I got a tweet from a friend last week that lit all kinds of lightbulbs in my head.
It was a simple – but very rare – tweet.
So many thoughts hit my head all at once.
The loudest was that this was the first time I’d ever been asked that by someone with a son, or sons.
I get asked all the time to recommend books to parents of daughters in order to promote the ideal of gender equality. But I hardly ever hear from parents of sons, asking how they can teach gender equality.
It filled my heart – because that is where it starts, with parents. And if we’re only teaching girls how to be equal, we’re missing half the equation!
Then I thought of this amazing blog post by male author, Robert J. Bennett about the first time he realized he had no idea that women were, you know, people. He was trying to write one and couldn’t. He couldn’t see his female character as a fully realized, complex, three-dimensional person. His flow of prose stopped.
What he realized in that moment was that his whole life, he had been shielded from seeing women as people just like him. They were “other” – incomprehensible and alien.
One of the solutions he proposes is for parents of sons to get past this weird idea that boys can only relate to stories about boys. After all, we don’t assume the same for girls. In fact, boy/man/male has been normaled to the point that we think nothing of books, movies, music, etc. with all male casts. I share them with my daughters regularly.
But a book/movie with all girls!?! Oh my, we could NEVER expose our sons to that! They just wouldn’t be interested!
Robert suggests that the first step to raising boys to be men who are aware of women as people is to read them books with female leads – in which the girls are actively doing things that contribute to the story!
It turns out that this is easier said than done as a brief stroll of my daughter’s book shelf reminded me.
The next thought that hit me was the old classic – Free to Be… You and Me. My husband was raised on that book and album, but now days you can get the book and CD combo. My kids listen to it fairly regularly and it’s a great reminder that both boys and girls can be who they want to be – boys can like dolls and dresses, girls can like tanks and adventure. They can both be parents, they can both have jobs.
Then, I had another realization – so often when we hear the words “gender equality” we assume we are talking about equality for women and girls, and we forget that there is a whole other side to this equality thing. We are so used to seeing boys/men in their position of privilege and power that we forget, they too are stuck in their gender box. For true equality to happen, we have to smash open the boy box just as surely as we need to smash open the girl box.
I remembered my friend back in Oregon and her son, who for his 3rd birthday wanted exactly one thing – a purple princess dress all his own.
It’s worth noting that this boy was one of the roughest, toughest, “boys will be boys” kids in our group. But, there was something about those sparkly, purple, layered princess dresses that appealed to him.
We all got together, pitched in and made sure he got his purple princess dress – and he LOVED it!
Shortly after that we had a potluck at my house, where my girls had rebelled against my no pink, no princesses decree by filling trunks with princess dress up clothes. That day, everyone in the group ALL dressed up in princess garb.
Not because they were cross dressers, gender creative, trans or gay (though some of them may be all of those things, and that is okay too.) they did it because they were kids playing make-believe in a safe space that uplifted the feminine as much as the masculine and that made it as okay for the boys to try on “girl” roles as it is for girls to try on “boy” roles.
My husband and I talk a lot about how we will know we have reached gender equality when it is as acceptable for him to mow the lawn or cook dinner or grocery shop in his pigtails and skirt as it is for me to bang nails, weed the garden or walk the dog with close-cropped hair, work boots, jeans and a tee-shirt. No one thinks I’m cross dressing… He isn’t either, it’s just bloody hot out and he likes the air flow.
We will know that we have achieved gender equality when the presidential fitness standards acknowledge that not all boys are stronger than all girls…
We will know we have reached gender equality when the toy aisles aren’t segregated into “boy toys” in primary colors and “girl toys” in shades of sparkly pink and purple. Because there are just TOYS for KIDS, in all the colors.
When we don’t talk about “boy learning styles” and “girl learning styles”, but “active/wiggly learners” and “sit still learners”.
When the equivalent of “boys will be boys” isn’t “girls gone wild” because we will have realized that girls have just as much right to social freedom and pleasure as boys, and that boys have just as much right to quiet play and down time, and it doesn’t make them less masculine.
Gender equality has to go both ways.
In thinking about my friend’s question, I was reminded that equality isn’t just about allowing space for strong, intelligent, motivated women – it’s about creating space for all people to be fully themselves, loud and proud (or quiet in a corner with their thoughts…).
Masculine, feminine, gay, straight, cis, trans, gender queer… We’re all people, and at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – to love and be loved, just the way we are.
So, for all parents who want to raise more aware kids, I made some lists over at Amazon.com (Because it’s easy to do there, not because I heart Amazon.)
First – a handful of picture books with gender neutral protagonists. (Not as easy to find as I would like and I almost cheated to include some books that included gender pronouns – but didn’t need to, but ultimately decided to keep it pure.)
Third – A list of picture books with more nuanced masculinity than we often see portrayed in the media.
And last – here’s a link to one book that didn’t quite fit in any of those lists, but is a wonderful primer for teaching gender equality.
I hope these help, and of course, readers are encouraged to leave their favorites in the comments below! (Or debate my lists – that’s cool too.)