School is about to start and my oldest will be in 1st grade. That makes me both happy (because childcare) and nervous (because not all of my son’s classmates have feminist parents, obvi). If this is your first time reading one of my blogs, it’s important for you to know that I don’t limit what my kids can like by their gender. Jackson (age 6) loves the color pink, Disney Princesses, Transformers, anything about King Tut or Ancient Egypt, spy stuff, Strawberry Shortcake, etc… Basically all the things. I have had several conversations about how to still be himself (a loving, funny, creative kid who likes all the things despite any societal gender rules) and deal with kids who may not understand that there is no biological/logical reason why kids have to like certain colors or toys. So, if you too parent from a feminist perspective (or want to), here are a few tips for how to support your child while helping them to deal with a not-so-understanding world.
1. Instill in your child a balanced sense of confidence.
Praise your child for not just being cute or strong, but also for their intelligence, compassion for others, kindness, creativity, imagination, problem solving skills, funny jokes, and whatever other characteristics you value or want them to do more of. Help them to see the value in those qualities and in themselves. Balance that with letting them know that not everything is a competition and that just because they’re smart, doesn’t mean other people can’t be smart, or just as smart, as they are. When they come up with an idea they think is the coolest thing ever and are excited about it, praise them and tell them you think its awesome too. Do this even if its a small thing like pretending to walk a funny way. It’s those little moments when they seek your approval that can matter the most. You may think they only need praise when they get a 100 on a quiz, which they totally do, but you need to praise the things they themselves value as well. For example, Jackson loves to build a sarcophagus out of legos (not because he’s morbid, but because he’s fascinated with the story of King Tut) and has a new one he wants me to see just about everyday. He spends his time and energy working on those and is very proud of them, so I should show him that I value what he values and tell him how cool those are every time. This helps him to feel validated and confident. I’m not saying praise every little step they take; that may make them arrogant. I’m saying pay attention to what they value and praise those things in addition to the things you value (like good grades, completing chores and respect for others).
2. Give them the tools they need to handle bullies
The little girl down the street from us has told Jackson he shouldn’t like pink or princesses because he’s a boy and that hurt his feelings. I told him her parents probably don’t teach her that a color is just a color and gender does not limit you. And no, I’m not going to walk over them and “teach them” how to raise her like he asked me to. Instead I told him to continue to be himself and if she says something again he can do the following: tell her that if she wants to still be his friend, she has to not say those mean things; tell her she can like whatever she wants and so can you; if she persists he can tell the teacher or one of us. When he tells me she says something about what he likes while I’m home, I do say something like “in this house we let kids play with all kinds of colors and toys, so if you want to play with the princesses AND the transformers you can. So, please be nice to Jackson who likes to do that too.” I’ve had to do this once with her and she quietly said okay and they went back to playing nicely. I’m not saying this will work with all kids, but she values their friendship so that helps. If bullying behavior is not deterred then the school or parents may need to get involved.
3. Create space for your child to tell you what they’re feeling and experiencing
Learning to deal with or process emotions is difficult for us all, but especially for boys because society tells them they shouldn’t cry or be sad; they are supposed to just “man up” and be fine all the time. In our house we create space for our kids to tell us what they’re feeling or experiencing. We do this by validating their emotions when they’re experiencing them. For example, when I have to correct Jackson for misbehaving, sometimes he’ll get sad and tell me I’m hurting his feelings. I usually respond with something like “yeah, it hurts to get called out for doing something we’re not supposed to be doing and sometimes makes us feel embarrassed. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but do you understand why I had to ask you to stop doing what you did?”. I try to explain as much as I can to him. I don’t just tell him not to trip his brother. I tell him, don’t trip your brother or he might fall down and get hurt. This helps him to understand consequences. Validating his emotions and explaining things help him to feel safe speaking up and telling me when he is experiencing something. Like that time I let him go to school with his nails painted and he came home sad because the bus monitor told him boys didn’t do that. He told me what happened and how it made him feel. And I validated his feelings and talked with him about how to respectfully respond if something was said again.
4. Support how they choose to express themselves in different situations
Because we don’t live in a world where difference is accepted all the time, Jackson has learned to pick his battles. If he’s in a group of new kids he won’t always tell them he likes non-traditional colors or toys. Odds are he’s interested in whatever they’re playing with anyway so it won’t come up. However, I know sometimes this means he silences himself and that makes me sad. I want him to be his true self, but he and I both know that not everyone will be nice to him about it. I don’t want him to be hurt physically or emotionally so I have resigned to let him find his own way of expressing himself in various situations. I don’t say, hey you go ahead and play with princesses in front of any kid you’re around. I let him feel out whether or not they will be accepting. It not only makes me sad, it pisses me off that he has to change himself and others don’t, but we’re not living in a perfect world yet. I just make sure he has plenty of opportunity to play with all the different things he likes, even if that means mostly at home.
I met Jackson’s new teacher and talked with her about all this. She handled it really well and even told him when he got to pick a prize for good behavior she would be sure to have pink options for him. I hope she will continue to stay supportive. The little girl from down the street is in his class, but not at his table. So, fingers crossed for a great first year where he can be himself and his classmates will treat him nicely. Feminist parenting isn’t a science. It’s a learn as you go kinda thing, so while these tips may not work for all situations, these have worked for our family. I’d love to hear any related experiences you have in the comments below.