“When we conform to gender stereotypes, we deny children the complicated human beings that they are and reduce our parenting experiences to our children's genitalia.”
CATHERINE ON RAISING HER DAUGHTER (3)
CONNECTICUT | USA
In the early 2000s, resources were sparse for feminist parents. People really had to look for it. I started following some amazing groups like Let Toys be Toys even before I had kids, so I always knew this was a problem. Once I had my daughter, it just really solidified for me. There was a time that we went to the park and she was dressed in black leggings, a navy blue hooded sweatshirt and a light blue, knit cap and she had a couple curls peeking out the bottom; her hair was kind of short at that point. She was about one and a half or two and this person came by the playground and the way he spoke to my daughter was just fascinating. He used an entirely different tone of voice that most people had never used with her. Hey buddy, how's it going? You look so strong. You having fun? No strangers ever speak that way to a girl. A series of small incidents piled up and made me want to do something about it.
I would love to make the term feminist parenting more mainstream and more of a way of life. I've worked in women's advocacy for a while and love working to impact policies that affect women and girls to reach gender equity. In the course of doing that, something I've realized is that if we don't change public opinion then we're not gonna get anywhere. We need both things happening at the same time. We need better policies and a mindset shift, not just for parents, but for grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors. I hope that thinkorblue.com is a resource for people to feel more confident to do that and a little more armed with information.
When that Boy Moms vs Girl Moms video came out, it went viral so I watched it and kept expecting a twist because we were just playing on tired, old gender stereotypes and I'm thinking there’s going to be a twist at the end, but that never happened. It was just a series of tired, old stereotypes. That was the last straw for me. It was funny because I had friends who were texting me immediately annoyed by the video. And it was mostly parents of girls who were pissed off about it. I think it's because it portrayed parents of girls as having it really easy. The hair of "Girl Moms" looks perfect because they have tons of time to sit around and blow dry it. Girls are perfect angels who sit around and play with dolls very quietly.
That is not my experience at all and I only have one child. I'm sure if I had four I would be even more annoyed. I poked around online on Etsy and Instagram to see what's out there for girl mom and boy moms because they weren't terms I had ever used. Honestly, not a lot of my friends use those either. I started looking at what was out there and it was so expected and just so boring. There are a lot of t-shirts about girls who love glitter, sparkles, and dance, but a lot of girls who love glitter, sparkle, and dance also love to climb trees and ride bikes and love dinosaurs. There are also a lot of boys who love to read and love to do art. When we conform to these stereotypes, we deny children the complicated human beings that they are and reduce our parenting experiences to our children's genitalia. I feel like we have so much more in common than we have differences. The "girl mom" and "boy mom" trend is just another way to separate and divide women. Frankly, I was really pissed off.
It bothers me so much when people ask girls to be nice and polite. It's nice to be a good human and to show respect to other people, but we don't get very far in life if we're always following the rules and trying to please other people. I really enjoyed the RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) documentary, but it made me laugh when she talked about the two rules that her mother gave her. One of them was Never in anger. It was a sign of the times. To some extent, it was a generational thing, but that message has definitely continued today. We expect a lot from girls at a young age - to have good behavior -whereas we expect younger boys to be running around and breaking things all the time.
Certainly there are terrible ways to use anger, but it can be used very positively. Anger about unfair policies or discrimination is one way. We need to get mad about those things because that anger propels us into action and makes us get our friends and family together and say this is wrong. We can do better. Let's get together and make it happen. Also, anger is used even more so against black women. This racist stereotype of the angry black woman is designed to silence women. I think we need to let our children be angry a little bit and, instead, teach them ways to funnel that anger.
All of our children, any gender, all need healthy ways to get their anger out and to be aware of it. I want my daughter to know that anger and madness are acceptable emotions. It's what we do with it that matters. We tell her if you're mad, you can push against a wall or you can squeeze the pillow really tight or you can scream and yell into a pillow. We did all those things.
People say unhealthy gender stereotype comments all the time. It can be awkward sometimes when we meet people we don't know that well, even acquaintances or neighbors. The comments can be major, but sometimes it's very minor sort of gender stereotyped thinking. Just yesterday I met a nice dad who was talking about how much his son loves trucks and I told them how much my daughter went through a serious garbage truck phase herself where she was just obsessed with watching it every Monday. She still sometimes runs to the window when she hears it coming. Despite that he said, Yeah, you know, my son just LOVES trucks. It’s innate and sort of intrinsic for some. Even though I told him my daughter loves trucks, he still viewed it as inherent for boys. We have a long way to go.
