Sons and gender equality: how I'm raising mine to be feminists

Mentoring our boys in the mechanisms of inequality is essential to changing issues around gender equality.
Mentoring our boys in the mechanisms of inequality is essential to changing issues around gender equality. Photo: Getty

I'm writing this just after my kids have had their dinner, before my husband gets home, glass of red wine beside my computer, with two out of three boys warring with their Nerf guns and the other on the iPad. Perfect mum I am not, so it's good I don't aspire to be perfect. I do aspire to be a caring and present mother, even if I'm not achieving that this very moment.

Note: Links in the next paragraph all carry trigger warnings for discussion all kinds of abuse against women and children

I have work to do, a bee in my bonnet, a fire in my belly and it has burned strongly recently while reading Clementine Ford's writing. I've also been following Destroy The Joint's Dead Women campaign and then Ken Lay's speech last week really got me thinking.

Driven by a desire to get to the root of men's violence against women, and contribute to the fight against it, I'm formulating a tangible plan, actual step-by-step strategies for parents of boys. Yes parents of boys and girls, but specifically people parenting boys; because I think it needs a particular, targeted approach. Men's violence against women starts with kids. It starts with parents.

Parenting boys is all I know but I was also raised feminist by a single mother after her marriage ended. As the only child of that toxic marriage, I've seen things my children thankfully never have and even though I have healed and there is forgiveness, it's my mission to ensure my three boys are not part of the culture which devalues and dehumanises women.

I remember my best friend in high school having a moment of clarity in grade 9 that I never would have had at that age. When I naively said I wouldn't like to have boy children she said that it's people like us who absolutely need to have them - women well-versed in issues of gender equality.

Remembering her words 26 years later, and madly in love with my small team of much-wanted boys, I sit down to formulate a plan more specific than the one I've been rolling with to date; the idea that being a feminist raising boys is enough. It's no longer enough to wing it as my eldest approaches high school, so I decided to write my own how-to.

You don't have to relate to it, you don't have to agree, but this is how I'm combating gender inequality in my own home with my boys. It's a lot to take in but I think these points are absolutely essential and I measure them out over many years.

All of these points can be appropriate for different age groups - it's up to you what topics are appropriate for the age of your son. 


1. Use the correct terms

A penis is not a pee-pee and a vagina is not a noo-noo. Talk about sexual organs by using their proper names from the get-go because linguistic respect goes a long way towards genuine respect.

2. Talk about genders and families

Some people were born with a penis but they are actually a girl and vice versa. Some kids have two dads or two mums. Some people aren't a boy or a girl. Talk about all the ways of being human and aim for knowledge and sensitivity. Seeing people unlike ourselves as 'other' or subhuman leads to all kinds of suffering.

A critical part of this is that children know that the home can be a particularly political place for a girl or woman.

Mum cooks and then is left to clean up. A daughter does more chores than her brother, even if it's written on the chart equally. An activity deemed to be a 'female activity' is openly derided, even in a good-humoured way. Political; all of it and highly loaded for many females.

It's an example we're setting to our sons and daughters if we don't point it out and try to change it - that to opt out of sharing the work is okay; that it's okay to put down a female's interests and opinions if you act like it's a joke. 

All of these micro-aggressions contribute to a much larger picture and they all contribute to girls and women feeling negatively about themselves. None of this is a good outcome; not for anyone in this complicated equation.

3. Tell them they need to give up things for gender equality

Some boys are taught to assume they are top of the food chain; to expect all the trimmings of a privileged life and take what they imagine is owed them. There's a whole other half of the population losing out on wages, superannuation, taking low-paid jobs and accepting substandard working conditions because they are female, because they are mothers raising the next generation, or simply because they've been taught to aim for nothing more. Genuine change doesn't happen in a vacuum.

If more women are to be CEOs, managers, or to simply have more choices surrounding child management and work, then employers and men have to be prepared to pave the way by giving a portion of these positions to women. This means automatically seeing women as contenders for the same roles and as being equals in child-rearing. 

