Growing great kids

Moms on the hows and whys of raising feminist children

“When my son exhibited feminist attitudes, my mother said he was going to make some lucky woman a wonderful husband. When my daughter stood up for herself, my mother said she’d never find a man who’d put up with her.” – Nan Call-Smith

“Seems it hadn’t occurred to these parents that dolls might be an appropriate toy for their boys in the same way that I had not realized that playing with trucks would benefit my girls.” – Jill Griffiths

“I was really committed. I wanted this little boy to grow up to be an empathic, caring, loving, nurturing, man.” – Jamie Tiedemann

When Dr. Mary Douglas Vavrus speaks to her students in the University of Minnesota’s communication studies program, she routinely talks about how television impacts the objectification of women. One example involves showing students TV news segments about two public attacks on women that are shockingly similar to scenes from music videos. And then she goes home to answer questions from her 4-year-old son about why so many women are pictured in their underwear in advertising and TV.

“We talk about how those pictures can make people respect real women and girls less and can make us think it’s OK to be mean to them,” Vavrus said. “We’ve talked about how he doesn’t like to run around in public in his underwear and how that makes him feel ‘weird.’ I try to explain how his feelings of vulnerability are what women and girls feel, too, and that we should see more pictures of women and girls doing good and important things, and not just posing in their underwear.”

Vavrus is doing what every mother we talked with said was the single most important ingredient in the recipe for raising feminist kids: communicating. “Lots of talking, lots of listening,” was the consensus.

Building a foundation
Deb Wilkens-Costello, a St. Paul mom of two daughters, 24 and 10, and a son, 21, agrees with Vavrus about the importance of communication with children of both genders. In fact, she said, it’s just as important to listen to “unimportant” things too. “When they’re 4 and want to talk about a pink dress, that’s really important to her. It might not be to you, but listening is an investment in your relationship. You’re really building a foundation. I think we as a society have stopped listening to kids,” Wilkens-Costello said.

Nan Call-Smith of Minneapolis, mother of 35-year-old boy/girl twins, built that foundation when her children were young, and found it sustained them when they faced challenging situations as they grew older. “I really listened to them and told them hard things about my own life that made it easier for my kids to come to me when they had questions,” she said. Her daughter came to her when a classmate was being sexually harassed by other classmates. “Annie recognized what was happening because we had talked about these issues, and told me later that the reason she came to me was because I would listen and help find a solution.

“Is it easy to listen-to look for teachable moments? Sometimes I was so tired and overloaded that the last thing I wanted was to hear long stories from my kids. Sometimes I had to fake it a little. But I did try hard to listen and to add what needed saying,” Call-Smith said. “I didn’t realize listening and sharing would build the trust it did in my children, and that talking about the unfair situations I’d faced in school and at work would lead to my son Michael telling his friends that he didn’t appreciate sexual jokes about women.”

As a single mother, Jamie Tiedemann said she found it “incredibly important” to make time every day to talk to her son, Garrett, about what he was feeling. Like Call-Smith, Tiedemann used examples from her own life to help Garrett understand women’s and girls’ experiences: “I wanted to play hockey, but I was not allowed to play [on the school team] … I had an innate feeling that that was so unfair. I would talk to Garrett about that [and ask him], ‘Do you understand how hurt I felt, why it was unfair … everyone should grow up with equal opportunities,'” Tiedemann said. Vavrus recommends role-playing with kids. “Get them saying things they need to help them get away from bad situations,” she said. “Explain that it’s difficult to stand up to dominant views. But that it’s not OK to oppress other people, and that they can question peers and others who do it.”

It is, she admitted, not always easy to stay on message. “Our kids can get tired of hearing about it. But it’s worth doing.”

She is optimistic that we are creating a new generation of kids, capable of taking to task comments, messages and behavior that is not acceptable. “We’re moving toward zero tolerance, which is the result of having more kids raised by strong feminist parents. All positive changes come as a result of being the squeaky wheel.”

