Can Boys Be Boys and Feminists Too?
Raising kids is the hardest job you’ll ever love in any era, but nowadays the news is bringing attention to stories on harassment, the #MeToo movement, female students being kidnapped by their male teachers, equality for women (yes, we are STILL having this conversation), and so much more. As women, we’re pretty familiar with many of the issues surrounding raising daughters.
But what about our sons? Feminism, respect, and empowerment are topics they need to learn too. We caught up with Dina Honour, author of Dear World: Please Don’t Sell My Sons Short to talk to about the delicate gender balance and how to keep it real while raising feminist boys.
Dina, a “product of the 1970s and 80s, the Free to Be You and Me, girls can do anything generation” identifies as a Feminist (with a capital F), an ideology she incorporates into every corner of her world—including, perhaps most profoundly, her parenting.
When we asked her about raising “feminist boys” she confessed: “I always assumed I would have girls. I grew up with a sister, everything I knew was female, and I’ve always been a ‘feminist’ … Raising strong girls, I thought, was just the natural extension of all of that.”
“There was a moment when the reality of being a mother to only sons sunk in. And it took me a while to realize I had to flip the whole script of my imagined life. Instead of raising kick-ass girls, I needed to raise kick-ass boys—that is, boys who treated girls as equals, who respect and value women, who used their voices to speak out for injustice.”
Dina says, “It took a long time for me to realize that the best way for me to empower women and to smash the patriarchy was to raise boys who would grow up to dismantle it from within. That became my goal.”
How, in your experience, are little boys different from little girls in terms of both organic and learned behavior?
I remember “debating” with my pediatrician that gender differences were learned, the product of social conditioning rather than innate. She kind of nodded along and rolled her eyes at me. And, I kid you not, within months my son was all about wheels and things he could push around, including a toy stroller with a stuffed Elmo strapped in as well as a dazzling array of Matchbox cars. He didn’t go anywhere without Lightning McQueen tucked into his little fist for a long time. I remember thinking that this love for cars and trucks seemed to just be… ’in him’. I didn’t push typical ‘boy stuff’ on him. In fact, I probably went too far in the opposite direction. So the fascination with wheels, with balls, from a very early age—those were some differences I noticed that seemed pretty inherent.
Another was just his energy level. Mothers of boys often mention the need to ‘run them’. Twice a day we went to the playgrounds that dotted our neighborhood so that my son could run and climb. Of course there were girls who were super energetic and boys who were more content to sit quietly, but in a general sense, even as toddlers, there were differences. There was a real need to be physical, to use his body.
My WTF experience happened when my son was around three. Suddenly, he and his band of friends—en masse, really— went from running toddlers to stick obsessed pre-schoolers. It was like some light went on in their heads that made them all pick up sticks and start beating the ground with them and using them as primitive weapons. We had a zero toy gun policy, so for me, it just came out of nowhere.
Damn that pediatrician. She’d been right.
So much of what is learned comes from us as parents. You want to control some of the biased conditioning… or in my case, get rid of as much as I can. But at the same time, I need to advocate for my kids. And my kids are boys. I don’t want to dampen their personalities or crush who they are, naturally.
My boys wanted to race and compete and beat their own personal bests. At everything. That wasn’t coming from me, or from my husband. It was coming from within. Everything was a race, a challenge, something they felt a drive to ‘win’. My instinct was to teach them they needed to be inclusive, that playing was more important than winning… that not everything was a race to be won. But there’s always that question in the back of my mind: Am I doing my sons a disservice by quashing their natural instincts?
It’s a balancing act. Always. Every day. Still!
Sometimes I do wonder, sometimes, if I’d had girls, if I would have tried too hard to raise them a certain way (to be strong, independent, fierce). If they had been girls who gravitated toward tiaras and tutus, would I have been as accepting of them as I am of my boys who gravitate toward traditionally male things like construction vehicles?
When do children start noticing there’s a difference in genders?
I think even very young kids use gender as an identifier, but not necessarily in the way people assume or think. So it’s more “the girl with the black hair”, as a means of categorizing, than it is “the girl with the black hair who I’m never going to play with because she’s a girl and I’m a boy”. Kids do seem to self-segregate pretty early on, but again, in my experience it was more to do with interest than gender.
I don’t think it’s damaging to acknowledge gender differences. What’s damaging is the value we place on those differences. Differences are ok. Kids notice differences. It’s how they make sense of the world around them. Where it gets dangerous is putting labels and judgments on those differences.
Boys shouldn’t play with toy strollers or girls should like princesses. Anytime you hear the word should, you should run like hell the other way.
Feminism needs to be inclusive. It’s breaking the boxes that girls and women have been confined to. But by default, that means smashing the boxes that boys and men have been confined to as well.
