Growing up in China in the 1980s and 90s was difficult for Vanessa Liu, an accountant and mother of two who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “I was raised in a family with no gender equality,” she begins. “The men always had power over women. The older generation liked boys more than girls because the boys would carry the family name from generation to generation. Since the boys were favored, all chores went to girls.”
Liu did not want this experience to be repeated in her family, so when she had children – girls who are now 5 and 7 – she made sure they saw her and her husband sharing household tasks and venerating the women in their lives. “I always tell my daughters that everyone is equal, no matter their gender, class, race or religion,” she adds. Thankfully, since coming to the US nine years ago, Liu’s parents have come around. “They now have open minds and see both girls and boys as equally valuable,” she grins.
Still, Liu concedes that parenting is hard work and despite getting great joy from it, teaching her daughters to be self-respecting, hardworking, and independent requires both diligence and patience. While hundreds of parenting texts exist, there are no rulebooks or one-size-fits-all workbooks or roadmaps, something Liu says makes the job a study in flexibility, creativity and compassion.
The challenge, she continues, is enormous, and is even more daunting for feminists like her who want to inculcate feminist values in their children. That said, at times it seems as if she and her peers have more questions than answers. Indeed, whether parents are in heterosexual marriages, are LGBT, single or part of collective households, teaching children living in a misogynist world to respect women as much as they respect men is an uphill climb. Writer bell hooks eloquently posits the goal in Feminism Is for Everybody: “To be feminist in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination and oppression…. Ending patriarchal domination of children, by men or women, is the only way to make the family a place where children can be safe, where they can be free, where they can know love.”
The question is how best to do this.
Since gender differences have long been used to justify inequities in power and position, most feminists want their kids to reject essentialist arguments – that males and females have separate roles by virtue of their biology – and see all people as individuals, not categories. They further want to smash the limitations that are unconsciously absorbed and that keep us from imagining ourselves in gender-non-conforming roles.
Carol Hornbeck is a family therapist in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the mother of three sons, all now in their 20s. She is adamant that raising feminist children requires teaching them about power. “One of the most significant goals my husband and I had was to raise boys who could survive in a patriarchal world and challenge it at the same time. Our bottom line was to never abuse our authority,” Hornbeck told Truthout. “If you want to teach children to be respectful of others, you have to start by being respectful of them. This means understanding their developmental process so that your expectations are developmentally appropriate.” One of the keys, she continues, is providing a safe environment so that children can find their voices and learn to respect the voices of others.
As her kids grew up, Hornbeck says that the family homed in on racism, classism, homophobia and sexism. “All of my kids are white males, and at one point, my oldest son asked if everything that is wrong in the world is the fault of white men. We then talked about the fact that many white men have caused a great deal of harm to others and emphasized that they have a role to play in repairing the damage. At the same time, we made it clear that they are not, themselves, to blame for all the world’s evils.”
Hornbeck adds that her family also scrutinized language. “We always use inclusive pronouns for God,” she laughs, “to the extent that when the boys went to a church that referred to God as The Father they noticed and asked why some people think of God as He.”
Then there was the issue of consensual touch. “When the kids were little, my husband and I taught them to ask other people if they wanted a hug,” she says. “Just because someone looked sad did not mean they could just approach them and hug them.” They also let their sons know that it was normal to feel anger, but that it was never okay to hit, no matter how exasperated or infuriated they felt. What’s more, they showed them, by example, that making mistakes is an integral – indeed, an inevitable – part of life.
Since kids almost always mimic what they see, the challenge is coming up with ways to model behaviors that children can emulate. For retired English professor Susan O’Malley, this meant showing her son, born in 1967, and daughter, born in 1969, that women can be strong and men nurturing. They lived in a commune in New Orleans, Louisiana, during the first burst of contemporary feminism and O’Malley says that it was a given that both kids would wear pants and play with trucks, dolls, blocks and stuffed animals.
“I was also part of a cooperative nursery school where we made all the furniture ourselves. We all had to wield the saws and tools, with men and women contributing absolutely equally to all of the building,” she says, The end result was that for her kids, “feminism was a non-issue; it just was.”
Needless to say, finding a community where everyone is committed to eradicating sexism and promoting equal rights for all people is far harder in 2013 than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, pushback – in the form of bullying or the random comments of strangers – can be fierce due to pervasive anti-feminist backlash. At the same time, stay-at-home dads are no longer an oddity – a 2005 census report estimates that 16 percent of preschoolers are cared for by their fathers; an additional 287,000 children under the age of 15 are primarily cared for by their dad or other male relative. The upshot is that in some circles, it is not unusual to see men cooking, cleaning, or ferrying kids from place to place.
Nonetheless, the pushback can sting. Kathy Rogers, a photo organizer from Baltimore, Maryland, recalls that a few years ago when her son was three, a stranger came up to him and asked why he was playing with a doll. “The man was clearly of a generation where that was not done,” Rogers says. “I immediately began talking to my son about something else since he had a lot of dolls and stuffed toys that he loved to play with, and I did not want him to think there was anything wrong with this.”
