Be a Feminist for Your Sons, Too

President Obama wrote an essay for Glamour, proudly proclaiming why he is a feminist. The entire thing is beautifully written and worth reading, but this particular passage really stood out to me:

Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard or feel unfairly judged based on their gender or race—or when they notice that happening to someone else. It’s important for them to see role models out in the world who climb to the highest levels of whatever field they choose. And yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.

President Obama is speaking here from the perspective of a father with two daughters. But I’d like to expound on that a bit as a father of both a son and a daughter.

A cliché that I’ve long found grating is the notion that men don’t become more receptive to sexism and gender inequality until they have daughters, then expect some sort of pat on the back for having a way-too-late-in-life epiphany that, hey, maybe you actually shouldn’t treat women like garbage. Here’s a recent example of this phenomenon from former ESPN blogger and epitome of Cool Dad syndrome Bill Simmons, via Sports Illustrated:

“One of the ironies of my life is that I was definitely a chauvinist with men’s and women’s sports before, I’d always make WNBA jokes and stuff like that. And now I’m like a feminist, and it’s all because of her,” he said in reference to his 11-year-old daughter. “In L.A., they have all these academy teams for boys, and the girls are treated like second-class citizens. The fields we have are worse than the boys’, too. It all just drives me f—— crazy.”

In his essay, President Obama pointed out that his early experiences with strong women in his life influenced how he viewed sexism, the glass ceiling and the myriad other challenges women are faced with in our society. I had similar experiences in my life – I’m one of four kids raised primarily by a single mom and my paternal grandmother was one of the strongest women I ever met. She put up with insane behavior from men in her life and held her family together despite unimaginable grief and destructive behavior by people she cared for. Both were extremely influential figures in my adolescence, and I realize not everyone has that same set of experiences, but I still for the life of me can’t understand how someone makes it through life with the sort of blinders on that Simmons displays in that above quote. You don’t realize society is plagued with gender inequities until, well into middle-age for you, your privileged family starts getting involved in youth sports in some bougie suburb?

I’ve always considered myself a feminist and a believer in equity and inclusion, but becoming a parent does make me focus more intently on those responsibilities. It is important as a father of a daughter that I help her learn what she should expect and demand from men she will encounter in any relationship as she grows up – social, professional, romantic or otherwise. But I think too often, discussions of feminism gloss over the importance of fathers teaching their sons those same values – not focusing solely on how to treat women with respect, but how to immediately call attention to or not be passive bystanders to bad or destructive behavior from men in their peer groups.

My son finished kindergarten this year, and I had the opportunity to spend time in his school and in his classroom on multiple occasions. One of those days was field day. He was part of a group that included both boys and girls, rotating to different stations to play games outside. One game – I can’t even explain what the object was, as I’m a pretty useless volunteer and didn’t pay attention when the gym teacher explained all of the game rules to the parents beforehand – required kids taking turns doing something. I think throwing frisbees into a bucket … whatever, they wouldn’t listen to me anyway.

A girl in the line next to ours was getting frustrated because all of the boys who were also in her line weren’t giving her a turn. There was nothing malicious going on – she wasn’t being purposefully picked on or excluded. The kids were excited, she was smaller and shyer than all of the boys, and the overall exuberance of overhyped six-year-olds caused her to get lost in the shuffle. But it’s also the sort of behavior – accidental exclusion, ignoring the needs of others, etc. – that contributes to many boys growing up believing that not knowing a problem exists is a fair excuse for not caring about said problem.

So I talked to Oliver about what was happening. I explained to him that it was important to make sure everyone got a turn. And he immediately went, picked up some frisbees and let her go in front of him in his line. It’s amazing how much sense simple fairness and respect makes to children – that’s by far my favorite aspect of being a parent. Common decency, something adults struggle with on a daily basis, is second nature to children. They naturally want to love and respect each other. It’s adults who eventually ruin that beautiful world kids are trying to show us is super easy to create.

Oliver is incredibly lucky to have women in his life who obliterate any potential for him to give any credence to gender stereotypes, especially one that he’s growing up right next to.

My daughter is only two, and she and my son are already best friends. He has friends who exhibit the stereotypical “no girls allowed” behavior, and occasionally he brings that home. Fortunately, he has a sister who, even at this young age, REFUSES to be excluded, and anything he picks up from boys at school is quickly extinguished at home. And he honors that because, even at his young age, he enjoys being around her and understands that he needs to respect her wishes and interests in order to have a strong friendship with her.

He has a sister who enjoys playing with his WWE wrestlers and superheroes as much as she enjoys wearing princess outfits or putting on tutus and dancing. She’s completely happy to wrestle with him, watch his shows and, when she feels like it, demand that he watch Sofia the First or Frozen with her. They certainly have fights like all siblings do, but not only does he often comply with his younger sister without any protests, there are times when he actually suggests they watch her shows or turns them on for her (she still relies on him for his mastery of the Roku, but I assume she’ll figure that out and further solidify her independence soon).

The beautiful part of their relationship, to me, is how they cooperate. He doesn’t like Sofia the First that much. But he watches it because he enjoys her companionship, respects her and likes making her happy. In turn, she can recite the New Day (she REALLY hits the ‘feel the POWAAHHHH’) entrance theme (along with the Ric Flair ‘Woooooo!’) verbatim because she has fun with him doing things he likes.

Even at their early ages, one is clearly introverted and one is clearly an extrovert. But they love each other and respect each other, so they humor each other. If Isla wants to dance, Oliver … reluctantly … will dance.

That’s the greatest gift being a parent has given me … hope. The times I’ve been able to observe my kids in environments with their peers, things are just … easy. There are no preconceptions, there are no complexities, they are all just nice to each other. Or, when they’re not, they quickly resolve whatever petty issue got in the way of them having fun.

Younger generations are increasingly willing to simply reject the outdated notions we adults continuously effe up. Current news is depressing, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. But my kids and their friends have allowed me to just check out. They’ll fix it. I have no worries. My only job is to support them and to tell other adults to wake up and pay attention to the beautiful world they are going to create.

 

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