As they’ve gotten older, my boys have self-segregated even more. There was a lot of gender stereotyping too: Why does that boy have long hair? Is pink for girls? There was a lot of soapbox talking from me during that time. Boys wear pink! Hair is hair! Now they pick out pink soccer cleats and the older one kept his hair long for a long time.
My youngest son, who loved diggers also loved his toy kitchen. While most kids had a blanket or a stuffed animal, my son carried around a small, plastic frying pan. It never occurred to me that he shouldn’t play with his kitchen, just as it never would have occurred to me that a girl shouldn’t play with cars.
Kids generally play with what you put in front of them. Boys play with cars because that’s what their parents buy for them… because they think that’s what boys like. And some do. And some boys like frying pans. The problem is when we start assigning value to one and not the other. A boy who plays with trucks is a ‘real boy’… a ‘boy-boy’. A boy who plays with a toy kitchen is ‘sensitive’, which is essentially code for feminine. That’s a ridiculous assumption on all levels.
Are boys aggressive when playing with girls, and do they play differently with other boys?
Generally speaking I wouldn’t classify the way boys play with one another as more aggressive—but I would definitely say it is more physical. Now, the idea of toxic masculinity, when you combine the repression of emotions, the devaluing of male on male friendships, plus all these Western ideas of what a boy or man is supposed to do or feel—or not do or feel—that’s something else entirely. And it’s dangerous.
But to go back to the stick beating three-year-olds: Was that more aggressive? At the time, it seemed so to me because I’d never had the urge or the desire to beat the ground with a stick, and so it seemed almost violent to me—and yes, aggressive.
But rough and tumble play can also be a good way to introduce the idea of consent to kids as well. If play is physical, and it often is, then it’s important that all parties are consensual about it. It’s also never too early to teach and model listening to kids. If your child is squirming off your lap, don’t force them to stay there. Show them you respect their boundaries. If your son is chasing another child around and that child is yelling stop, use that moment to teach your son that it’s important to listen.
What advice would you give to moms wondering how to ask questions from their kids about all the sexual harassment stories on the news now?
We use a lot of anecdotes in our family. My husband and I try to illustrate a lot of different points through our own histories, stories of when we were whatever age they are now. We’ve talked about the #MeToo movement with both boys, not in graphic terms, but by giving them examples of the way life is different when you walk through it as a woman as opposed to when you’re a man. We may trade stories about how boys had different opportunities than girls did—and still do…about how Dad walks through life as opposed to how Mom does. We let them know that women still do not earn 100 cents on the dollar… that there are physical dangers that women face that they must contend with daily.
With my teenager, the conversations are getting more detailed. We talk a lot about consent. A lot. We ask him if he can give us any examples of times when a girl might have been treated differently. The thing about #MeToo is that it’s not just sexual, it’s about how women experience the world and how opportunities have been systemically denied them.
We’re grappling with consent and sexuality in a digital age, something which scares the pants off me. But we’ve taught the kids from day one that their body is theirs and it’s up to them and only them what they feel comfortable with.
Like most siblings, the boys fight, and when they’re wrestling or being physical with one another, and there is a point when one of them says “No,” then we’re on it, reminding them that when someone says ‘No” or “Stop” that it is imperative they listen to what they other person is saying. Immediately, no questions asked.
At what age should boys be allowed to date?
We don’t have an age requirement for dating. For us, I think it’s more important that my kids understand the concept of respect within a relationship rather than an arbitrary age limit. There are going to be fourteen year old boys that are more capable of understanding consent and respect, both emotional and physical, than some seventeen year olds boys will understand it. We’ve tried to maintain as open an ongoing dialogue about sex as possible. We try to incorporate all of it into our daily lives rather than making it into a big, sit down and talk about sex thing. That seems to work for us.
At what age is it OK to start telling them how to act around girls?
I’m not sure I’d teach my kids how to act around girls any differently than I would teach them how to act around people in general. In fact, my younger son came home asking why, if women were equal, people said “Ladies first”. And I told him he was absolutely right, and my hope for him is he will hold the door for whoever is behind him, regardless. So in general, we don’t differentiate between treating girls a certain way or boys another way. Though they definitely pick up on clues from the world at large.
I don’t expect my sons to treat girls better – or worse – than they treat boys or anyone. We expect them to treat everyone respectfully. The only difference is that we ask them to be on the lookout for instance when they can step up. Can you add a woman to the list? Can you think of an example that’s outside the box? When it comes time to choosing a historical figure for a school project, “Can you make sure you include a woman?”… that sort of thing.
I think perhaps part of the mess we are in is because we’ve been teaching to gender and sex.
What’s your husband’s role in all this?
