How to Raise a Feminist Son: part 1

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Claire Cain Miller:

We’re now more likely to tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be — an astronaut and a mother, a tomboy and a girlie girl. But we don’t do the same for our sons.

Even as we’ve given girls more choices for the roles they play, boys’ worlds are still confined, social scientists say. They’re discouraged from having interests that are considered feminine. They’re told to be tough at all costs, or else to tamp down their so-called boy energy.

If we want to create an equitable society, one in which everyone can thrive, we need to also give boys more choices. As Gloria Steinem says, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

By: Agnes Lee

That’s because women’s roles can’t expand if men’s don’t, too. But it’s not just about women. Men are falling behind in school and work because we are not raising boys to succeed in the new, pink economy. Skills like cooperation, empathy and diligence — often considered to be feminine — are increasingly valued in modern-day work and school, and jobs that require these skills are the fastest growing.

In her new book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian-born author, gives instructions for raising a feminist daughter. But how can we raise feminist sons?

I asked neuroscientists, economists, psychologists and others to answer that question, based on the latest research and data we have about gender. I defined feminist simply, as someone who believes in the full equality of men and women. Their advice applied broadly: to anyone who wants to raise children who are kind, confident and free to pursue their dreams.

1. Let him cry

Boys and girls cry the same amount when they’re babies and toddlers, research shows. It’s around age 5 that boys get the message that anger is acceptable but that they’re not supposed to show other feelings, like vulnerability, said Tony Porter, co-founder of A Call to Men, an education and advocacy group.

“Our daughters are allowed to be human beings, and our sons are taught to be robotic,” he said. “Teach him that he has a full range of emotions, to stop and say, ‘I’m not angry; I’m scared, or my feelings are hurt, or I need help.’”

2.Give him role models

Boys are particularly responsive to spending time with role models, even more than girls, research shows. There is growing evidence that boys raised in households without a father figure fare worse in behavioracademics and earnings. One reason, according to the economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, is they do not see men taking on life’s responsibilities. “Put good men in the space of your son,” Mr. Porter said.

Give them strong female role models, too. Talk about the achievements of women you know, and well-known women in sports, politics or media. Sons of single mothers usually have a lot of respect for their accomplishments, said Tim King, founder of Urban Prep Academies for low-income, African-American boys. He encourages them to see other women that way.

3.Let him be himself

Even as adult gender roles have merged, children’s products have become more divided by gender than they were 50 years ago, research has found: pink princesses and blue trucks, not just in the toy aisle but on cups and toothbrushes. It’s no wonder that children’s interests end up aligning that way.  

But neuroscientists say children aren’t born with those preferences. Until the mid-20th century, pink was the boy color and blue was for girls. In studies, infants have not been shown to have strong toy preferences. The difference, according to researchers, emerges at the same time that children become aware of their gender, around age 2 or 3, at which point societal expectations can override innate interests. Yet longitudinal studies suggest that toy segregation has long-term effects on gender gaps in academics, spatial skills and social skills, according to Campbell Leaper, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

For children to reach their full potential, they need to follow their interests, traditional or not. So let them. The idea is not to assume that all children want to do the same things, but to make sure they’re not limited.

Offer open-ended activities, like playing with blocks or clay, and encourage boys to try activities like dress-up or art class, even if they don’t seek them out, social scientists say. Call out stereotypes. (“It’s too bad that toy box shows all girls because I know boys also like to play with dollhouses.”) It could also improve the status of women. Researchers say the reason parents encourage daughters to play soccer or become doctors, but not sons to take ballet or become nurses, is that “feminine” equals lower status.

4.Teach him to take care of himself

“Some mothers raise their daughters but love their sons,” said Jawanza Kunjufu, an author and lecturer on educating black boys. They make their daughters study, do chores and go to church, he said — but not their sons.

The difference shows up in the data: American girls ages 10 to 17 spend two more hours on chores each week than boys do, and boys are 15 percent more likely to be paid for doing chores, according to a University of Michigan study.

“Teach our sons to cook, clean and look after themselves — to be equally competent in the home as we would expect our daughters to be in the office,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of New America, a think tank.

5.Teach him to take care of others

Women still do more of the caregiving — for children and for older people — and the housework, even when both parents work full time, data show. And caregiving jobs are the fastest-growing. So teach boys to care for others.  

Talk about how men balance work and family, and how sons and not just daughters are expected to care for parents and relatives when they’re old, Ms. Slaughter said. Enlist boys’ help making soup for a sick friend or visiting a relative in the hospital. Give them responsibilities caring for pets and younger siblings. Encourage them to babysit, coach or tutor. One program brings babies into elementary classrooms, which has been found to increase empathy and decrease aggression.

To read part 2, click here

Reproduced from New York Times

 

 

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