Raising strong daughters
The pink dresses mentioned by Deb Wilkens-Costello are something Kate Hopper of Minneapolis knows more about than she’d like. “I was appalled when Stella started talking about princesses and wanting everything to be pink,” said Hopper, a mother with one 4-year-old daughter and another on the way. “But we also talk about soccer and she’ll climb anything. She is, though, a really girly girl. And when she comes back from her preschool she’ll say, ‘that’s a boy’s game … that’s a girl’s game …’ I say, no, not really, and go into my free-to-be-you-and-me speech.” Even at Stella’s young age, peer pressure is a factor: “Her preschool is very cliquey, and some of the girls are encouraged by their parents to be very girly girls.”

When Stella voiced a desire to take dance classes, Hopper’s initial response was to worry about the anorexia that’s common among dancers. But she was able to find a healthy alternative: “Stella’s going to start dance next month at a [program] where they have dancers with all body types.”

Jill Griffiths, a Minneapolis mother of two, recalled a reality check when her older daughter was 3 years old. “[Our pediatrician] asked, ‘So.  How many trucks does she have?'” Griffiths realized they didn’t have any trucks, and, “After that I scooped up vehicles of all sizes at yard sales.  Eventually found some neat solar-powered ones at Target and now we have a fleet.”

The question made such an impression on Griffiths that she gave trucks to little girls and dolls to little boys at holiday time that year. “Groovy Girls … [used to make] boy dolls with ethnic names and varying skin tones.  We gave these to our preschool boy friends-and now, years later, they still have a place on many of these kids’ beds or bookshelves. Seems it hadn’t occurred to these parents that dolls might be an appropriate toy for their boys in the same way that I had not realized that playing with trucks would benefit my girls … “

That daughter, Sky Li, “loves velvet dresses and elaborate hairdos,” while her younger sister, Jia Soleil’s preference for boxer shorts “has me shopping through the boys’ underwear aisle! I accept their preferences as simply who they are. Today. I am cautious to not create or sustain myths about my children.”

When Wilkens-Costello’s two older children were small, “We did a lot of outdoor activities and didn’t buy the girls colors/boys colors-we did hand-me-down winter gear, and so we bought colors for Abby that would work for Sam. I raised Abby to be strong and independent and think for herself, and she does all those things and she is the fashion plate. She always wanted the ruffles and patent shoes. She is 24 now and she can still remember the holiday dresses she had [as a child]. She has a very feminine appearance … but her head and her heart are in the right place.”

… and raising strong sons
Though Deb Wilkens-Costello raised (or is raising) all three of her children using feminist principles, “I pushed Sam a little bit harder to understand more of a historical perspective about how women have been oppressed, denied access to things that should have been available, and that mainly men have made rules and policies that affect women’s bodies. I thought it was important for him to understand that this world, our society, has not been an equal place for women, people of color, gay and lesbian people … and that he has a certain amount of white male privilege.”

Sharon Ramirez of Minneapolis often thinks profoundly about the messages she is passing along to her 3-year-old son. So far he has as much fun “making breakfast” in his kitchen as playing with the many cars and trains he enjoys. He has dolls to play-act with. The purpose, she says, is to “give opportunities to nurture.”

Raising a feminist son, Ramirez believes, means exposing boys to music, arts, sports, caretaking-so that they can “open up to being more full human beings. The idea is to give them the critical thinking and tools needed to manifest themselves to the fullest potential. To be caring, empathetic and able to think outside of the self. To open up to all the emotions.” That includes, she said, tempering rough play with the message that hitting and hurting is never allowed. As an extension of this, Ramirez and her husband take their son to peace rallies to help him recognize his role “as an agent of social change.”

Wilkens-Costello said that one of the challenges in raising feminist boys is “that many parents aren’t. Sam would compare me to other moms. He learned pretty quickly I wasn’t like the other moms.” One of the rewards was an inscription Sam penned on the back of a Mother’s Day gift-“To my mom, a woman’s woman.” When Wilkens-Costello asked her son what he meant, he told her, “You’re not like other moms. Sometimes my friends make jokes about women and their moms laugh. You teach me a lesson.” The most important lesson, she said, was teaching him “to respect women every step of the way: girlfriends, teachers, his sisters, me. He’s 21 and the teaching is not over.”

