturally, a little self-absorbed. Try volunteer work as a family. When you help folks less fortunate, it will trigger natural conversations about poverty, racism, and the imbalance of power in our world. Which leads to the next tip...
9. Discuss sexism, homophobia, and racism with them.
And every other "ism." You can try the old adage "boys and girls are equal, and they can do anything they want" or pretend to be color-blind. But that ignores reality. Instead, teach them that everyone has a different life experiences based on who they are, or how the world perceives them. The foundation of intersectional feminism is that we cannot be segregated into pieces of ourselves; we have several layers that form our identity. Until we fight simultaneously against racism, homophobia, ableism, and xenophobia, we will never reach gender equity. Speaking of....
10. Teach your kids the difference between equality and equity.
This sounds a little academic, no? Don't worry, it's a short lesson. Equality means everyone gets the exact same thing. So what's equity? It's more about fairness. And every kid has yelled that's not fair! at some point. "It’s not about everybody getting the same thing,” Cynthia Silva Parker said. “It’s about everybody getting what they need in order to improve the quality of their situation.”
(Many more riffs on this graphic here. I especially love the one that shows liberation and inclusion, too.)
11. Check your own body image.
We can't expect tweens and teens to have self-confidence and positive body image if they've heard negatives messages their whole lives. Do you criticize your flabby stomach? Make jokes about getting wrinkles and gray hair? Do you obsess over celebrities' outfits in US Weekly? Our kids soak in all of these messages, even the positive ones. If you fuss over the babysitter's beauty, our girls wonder if they can measure up, and boys learn to value girls primarily based on appearance. Rather than praise appearance constantly, focus on their values and skills.
12. Reframe failure as progress.
We encourage boys to play rough and take big risks, but we expect girls to follow the rules. As adults, most women don't apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the requirements, while men take a shot if they meet 60%. Women's failures in the workplace are remembered longer, they are less likely to get raises when they ask, and are interrupted more frequently.
To change these workplace dynamics, we need to shift attitudes and cultural expectations. Tell your daughters that perfection doesn't happen right away, and reframe "failure" as progress. "Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit." - Rosie Revere Engineer.
13. Be open about bodies and sex.
Be ready for kids' questions about their bodies early, and be honest. Use the real names for body parts to avoid feelings of shame or stigmatization. They'll be more likely to come to you with their problems. This will also help you create open and honest dialogue about what consent is - how girls maintain authority over their bodies, and how boys respect that.
Catherine Bailey is the founder of Think or Blue, which helps parents raise children who are kind, confident, and proud to be themselves.
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.