Rogers’ child did not seem fazed by the encounter, but as children get older, verbal put-downs can become enormously significant, especially if the child is mocked or made to feel like an outcast. Most adults can remember the kid who was taunted for being different, or harassed for wearing the wrong clothes, listening to the wrong music or belonging to the wrong faith group. As parents, most of us feel obliged to protect the children in our orbit – and at least to try to provide safety and solace to those in need.
Lecia Phinney, a Seattle-based stay-at-home mom and blogger, has grappled with this for several years because her son Cal, now eight, loves the color pink. “My husband and I don’t care, but we have asked ourselves if we should say something to him. We’ve wondered if it’s our job to keep him from being ridiculed.” So far, they’ve said nothing, but Phinney notes that “Cal seems to have a lot of social savvy. He doesn’t wear bright pink clothing, but he will choose a pink toothbrush when he goes to the dentist and will buy pink posterboard for a school project.”
And Phinney is far from alone. Other feminist parents wonder if they should allow their daughters to wear spike heels, or whether they should stop their sons from painting their fingernails with sparkly polish. In the latter case, they question whether the desire to protect is essentially reinforcing rigid gender rules; in the former, they ask if their ideological purity is making it difficult for their daughters to fit into their social milieu.
It’s a conundrum that Raysa Villalona, a New York City ESL teacher with two children, 6-year-old Zoren and 11-year-old Mekai, knows well. Despite her efforts to promote anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic attitudes, she says that both kids have picked up social cues that contradict her injunctions. For example, she says that Zoren already prefers straight hair to her own head of curls – wanting to emulate the beauty standard she knows is most valued by her classmates. In addition, essentialist ideas about what it means to be male or female have cropped up. While watching The Voice on television, Villalona says that she heard Mekai respond negatively to a female contestant, saying that “she looks like a dude.” While Villalona used the incident to talk about the fluidity of gender, she has no idea what, if anything, sunk in. What she does know is that Mekai occasionally exhibits behaviors that she considers macho. “He can be really demeaning to his sister,” says Villalona. “When he gets bossy or makes fun of her because she can’t keep up with him, I have to remind him that she can’t do everything he can do because she’s little, not because she’s a girl.”
It’s a constant struggle, she sighs, requiring endless vigilance.
Nowhere is this more evident than in monitoring popular culture. Activist and writer Nancy Krikorian, whose daughters are 17 and 21, calls it the “troubles around TV.” Writing of her experiences in an email, she reports that, “At one point they were watching that horrible show, America’s Next Top Model. I would sit on the couch and offer commentary on the proceedings, which they found exceedingly irritating. When the episode called Picture Me Deadly involved the models posing as crime scene victims, I temporarily banned the show. I didn’t generally forbid shows, but I would sit with them making pointed comments about what I found reprehensible. They did not appreciate it at the time, but I can tell it had an impact on the way they analyze what they’re watching.”
The direct infusion of feminist ideology is, of course, only part of creating kids capable of parsing politics and gazing at the world through a feminist lens. Being a role model, say most parents, is the single best way of conveying information. For some women, this means modeling full-time employment. For others, it means staying at home and showing strength through community involvement, school activism or mentoring projects. In either case, it means modeling respectful relationships between women and men – taking baby steps to break down of a rigid gender binary that limits who and what people can be and do. Proponents says that kids who see women coaching a sports team or fixing the car and men baking cupcakes or doing the wash are introduced – without anyone having to say a word – to more flexible and, ultimately, more egalitarian, possibilities for everyone.
In Lecia Phinney’s experience, a smattering of men regularly accompany their kids on school field trips or act as chaperones. “Seattle may be unusual, but at the point when I began to have kids, a lot of Microsoft workers – men, for the most part, who’d been in the right place for the dotcom explosion – were able to cash in,” she says. As a result, they are often the ones to stay at home with their kids or provide needed after-school care.
Similarly, on the other side of the country, in Trumansburg, New York, stay-at-home mom Andrea Murray reared her kids alongside several stay-at-home dads. According to Murray, her children’s peer group thinks it’s business as usual when men prepare meals, help with homework or school projects, or bandage skinned knees. Are these guys imparting overt feminist values or messaging to their offspring? It’s impossible to know. But they are suggesting alternative gender norms and giving their kids a broader understanding of what a family constellation can look like.
Perhaps this is why bell hooks called feminism a pro-family movement in Feminism Is for Everybody. Her theory, like that of therapist Carol Hornbeck, challenges the way power is used and domination exacted. “Wherever domination is present, love is lacking,” hooks wrote. “Loving parents, be they single or coupled, gay or straight, headed by females or males, are more likely to raise healthy, happy children with sound self-esteem.”
At the end of the day, love may not be all we need, but if we want girls and boys to be equally valued, it is a fundamental starting point. Regardless of whether our children choose dolls or trucks, or wear glittery eyeliner or Doc Martens, knowing that they are loved gives them the courage to challenge authority and be who they are.