My husband and I are fully invested in our partnership. I can shout from the rooftops about women’s empowerment, (and many times I do!), but it means next to nothing if my husband sits around and the kids never see him doing the dishes after dinner. Or if they don’t see me doing things for myself. Or they don’t see him calling out sexist behavior when he sees or hears it. It has to come from both of us. And a partnership doesn’t necessarily mean split down the middle equally. It means we’re both doing the work. Sometimes the heavy lifting falls to me, sometimes to him. But the idea is that the kids see that these things are important to both of us.
Because my kids don’t see me “working”, and my work is sitting in front of computer most days, it’s really important to me that my sons see value not just in what their father does, but in what I do as well. We work together to make sure the boys know the value in what I do—as a mother, a writer, and a woman. Recently my 10 year old’s teacher emailed me to show me something he’d done at school. They were talking about ‘composers’ and looking at how different people communicate ideas through their work. My son listed me: My mom communicates about women’s rights through writing. That made me feel pretty good. My kids are kids. They roll their eyes at me and sigh when I go on and on, but that? It made me smile.
I try to find the balance between the serious “let’s sit down and talk about how shitty women are treated” stuff and just making sure I introduce the idea of equality and representation in our everyday life. If I come across an article highlighting a woman I think is interesting or that I think they’ll find interesting, I’ll send it to them. If they have projects to do at school, I work with them to make sure they include women. Growing up, most of us gravitated toward male figures (and almost exclusively white, male figures). Not because they were more interesting, or smarter, or better, but because no one ever offered us an alternative.
I’m trying to make sure my kids have an alternative. I try to interject it into our dinner table conversation and in our everyday life. Not in a forced way, but in a conversational one.
We, of course, hope the next generation is not doomed to repeat the abuse cycle. What can we do to make sure our boys are better in the future?
My biggest thing at the moment is teaching my kids to manage their own emotions and expectations. That no one else is responsible for managing their feelings. If a girl walks by with an outfit on that my son finds attractive? It’s not up to her to change her outfit. It’s up to him to manage his reaction to it. And frankly, I think we sell boys short when we assume that they can’t manage to admire a shoulder blade and concentrate on their algebra. I think that’s part of the culture we’re now struggling in.
Boys will be boys is an excuse for boys to never be men. We are so ready with excuses, with justifications, to step in and manage them. And that needs to stop. The only way to end this cycle is to empower women, certainly, but to empower men to take control of their own emotions, and to hold them accountable for their actions. We have a few mantras in our house that we try to live by. Don’t be an ass is one of them. But another is you can’t control other people, you can only control your reactions to them. It’s a way of both empowering them and teaching them they need to be responsible for their own reactions. It’s ongoing and it’s a daily slog. But it’s important work.
What changes do you hope to see in future generations?
We need to value women—not just mothers, not just ground-breakers—just as women. We need to value their work, their contribution. We need to make sure that women are represented, in art and books and film and television, in Congress and industry, the military—everywhere, across the board. We need to recognize the differences that women bring to the table, not demand they be substitutes for men. And we need men to step up to the plate. We need more fathers and husbands who call out behavior that is wrong. And not just overt sexual harassment, but the small indignities that follow girls everywhere.
The phrase ‘cry like a girl’ is worse than swearing in my house. Because first of all, it denotes that only girls cry, and that there is some inherent weakness in crying. Which is all horse shit. But realizing that, they’re the small things which make a big difference over time. I call them micro-progressions.
I’ve tasked my kids with that as well. Some may see it as a heavy burden on a boy’s shoulders, but if it’s the only burden they have, then they can carry it. Also, if there are more that do it, then everyone is shouldering a portion of the burden of change, not the whole thing. It becomes easy as pie.
Do you have any specific examples you can share about your sons and a “teachable moment” that came up?
My kids have been telling those horrible “Yo Mama” jokes. As the only female in a house of males, sometimes I can feel like odd woman out. So I finally told them that it wasn’t nice to always be the butt of jokes. Why can’t you tell “Yo Papa” jokes? I asked. “Because you never hear anyone say that” was one’s reply. “That’s only because no one’s done it. If everyone did it, then it wouldn’t sound so unusual,” I told them and they kind of nodded.
But I’ve noticed that they now switch it up. And my younger one thinks it hysterical to tell “Yo Gender Neutral” jokes. It’s moments like that where I try to have teachable moments.
Or when I shout out randomly “Who was Sybil Ludington?” and they roll their eyes at me. But they know Sybil Ludington was the 16 year old girl who rode a horse in the dead of night to warn the garrison that the soldiers were coming. So here is a new generation of boys who, when they hear Paul Revere, will also think Sybil Ludington.
The whole family is semi-obsessed with Hamilton at the moment, and we’ve asked them how they would feel if someone made fun of them because ‘boys weren’t supposed to like musical theatre”. And they’ve just been totally incapable of understanding why that would be a thing.
Which makes me feel like we’re doing ok.
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