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The Subtle Art of Parenting Feminists

Little ones are ready vessels for conscientious values — one mama shares her gentle, organic version of feminist infusion.


Illustration by Elayne Safir

I am not a parent. Unless you count my beloved fur-child, a rambunctious Labrador-mix who I obsess about when I’m away from home. (Is Manix okay? Is he lonely? My husband gives me the side-eye.) Fur-babies aside, I’m not a mom. I am an academic – an academic who spends a lot of time thinking about feminism. Feminism as a political movement, yes. But also feminism as friendship and family.

While identifying as a “feminist” means desiring equal rights for women, it also means supporting women by creating environments where we thrive, where we feel safe, where we are respected. In my case, that means a lot of scholarship on the topic, as well as frequent get-togethers with my gal-pals to celebrate their successes (usually over wine and tasty nibbles). It means participating in my “Women of Westeros” WhatsApp chat to discuss the many badass ladies on Game of Thrones (I’m looking at you, Ser Brienne). Whether they are physical or digital spaces, our environments shape us, emboldening us to take risks – to speak a little louder, to don armor, to demand recognition and fair treatment.

There are so many ways that we can practice feminism in our daily lives. With Manix sniffing at my heels, I’m again reminded of family. What does feminism look like when it begins at home? What does it look like as a parent?

Immediately, my friend and fellow feminist, Julie, who also happens to be the mother of a two year-old boy, comes to mind. We’ve often talked about gender-based discrimination and reproductive rights, but what about child-rearing? Our culture is saturated with toxic masculinity. (I recently binged the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.) Happy as I was to see a positive portrayal of a trans character, I also noticed that for every compassionate and self-assured Harvey Kinkle, there are countless macho high-school bullies, easily threatened by and violent towards those who are different, those who don’t conform to their gender.) So how do we raise kids, not just boys, to be respectful and mindful of others? How do we raise them to be feminists?

I decide to ask Julie, a former service coordinator for Early Steps (a federally-funded grant program providing early intervention services to young children). Even though she hasn’t “thought specifically about raising him ‘feminist’,” Julie is teaching her son (let’s call him Peter) how to be “respectful of everyone, including animals and plants.” (Manix would approve.) This begins with modeling consent. For example, if she’s going to wipe Peter’s face or pick him up, Julie tells him beforehand in order to give him an opportunity to respond. This carries over into Peter’s interactions with others – if he wants to give another child a hug, he has to first ask his playmate. Young children don't often recognize or understand boundaries. But teaching consent as a first step is a good place to start.

Playtime, in general, can be really productive. Drawing on my parents’ bedroom walls with my mother’s lipstick while she napped, I learned two valuable lessons: the first was that I have some artistic talent; the second was that there’s a time and a place for creativity, which do not include drawing on walls with lipstick while mother naps!

Regardless, playtime teaches children a lot – how to engage their imaginations, how to collaborate with others, how to act appropriately. Playing with his baby doll and kitchen set, Peter is learning not only that toys don’t have genders (a welcome departure from accepted wisdom), but also how to “develop nurturing qualities.” As Julie reminds me, many “boys eventually become fathers who take care of children.” If playtime helps cultivate emotional development, bring on the baby dolls!

Before we wrap up our conversation, Julie excitedly tells me about “conscious discipline,” a practice that focuses on “learning to identify your emotions and to express them appropriately.” She explains that if Peter cries, she does not discourage him or tell him to stop. Instead, she and her husband “help him label his emotions and develop coping skills. At two, he is already able to say, ‘I feel sad’.” That’s a pretty big accomplishment for a small boy (and something many grown adults struggle with, having underdeveloped or nonexistent emotional literacy.)

While Julie may not consciously label her parenting-style as “feminist,” many of her methods align with feminism’s goals, such as equality and respect. As a result, Peter is learning how to identify and deal with his feelings, how to be considerate and conscientious of others, regardless of differences. Sounds like a pretty good foundation for building a kinder, more equitable society – one that values and embraces diversity, from plants to animals to people.

Feminism comes in many shapes and forms. It has many faces. Mine and Julie’s are but two. Perhaps Peter’s will become another.

#identity  #facesoffeminism  #feminismisagoodword

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