Feminist Friday–Raising Feminist Children

Today’s topic is about raising children to be feminist. It’s a topic I have pondered for a long time, and something I’ve tried to do consciously for a good portion of their short little lives. I haven’t read any books about it, and I haven’t seen any results–Fella is only five and in kindergarten; Filly is only four and in preschool, and although they’ve certain both adopted the traditional gender roles as far as appearances go (she wants to be a ballerina when she grows up; he wants to be a snake wrangler), they are still young enough that the power imbalances that anger them the most have to do with what crazy-ass privileges adults get that they’re not allowed to have. I haven’t yet seen either one frustrated by what boys and girls are supposed to do (or not supposed to do).  Maybe it’s just their ages so far working in my favor. Maybe my experiment is garnering results. Maybe I have no business calling it an experiment with no data collection and no control groups and too many variables. Maybe you’re curious about what I’m trying to do anyway. Here’s a handy list:

1. I refer to “kids” and “children” as often as possible, instead of referring to “boys” and “girls.”
2. No means no, no matter who you are.
3. I try to preempt body shame.
4. I’ve given my son an “out” to use with friends.

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1. I refer to “kids” and “children” as often as possible, instead of referring to “boys” and “girls.”

There are many gender interactions, at least online, but also in the media and popular culture, that end up falling into an Us and Them dichotomy That isn’t useful. All this business about men and women’s brains with their “evolutionary differences” and “complementary talents” and “feminists are attacking men” just throws up smokescreens and distracts people from talking about real social problems. “Us vs. Them” hampers dialogue. The only “us and them” I want my kids to worry about is Children and Adults.

I try never to refer to children by their gender if I can help it, particularly if they are in same-gender groups. I’m not talking gender neutral pronouns. I’m just talking about using the words “kid” or “children” when I have to make a collective statement or ask questions about children I don’t know the name of. If Fella wants to get in on a generic game of Good Guy Bad Guy Tag at the park, I tell him to go over there and ask those kids if he can join that game. If I’ve got a bunch of girls at a birthday party, I’ll ask if you kids are ready for cake and ice cream. My idea is that I want my kids to think of themselves as part of the large group of people their age. If Filly sees Fella go join the Good Guy Bad Guy Tag and wants to play, she hasn’t heard me identify it as a game boys are playing. She’s not a boy. But if it’s for kids, she’s a kid, she belongs.

2. No means no, no matter who you are.

Adults have claimed for themselves the privilege of touching children whenever they want. Adults are bigger and stronger, and usually in control of the situation, and children can’t do a hell of a lot to stop it. Mostly they don’t want to. I’m talking about safe interactions, of course–the hugs and pats and kisses from people who do have their best interests at heart–the small gestures that are symbols of affection and reassurance of being loved. But not every physical action is desired or welcome, and that includes physical attention from a same-age friend or trusted adult. I’m not even limiting this to harassment or molestation. (The conversation with children about who is allowed to touch you is a related but separate topic I’m not going into right now.) Sometimes a kid just does not want to be touched, whether it’s by a hug from a friend they’ve been arguing with or by a mother with a toothbrush* or by a babysitter during a tickling game.

*I reserve the right to scare the crap out of any kid about cavities, and shots and drills, and missing teeth, and bloody gums, and make threats to call the dentist for an appointment in the morning, but I won’t force a toothbrush into anyone’s mouth at all. And I can talk up a storm about long fingernails, and bloody exposed nail beds, and infected scratches, too.

When my kid’s had enough of whatever it is and says no, I stop. If I see someone–kid or adult–ignoring my kid’s request for them to stop with the touching, I intervene. I take my kid’s side. Whatever excuse is proffered (But I just can’t help petting such a darling! But we were playing a monster game!), I blow it off. (You can blow things off politely.) When it’s an adult, the first excuse is countered with something along the lines of the kid “doesn’t want it.” The second excuse gets a “it bothers her” and a “you are upsetting him.” Kids require a different tactic. When they touch a kid who doesn’t want it, they usually aren’t exercising some privilege or power they are accustomed to. Often they are just unclear about where the physical boundaries are. Sometimes there’s been a lot of joint physical interaction that one person just tired of first. That’s when I try to be real clear with the other kid that it was OK before but it’s not OK now. Consent can change. No can always follow yes. Always. And No always matters the most.

Related topics: Letting kids skip a meal if they say they aren’t hungry, and letting a kid decide when it’s cold enough to put on a jacket or come out of the swimming pool.

3. I’m trying to preempt body shame.

To me, body shame comes with two angles: Body snarking and embarrassment about underwear, which means sexual organs, which means sex. “Body snarking” is a very useful term I learned from a fashion blog (Tom & Lorenzo) that refers to criticizing the part of someone’s appearance over which they have no control. You can rip apart an actress for her clothing and makeup choices, but they don’t let you remark on how her hands aren’t aging well or how her teeth have a gap or how she’s gotten fat. (Yes, you can control weight, but not between the time you select a dress and put it on.) Not allowed. Bodies are bodies, and you are born with what you are born with, and they judge beauty according to how a person adorns the body and not on how the chromosomes shaped it. It’s an extension of judging people by their choices and not their biology, regardless of whether its a nose or a vagina.

The kids are too little still to have encountered a lot of body snarking, but I go out of my way to not engage in it around them. I am more concerned about the flip side of it–a habit I have no snazzy term for–which is crediting people for things they can’t control. Some people are born really, really, ridiculously good-looking according to the definitions of the day and some people aren’t. Complimenting a kid (usually a girl) on her hair, or face, or figure (yes, gross, but I’ve heard it) is unfair to the kid who receives the compliment and to the kid who doesn’t. Their looks are irrelevant to anything they want to do, and they shouldn’t have to worry about what face Fate gave them. Hair barrettes are pretty; dresses are pretty; shirts are cool; shoes are awesome. And we don’t brush our hair and wash our faces to make ourselves look better; we brush our hair and wash our faces to make ourselves tidy. Personal hygiene is a sign of self-respect. Beauty has nothing to do with it.

