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My stepson's school was organising a ladoo-making workshop for moms & he asked why fathers couldn't make ladoos too! When you teach your son feminism, you teach them to think for themselves!
I still remember the first real discussion about gender I had with my stepson back when he was eight years old. We had just come home from a fair where he had met one of his classmates, and he was telling me about how much he enjoyed her company.
“She’s so much fun,” he said, “I really like that she is not one of those Barbie-girls, I really don’t like Barbie-girls.”
I was surprised to hear this. Being generally inexperienced with children, I wasn’t aware exactly when they began to typecast people and I had no idea how to handle it. But, unlike most daily reminders of sexism and patriarchy, this one, coming from a child, was not ill-intentioned, it was just uninformed. I have since learnt that it is extremely important that when your child exhibits a bias, you be gentle in its recognition as such, and shamelessly apply the Socratic method in its correction.
“Honestly, I don’t like Barbies either,” I told him so he felt like we had common ground, and on the subject of Barbies, we do, “But what’s wrong with the girls who play with Barbies?”
“They’re just always… boring, they just want to talk,” he started, clearly articulating this feeling of dislike for the first time, “And they want to play house and who cares about the dresses of the dolls…and why are they all pink and glittery? Plus, it’s just so boring to play with Barbies, like what are we doing?”
I’m raising a sass-mouth and I could not be prouder, but what I’m also raising, and what we are all raising, are individuals who do not yet understand all of the social context that surrounds things. At a certain point, as a parent, you have to pick a path: Are you going to teach your child what to believe or how to form their own beliefs? It is tempting to teach our belief systems to our children instead of providing all the information. The discussion about Barbies was the moment in which I picked my path. I decided that instead of working towards the goal of making him identify his bias, we’d have a detailed discussion on the subject and I would play the role of questioner.
I asked my stepson if he thought playing with action figures was very different from playing with Barbies, and I watched him have his very first pensive silence. We had a long conversation that included how Barbies are made and marketed, why that appeals to girls and the parents of girls, and why that may be relevant. We also talked about the bodies of the dolls and whether he felt they reflected real women, and how he thinks that may impact girls. We talked about what a bias is and where it comes from, and finally, we tested to see if he understood what a stereotype is. I told him that my baby sister, someone he is quite fond of, was a Barbie-girl, and then I watched him have his second pensive silence as he realised that playing with Barbies didn’t actually make you a certain type of girl (that he would definitely dislike).
Personalising the subject of his gender bias, made him realise, himself, how stereotyping people could hurt not just them, but him as well. It made him realise girls don’t just fall into categories.
At that moment, I was tempted to lay it all on him. I was tempted to go in with the history of women’s issues, Savitri Phule, feminism and the entire gamut of the sexist arsenal. I am glad I resisted because while children have a great capacity to think, they do it slower as a lot of it is very new to them. Teaching him feminism without allowing him to discover the need for it by himself, would be robbing him of the experience I had as a child that led me to feminism and allowed me to choose it. Instead, we developed with each other, a system of communication where we observe things and challenge one another to think about them. It sounds very theoretical but it’s actually very simple.
When you tell your child about something you saw or something that happened to you earlier, instead of giving them your opinion on it, you ask them theirs first, and you present yours after a series of questions and the provision of gaps in a social context that allows them to form their opinion. That way you keep your bias out of it, but you provide the information they may be lacking, and instead of teaching them just one movement, one political belief, you enable them to think deeply about the world around them.
The other thing I learned from the Barbie episode was to keep the conversation open. Over the years I have taught him many things about how women are treated, what the laws say, how we got here but never in one conclusive conversation, because if sexism is unending then the fact that we promote having “a conversation” about it is problematic, the conversation has to reflect the problem.
We hear, very often, that we have to “teach the boys” but how do we teach them? What do we teach them?
First of all, the environment in which a child is being raised makes a huge difference. Obviously, not everyone is socially in a position to “smash the patriarchy” nor did everyone have children in the ideal social environment for equality, and in that case, when you cannot fix the behaviour on the ground, you have to demonstrate how and why that behaviour is wrong so the child is not tempted to emulate it.
It is best, however, to address gendered behaviour with your partner (if you are not a single or same-sex parent) as well. It’s important for the father to be as likely to be the affectionate parent as the mother. It’s important for them to see each parent be able to make decisions independently, especially decisions regarding money. It is important they see mom drive and dad cook. The roles of parents being governed by gender are visible to children. Just telling them things does not work. If you want to teach your son not to beat women, you have to start by showing him he can take his own plate to the kitchen. If you want to teach your kid not to stereotype, you have to look deep inside yourself and challenge your own biases as well.