Jamie Tiedemann found that her son, Garrett, who read books with both male and female characters, was teased for reading “girl books” and for attending some theatrical performances. Tiedemann’s response was to help Garrett role-play responses. “I think that empowered him to feel good,” she said.

Nan Call-Smith found that her son, a natural athlete, was bothered by the sexism in all-male sports teams. “He wanted to play, but he didn’t want to constantly be fighting against sexist comments, nor did he want to ignore them.” It was a tough situation, and one that had no one answer. “Paul learned a lot about others and himself when he faced the sexism that women deal with every day,” she said. “He found that though there was tension when he spoke up, he felt worse when he didn’t. And he learned that not all the boys had those attitudes.”

Tips for raising feminist kids
Communication is key. “It is the parents’ job to do the communicating,” said Deb Wilkens-Costello. “When kids shut down, some parents say it’s a phase … I said, ‘tough.’ That’s when that old saying “tough love” comes in. I don’t let them go into a quiet phase. Talking is key. Listening is just as important … you’re building a model [that we talk about things],” she said.

Use examples they can relate to. Jill Griffiths talks to her young daughters about the days before Title IX. “My mother, who became an Olympian [in figure skating], never got to earn a letter [at the University of Minnesota]. In order to have ice time she had to go be at Williams Arena at 4 or 5 a.m. They gave her her own key to get in. To pay them back, she had to perform between hockey games.”

Be clued into kid culture. “I like to stay on top of what’s going on so I don’t find what they tell me shocking,” said Wilkens-Costello, who also strives to “respond in a calm, matter-of-fact, let’s-take-it-apart way.”

“I made sure I knew what was going on at school, and not just the academics. I knew what music they were listening to, what was hot and what was not. It really was crucial to understanding the sexual stereotyping and pressures,” Nan Call-Smith said.

Model respect for all people. After witnessing a bully tormenting a girl at her son’s school, Jamie Tiedemann confronted the bully. Though Garrett feared he’d be the bully’s next target, his mother insisted that she come with him to the principal’s office to report the incident. When the bully was expelled, Tiedemann said, Garrett learned, “When you are fighting for people and fighting against injustice, when you take a stand, there are good things that happen.”

Deconstruct TV programs, movies, music and ads that promote sexist ideas. “I made my kids really listen to the lyrics of those catchy tunes,” Nan Call-Smith said. “We talked about … why it was inappropriate for Brooke Shields to say that nothing came between her and her Calvins.”

Enlist others. “Cousins, friends, grandparents. Anyone with credibility and authority in our children’s lives should be telling them the same message,” Mary Douglas Vavrus said. “It shouldn’t be the burden on just one parent or two.”

Strive for gender-neutral. “When shopping for my child’s first bike, I was incredulous that the choices were pink princess or black with flames,” Jill Griffiths said. “It took six store visits to eventually overpay for a high-quality, gender-neutral bike.” Griffiths related a story about how another child said that her daughter’s shoes looked like boys’ shoes. “So, although I am deliberate about my choices-it is still an uphill, but worthwhile, climb,” she said.

Books about how to raise feminist kids
Mothers and Sons: Feminism, Masculinity, and the Struggle to Raise Our Sons by A. O’Reilly
Strong Mothers, Strong Sons by Ann Caron
It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons by Andrea J. Buchanan
Real Boys by William Pollack
Girls Will Be Girls by JoAnn Deak
Growing a Girl by Barbara Mackhoff
Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher
Mothers and Children: Feminist Analyses and Personal Narratives by Susan E. Chase and Mary F. Rogers

Online Resources “Working together to build a family-friendly America” “Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change” Excerpts from the “magazine for thinking mothers” “Political commentary and ribald tales from the front lines of motherhood”