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July 25, 2017

Raising a kind, confident boy who pursues his dreams

Inspired by “How to Raise a Feminist Son” by Claire Cain Miller

While reading The New York Times one weekend last month, I stumbled upon a piece that really spoke to me. It was the kind of writing that enticed me to tear out and save the page. As I have chronicled in this column, I take my role as a mother very seriously and work to educate myself as a new parent for the benefit of my son’s health, well-being, development and future. “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” by Claire Cain Miller,  provided one of the absolute best synopses of how to raise a boy that I have ever read, detailing practices and philosophies to shape boys into kind and confident humans who are free to pursue their dreams.

Boys in America are told to be tough, strong and are discouraged from displaying emotions or participating in activities that are traditionally considered feminine. This limits our sons. If one truly believes that the sexes are equal, then both boys and girls should be encouraged to pursue whatever they like. “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,” Miller wrote.

Her recommendations for how to raise a feminist – someone who believes both sexes are equal – are guided by neuroscientists, economists, psychologists, gender research and new data. I think these principles are not just good for raising little boys but important for all parents, grandparents and guardians to read for the benefit of all children. With each of the following points expressed by the author, I share how I am practicing these ideas while rearing my baby boy.

Let him cry.

Boys have emotions just like girls. When Killian cries, I comfort him. I do not chastise him for his tears. I am raising my son to know that it is OK to feel sad and cry. Of course there are times when he cries out of frustration, like when he does not want to be on the changing table. These crocodile tears are not encouraged because of the context of their creation. But, in general, I will never tell him that he should feel ashamed of crying. It is a normal emotion that we all feel and should not be condemned.

Give him role models.

It is important for my son to have men and women in his life he can look up to. I hope my husband and I are role models for our baby boy – we certainly try to be. We also spend a lot of time with other people, like his grandparents, who provide a positive influence in Killian’s life. As he grows older, my son will be exposed to role models of both genders in books, in school, in our community and in our global world. I do not want him to just idolize men but also amazing women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Simone Biles and Malala Yousafzai.

Let him be himself.

Children's toys are a clear indicator of the separatism that still exists in the way that boys and girls are raised. Neither sex should be encouraged nor discouraged about colors, toys, games or activities based on their gender. Killian’s playroom has many things that are my sisters’ and mine from childhood: Barbie dolls, a Fisher-Price kitchen and tea sets. I do not know yet whether or not he will want to play with these toys (he is still too young for many of them), but by putting them in his playroom, I am showing him there is nothing wrong with a boy playing Pretty Pretty Princess. And if he wants to throw a ball around or play army all day, more power to him.

Teach him to take care of himself.

According to a University of Michigan study cited in  MMiller’s piece, “American girls ages 10 to 17 spend two more hours on chores each week than boys do.” Sons should be taught to take care of themselves and pitch in around the house just like girls. When Killian is older, he will have chores and things that are expected of him: making his bed, cleaning his room, helping with laundry, picking up after himself. He will see his father and mother doing chores and understand that it is a normal part of life for everyone in our home.

Teach him to take care of others.

Caregiving is a traditionally female role and is still done by more women than men in this country. Taking care of others is not a feminine trait, it is something that all humans can and should do. One day in the future when Killian is a big brother, I will enlist his help in taking care of his sibling just as my mother did with me and my younger sisters. I will encourage him to exercise and grow his compassion and caregiving by baby-sitting, becoming a lifeguard or volunteering. I will teach him that helping others and being kind will benefit his life as much as those he assists.

Share the work.

It is important for Killian to see that his parents share the work, in and out of the house. Both Daddy and Mommy have careers. Both Daddy and Mommy cook. I am a stay-at-home, working mother and his father puts on a suit and tie every day. We contribute to our family in equal ways – both similar and different. Though my marriage displays pretty traditional male/female roles in many ways, we also challenge stereotypical gender responsibilities and activities. Killian sees me with a tool box and goes with Daddy to run errands. He sees me taking out the trash and Daddy changing diapers.

Encourage friendships with girls.

As mentioned in The New York Times piece, research at Arizona State University found that before kindergarten, kids begin segregating by sex, which reinforces gender stereotypes. This study says children who have friends of the opposite sex learn better problem-solving and communication. Two of Killian’s closest friends are the daughters of my friend and neighbor. When we have his first birthday party (and subsequent ones that he will actually remember), we are inviting both boys and girls. When he is old enough to start playing sports, I want to find co-ed teams in which all children play together. Boys should not think they should only be friends with other boys. Same for girls.

No means no.

Killian has learned the meaning of the word no. All children should. At this point in his life, no is usually said in an effort to keep him safe. He is starting to learn that no can also express an opinion, like when he lets me know that he does not want any more to drink or does not want to sit still for a diaper change. Experts say that children should be taught no in the context of respect and consent. I will teach my son that if he does not want to, say, be hugged by someone, he has the right to say no, and if he wants to hug someone, and they say no, he has to listen.

Speak up when others are intolerant.

As a young girl in Catholic school, I used to argue with the nuns when they would say they needed a “strong boy” to carry some books for them. I would shoot my hand in the air and tell them that this strong girl was more than capable. In seventh grade, I already knew what it was like to be considered less than for being a female. I remember the boys groaning at me, “Here she goes again.” It would have been nice for one to back me up. I hope Killian will have a strong sense of right and wrong and will use his voice to speak up when and if he is called upon.

Never use 'girl' as an insult.

Calling someone a “girl” as derogatory is something that is a pet peeve of mine but admittedly something I have said myself. It has become common vernacular when calling someone weak, emotional, dramatic or other perceived negative descriptions considered to be feminine. This will not fly in my house now that I am a mother. If I hear someone say it, I will take the opportunity to educate my son as to why it is not just wrong, but incorrect. Girls are amazing, not an insult.

Read a lot, including about girls and women.

Many of Killian’s current books have animals as the main characters, but as his reading level advances, I will encourage Killian to read all kinds of books. Our library is filled with many from my childhood. "Anne of Green Gables" and "The Secret Garden" are two of my favorites. As I was recently re-reading these books, I thought about how much Killian will enjoy these novels. The protagonists may be female, but that does not mean that little boys cannot enjoy these rich, beautiful stories. As a young girl, I was captivated by "The Great Escape." I am currently reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Books should not be separated into “boy” and “girl” categories.

Celebrate boyhood.

What a joy to have a baby boy! Boys and girls are the same in many ways but also, of course, different. People are equal and unique. I want my son to embrace and enjoy his boyhood. As Miller so eloquently writes, “Teach boys to show strength — the strength to acknowledge their emotions. Teach them to provide for their families — by caring for them. Show them how to be tough — tough enough to stand up to intolerance. Give them confidence — to pursue whatever they’re passionate about.”

Do you agree with these recommendations? Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or tweet me at @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.

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