That's actually one of my frequent tips for people when they encounter stereotyped comments. A lot of people feel uncomfortable or unprepared. They feel the need to quote research and they think they don't know enough to really combat that way of thinking. Sometimes they just want this to be a pleasant exchange and NOT make things awkward. So I recommend to readers that using specific examples is a great way to combat stereotypes when people say something really general like, “Girls LOVE their dolls.” Find a very concrete, specific example. For instance, "Yes many times they do, but my daughter actually loves space and astronauts very much right now" can bring something a little different to the conversation. It gets people out of that comfort zone to consider other possibilities and the true complexity of our children.
Feminist Parenting Tips
Step one - It’s important that we acknowledge our bias as adults, as humans. We all have it. Even if we think that we're perfect feminists. We all have bias and so acknowledging it and then being aware of how you might be addressing children differently based on their gender is critical.
Language is very important because there is research to say that we even speak to babies differently depending on their gender. Adults use more words with girls and fewer words with boys. We talk about our emotions more with girls and less with boys. When girls get hurt, we're four times more likely to tell them to be careful next time. Whereas with boys, we kind of expect that they're going to get hurt and that they're going to get back up again.
Another feminist parenting strategy in our family is better representation. When my daughter was a baby, I did a little inventory of our own books at home because we had about 60 books starting off. There were some interesting things. Of course boys were much more likely to be protagonists than girls. If there was a parent involved, they were eight times more likely to be a mother than a father. We're just not showing fathers in books very often. Diversity of race and ethnicity is not great in children's books either. We've made a very intentional effort to buy books that are diverse and show lots of different experiences because we don't want our child growing up with the idea that white male is the default because that message is everywhere.
If we want to challenge stereotypes, we have to actively combat it in our own lives and books are a great way to do that. I have some of our favorites listed on the blog. I also love to follow other bloggers and Instagrammers who are showing diverse books, such as Girls Read the World and Here Wee Read.
With gender-equal parenting, we acknowledge our children's emotions. Americans, especially, have a tendency to try to talk children out of their feelings. We convince them that they're not experiencing a particularly unpleasantly feeling because as adults we're very uncomfortable with feelings that aren't happiness.
Our masculinity in America and in many countries around the world is that men are not allowed to experience feelings. So even though I'm not raising a son, I strongly encourage other parents to acknowledge their children's feelings, legitimize them, and let them sit for a little bit because children need to know that they can work through their feelings and that they're capable of doing so. If we try to close that down at a young age, we're just not setting ourselves up for emotionally aware adults.
Bodily autonomy is very important to us. From a very young age, when my daughter was a baby, we tried to let her know if we were going to pick her up or before she was getting a diaper change. When she was taking a bath, I talked to her through the process. We model that in places like the doctor's office, where medical professionals tend to distract kids and just kind of go in and do their thing. Instead, we try to always tell her what's going to happen and made sure that she feels she has authority over her own body.
Sometimes we work on consent through role playing with dolls and stuffed animals. The first time she came home and told me that another little kid hit her at preschool, we worked through how she was going to respond to that and that other people can't touch her body. They need to ask for permission and so does she. Consent lessons just get more and more complicated as kids get older, but we need to start young.
Another strategy is to use respect in our parenting rather than an ongoing system of rewards and punishments. We try to connect with her emotionally and use respectful parenting techniques. I'm very wary of raising a child who's motivated externally. To me, that sets up a child for agreeing to peer pressure very easily. When they know that it might lead them to think like if they join a group who's ganging up on another child, they'll be rewarded socially. Instead, we want to raise a child who stands up for what she believes in and stands up for other children who maybe aren't fitting in or feel different. To me, respectful parenting is one way of doing that.
Finally, role modeling is an important piece of feminist parenting. In our house, my husband is a very hands-on parent who shares in the mental load of parenting. For example, he's the one who packs her bag for school every day and makes our lunches. From day one, he's been very hands-on. And it's funny because people frequently compliment him for being a good dad. But they don't really compliment me because it's assumed that women will be involved parents. So we show our daughter through example that men and women can both be caregivers and attend to her emotional needs. It's my hope that we can support and normalize male caregiving more. Let's let our boys play with dolls so they can be good dads, too.