The other part of preempting body shame is trying to remove stigma about underwear. We’ve discussed underwear as necessary for two reasons: it keeps your clothes clean and it sets the boundary between public and private. We (the kids and I) don’t talk about other people’s underwear, and we don’t go out of our way to show people ours. That is confusing because it makes people unsure about what is private and what is public to you, and privacy is important. It’s a matter of clarity, not immodesty. But sometimes people see underwear, and that’s no big deal. It’s just underwear, just doing its two jobs.

But you know what? When you wear dresses to the playground, you are going to be showing your underwear a lot, and that does get disapproval from adults and makes you a target for some kids. I don’t want to start telling Filly that she has to choose between what she wants to wear and what she wants to do so she can avoid harassment, but I do want to prevent her from flashing her underwear all day long, EVEN THOUGH it’s not wrong if people see it by accident. A lot of skirts are sold these days with shorts attached, but if she’s wearing a dress, we put shorts on. Because she objects to wearing two kinds of clothing bottoms, we call the shorts “bloomers.” All toddler girls’ clothes came with bloomers; it’s not a concept I had to teach. I even have clothes that come with bloomers. (Show choir dresses. Blue sequined ones. Three of them. Yep.) When she asks why she has to wear bloomers with dresses, I just tell her that dresses are more formal than shorts and pants. Formal clothes don’t have underwear showing, because underwear is regular clothes. It’s just one of those rules. It’s just Manners–a category of perplexingly arbitrary behavior that no one takes personally but everyone conforms to.

4. I’ve given my son an “out” to use with friends.

My son and daughter have been best friends since she was born. Their bond is strong, and they play often with each other, and they like what the other likes. Especially My Little Ponies. I don’t even know how My Little Pony became a shared obsession, but it has. Earlier this year, even, we spent the best part of January eating Happy Meals at strategically chosen McDonald’s around the city in order to collect all eight ponies in the Friendship Is Magic promotional set. We finally added the last pony to the family–Princess Celestia–at the Wal-Mart McDonald’s in Santee. I am not exaggerating when I say that they both squealed with joy and jumped up and down right there at the cash register when they found out she was available. They each got vintage MLPs for Christmas. They know all the names, and even give Rainbow Dash the British accent when it’s her turn to speak, Dahling. Their other favorite game is dress-up. Of course, it’s the girl who has all the fancy dress up clothes. It’s not like the boy sets out that day to wear a princess dress, but when it’s time to play dress up, there just aren’t a lot of options. What’s a kid to do?

Naturally, My Little Pony and Dress-Up leaks into the awareness of Fella’s friends. For one, kids come over here and see our mess, and which toys are in whose bedroom. Second, he talks about his sister. Third, they’ve both been at other kids’ houses and gotten excited about the ponies, and have asked the brother who lives in that house if they want to play ponies. It’s easy to betray your interests, especially if you aren’t intent on keeping them secret. But boys will call out Fella about it, and ask outright why he is playing with girl toys. And so I’ve given him an out. I don’t make him explain that toys are for whatever kid likes them, or claim adamantly that he likes what he likes and that boy can take it or leave it. I’ve told him just to say that it’s a game his baby sister likes, and she doesn’t have a lot of friends to play with. Now, lots of kids have little siblings and cousins that they have to play with–they’ve all been there. They’ve all been told often, too, to not fight with the baby about what game to play. Fella is not committing the crime of actually liking the girl toys; he’s just playing nice with a little kid. Have some sympathy. He’s a good big brother. Giving him this out saves everyone face by removing embarrassment about this boy playing with girl things, and this boy gets to keep doing what he wants to do.

And as usual, my word length to content ratio is skewed in the wrong direction, but at least I included a numbered list and subheaders.

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  • melaina25  On June 10, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I hate the dichotomy of boys toys vs. girls toys especially since a girl playing with cars or tools is cute but a boy playing with dolls or ponies is unthinkable. The little “tomboy” (I so hate that word) is so spunky, but a boy who is even slightly effeminate is not acceptable. It obviously has to do with underlying issues of homophobia, but it still doesn’t make it right.

    Thanks so much for taking part and please visit the other entries and comment!

  • Susan Mann  On June 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I think toys are toys and children are children, they should be able to play with what they want without anything being said. x

  • Mike  On June 11, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I like that you wrote “I do this” and “I don’t do that” instead of “Do this” and “Don’t do that.”

    Also, you write about My Little Pony leaking to awareness, but in the pic it looks more like My Little Pony leaking all over the stable floor.

  • mtendere  On June 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Interesting points…definitely some things to ponder.

  • Karen  On June 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    @Mike When I’m confident that my child-rearing techniques guarantee a feminist adult, you bet I’m going to put them in the imperative! Until then it would just be bad science, and one must always strive for good science, even if one is not a scientist. As for leaking all over the stable floor, she’s a princess. Rarity and Pinkie Pie can take care of it.

  • Karen  On June 11, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    @Susan I think so, too, but kids do comment, and I’d rather my kid find a way to keep doing what he wants to do rather than give something up because of criticism from a peer. Plus by explaining the truthful parts about why he’s playing with the ponies–he does really have a little sister, and she really does love to play the game with him–it puts the onus on the criticizing/questioning kid (they aren’t necessarily being mean; sometimes they are just confused) to reconsider a situation from another point of view.

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