It’s also important how this manifests when you have two children, a boy and a girl, and how they are treated at home. I grew up in a family that was all women, so within our ranks, we had both the rationalist and the romantic, and everyone was required to learn how to use an ATM and also make chai.
But often in households, responsibility and freedom are delegated in a gendered way. You cannot radically alter it all immediately, but you can ask your son to serve tea to the guests, and your daughter to grease her bicycle chain. To a child, a blank slate, the concept of chores does not come with gender connotations. The biases and stereotypes that we take as fact, they don’t even know yet.
That is why I also came to realise is that with every new generation of children, we are given the opportunity to erase some stigma of stereotypes from the norm. I learnt that from teaching my stepson about periods. I told him what they were very early on, and I told him entirely medically. I drew a diagram, and I explained what was happening inside the body every month, why it was happening, and how that led to bleeding. His very first comment was the most amusing.
“Every month?” He said, with the same disbelief I had when I first heard, “Every single month? This feels like cheating.”
Over time he just came to accept periods as something that was happening to people around him all the time. He accepted it as a totally normal thing to talk about. A few weeks ago, our dog had her first period, and he discussed the event with a 16-year-old girl at the badminton court. He told her that it was a shame they didn’t make doggy tampons, and she told him about doggy diapers. Neither one of them was uncomfortable during this conversation. I love the idea of a world where an 11-year-old and a 16-year-old of different genders can casually discuss menstrual products without it being weird, taboo or uncomfortable for either one of them.
The reason that could be achieved is because I didn’t teach him that periods are taboo, although we do discuss the stigma issue in society as well.
Of course, you cannot entirely insulate your child, and they will be exposed to social messaging from all kinds of places. The playground, which is a child’s primary social environment, isn’t always the equal. The parents of all their friends won’t always be so sensitive or careful, and may just have completely different belief systems than yours when it comes to gender, and there is nothing you can do about that.
You cannot isolate a child in a cocoon away from the real world. This is why teaching them about reality is pivotal, and it must be done carefully, because we don’t want young boys to learn that they are the “enemies” of feminism, but we also don’t want young boys to believe there was never any injustice or the propensity for it is over. You cannot guide your child on a full-time basis, but you can trust your child has been taught well enough to truly consider the things they hear before they decide whether to believe them.
You can also teach them to speak up when they sense an injustice. I think this is where a lot of us fail, because while we want our sons to be one of the good ones, we also don’t like ‘troublemakers’ as children. When my kid sees me fight for the rights of women, or call someone out for sexism, he knows that I will act on what I believe, and he feels it is his duty to do so as well if in a situation that requires it. I think that’s great, but let’s be real, when children do this, the school calls you in to discuss their “behaviour”.
So, often we hedge, we tell them that we agree that it’s wrong, but they shouldn’t have said anything because it’s “dangerous” or “your point was valid but tone was bad” or “it’s not your place.” You cannot raise a child with a strong sense of principles if you send mixed messages, so you have to decide, do you want a child who is pleasing to his school or a child who is true to himself?
When your son shakes the boat, be proud of him. If what you really want is a son who is a product of the “teach the boys” generation, be proud of him when he demonstrates that he has learnt something. If it upsets the school, then it’s you and him against the school. Your relationship with your child is an old-school editor’s relationship with their reporter, you stand by your reporter. You don’t discourage them from confronting and talking about the truth because it was all fun and games until he was making charts about a social movement, but taking a stand jeopardizes his social reality.
Two months ago, my stepson’s school was organising a ladoo-making workshop for mothers. He came home after having asked his teachers why fathers couldn’t make ladoos too. Two weeks ago, he asked to participate in a Rangoli-making contest that was only for “ladies” and questioned the gendered nature of the contest rules. Six months ago he explained to me that he thought “Barbie-girls” like to talk so much with each other because at home they may not be given the space to speak as much as their brothers. One month ago he pointed out to his physical education teacher that teaching girls self-defence is good, but we should teach boys that it’s not okay to express themselves physically in ways that endanger others.
You can teach your son to be a feminist because children are remarkably open to learning. But you have to remember what you’re teaching them first and foremost, is to think for themselves. That’s the essence of feminism.
Image source: Pexels/Anna Pou
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Aarushi Ahluwalia is an author, journalist and columnist. She has been covering women's issues and rights for various news organisations throughout her career of almost a decade, and now runs a women's media read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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