4. Teach specific conduct rules

Openly acknowledge there's everything from porn to throwaway lines on Facebook that are simply unacceptable in terms of relating genuinely to girls and women. That on the first day of grade 5, he may notice that some girls will have grown breasts and that this change is most certainly not up for comment by him.

If he witnesses such comment either online or in person, he can tell the people doing it that it's not okay and that if he doesn't feel able to do that (boys can also feel unsafe to speak up), to tell a trusted teacher that this girl had that happen today.

There are myriad more things to speak about in terms of personal conduct, but the big ones in late childhood are language use, online conduct and permissive behaviour whereby pack mentality enables the maltreatment of girls and women.

5. Block your embarrassment

I call it my 'Maxwell Smart Door' - the door that comes down in my mind when I need to think straight, block out unnecessary noise or traumatic memories. I do it with embarrassment when it comes to talking about body parts and sex with my boys. I put on my matter-of-fact, honest voice and tell it like it is.

Sex works this way, penises feel aroused when puberty starts, masturbating is fine and nice and normal and so is ejaculation. I don't ever get embarrassed when I talk about this stuff, because I don't ever allow myself those feelings. I also acknowledge that others may find subverting embarrassment difficult or impossible so you need to work out your own way of getting through.

6. Speak out when you experience or witness casual misogyny

I'm separating severe kinds of misogynistic abuse women experience, from casual misogyny because I think it deserves a mention in its own right. You know casual misogyny when you experience it, but it's often hard to pinpoint when you try to relay it later. 

Sometimes it's not so hard; the guy who calls you 'sweetie' and you squirm uncomfortably, being spoken to as if you don't understand, being talked over, interrupted, having your ideas discredited subtly in conversation. All of these things convey that the person thinks women should be treated differently. Do not stand for it and talk about it with your sons, no matter how you choose to deal with the person who did it.

7. Tell them how girls and women experience the world

It occurs to me that rarely are boys and men asked to see things from the perspective of females. By the time a boy is an adult it can appear like an outright affront to be asked to do this. By starting when your boys are young about how a girl or woman might view a situation, and graduating later to issues of public safety and how women are in a constant state of vigilance, then perhaps they will develop ways of understanding why men occupy the world differently.

Of course there are parallels and common experiences, but I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about walking down the street and feeling eyes all over you, having all your senses on high alert if you walk somewhere at night, how men are often much bigger and with that there's the innate knowledge of the ability to be overpowered.

I'm also talking about the home and how women still bear the brunt of household duties and child rearing.

I tell them it's not a part of loving family behaviour to leave the work to one person, that work in a loving family is shared. Of course they are children and try to get away with as much as possible but I also talk gently about how that makes me feel when I have all three of them making and leaving work for me that they could easily do.

8. History is important

In the past, women had no rights at all. They were seen as men's property and were unprotected by law. Women and girls are frequently written out of history, less frequently lauded for their achievements. As my sons frolicked between the thirteen statues and busts of the Plaza Ibero Americana last weekend, I was struck by the presence of only one woman. I pointed this out and we got on with our day. 

They know about omissions of women, they know women have been ignored historically. They also know about great women like Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks and Marie Curie. I'm making sure that they don't only hear the stories of men and that they realise women have fought for the rights they have.

9. Choose your moments carefully

I can't be angry and vigilant all the time. IThey'll simply switch off if I ram it down their throats seventeen times a day, so I pick my moments. There are days the lessons come thick and fast and times I just listen to them without putting my oar in. This is key to any relationship.

10. Feminism is not a dirty word

Feminism is about gender equality. It's not about subverting, oppressing or taking away the rights of boys and men. It's most certainly not about hating males. 

My kids are already feminists and hear the word used joyfully and lightheartedly. Yes feminism is a gravely serious matter, but we can rejoice in its aims as being a grand societal goal, achievable by all of us in our daily lives. For when gender equality is achieved, everybody wins.

I'm positive I've missed a stack of stuff here. Ten things? There must be many more and I'm sure you have some to add. I recognise I'm a white cisgender woman and there are perspectives I haven't touched on here.

If only one of these things helps another parent, then these few hours I've spent writing with kids on iPads and being pinged by Nerf darts are well worthwhile.