Big Birthday Memory #18: Want a Feminist Son? Tips From a Veteran

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. This one appeared on BlogHer on January 19, 2011

Running Boys

“So Dan,” says I, “What would you think if the woman you wanted to marry decided to keep her name?”

“Well mom,” says he, “I don’t think I’d want to marry a woman who didn’t want to keep her name.”

He was around ten then (he’s 30 now), in the car with us, listening to his dad tease me, as he has for years, that he “wouldn’t have let me” have his name if I did want it.  Not a serious discussion of male oppression exactly, but humor teaches lessons too.

Someone asked me how we raised feminist sons.  I don’t have a checklist.  And if I were to respond seriously, I’d start with something really corny: teach them to respect people – all people.  The elevator man.  The bus driver.  Their best friend’s mom.  The guy at the candy counter.  Their friends.  Their parents’ friends. Their baby sitter.  They were Manhattan kids, but they were raised to think of the feelings of every person they met.  Of course, that meant all women, too.  That was an advantage.

Oh, and we respected the two of them right back.

In the families they knew, most of the moms worked as hard as the dads.  Since moms at home were an exception, they were used to two-income families.  The daughters of these moms, the girls they went to school with, wouldn’t put up with much nonsense, either.  That also helped.

We preferred offering choices over fiats.  Most boys go through a Playboy phase.  Call it curiosity.  When the magazines began to stack up behind the old-fashioned radiator in our bathroom, we didn’t seize them.  We talked about what it must have been like for the women in the pictures and how their parents might feel.  I may have said (of course I said) that it offended me, but if they wanted to keep buying Playboy, they’d have to pay for it from their allowance and keep them all put away.   Eventually the fever broke and the magazines disappeared.

Boys Hug

I also changed the endings of a lot of stories I read to them when they were really little.   No princess was given by her father to the guy who solved the riddle or won the quest in our versions. (I also had to change stories like Mr. Poppers Penguins because of terrible racial stereotypes, by the way)  We read Harriet the Spy and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great as well as Encyclopedia Brown and Superfudge.

Also, back then when it was new, we listened to Free to Be, You and Me  until the tape wore out.  When we did come across unpleasant images of women on TV or at a movie, we talked about them.Those movie moments were also “teachable moments.”  As any parent knows, those scenes can enable a dialogue that might otherwise be impossible, whether it’s about smoking and drugs, bullies, sex, or the partnership between women and men. They’re always popping up; not just in entertainment but also on the street, with family and friends, and in easy conversations.  We made the most of those, too.

I’ve sort of written things down here as I thought of them and now as I reread this, I realize how much I’ve focused on image and media.  I guess that’s because those sorts of opportunities were overt and therefore highly productive tools.

The modeling that went on at home was also critical of course.  We were nowhere near as exemplary as couples are now in their parenting and household equity.  It was the 70’s and 80s.  Even so, we were very aware of the issues we needed to pass on and both worked to do it. (For a more contemporary look , try The Feminist Breeder, who, in a consciously egalitarian marriage, describes her own thoughts on raising feminist boys.  or Penguin Unearthed as she offers her own perspective.)

Our boys, from when they were little, learned to cook, iron (that was our babysitter, not us), do their laundry and clean the kitchen.  They made their beds (mostly) and helped out at our parties.   Each has always had close friends who were girls, and later, women.  They still do.

Boys on Boat

As I conclude though,  I return too to the concept of respect.  If you are steeped in a respect for all people – not as a political habit but a deep, personal value, it’s a lot tougher to use your maleness to seize control of a household, a family or a workplace.

Finally, beyond all the values and logistical and modeling issues lies a fundamental fact.  A child who is well-loved and respected is far more likely to accept the values we choose to pass on, and that underlies everything else.

 

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Cynthia Samuels

Cynthia Samuels is a long-time blogger, writer, producer and Managing Editor. She has an extensive background online, on television and in print, with particular experience developing content for women, parents and families. For the past nine years, that experience has been largely with bloggers, twitter and other social media, most recently at Care2's Causes Channels, which serve 20 million members (13 million when she joined) and cover 16 subject areas. In her three years at Care2 monthly page views grew tenfold, from 450,000 to 4 million. She has been part a member of BlogHer since 2006 years and has spoken at several BlogHer conferences. Among her many other speaking appearances is Politics Online, Fem 2.0 Conference and several other Internet gatherings. She’s also run blogger outreach for clients ranging from EchoDitto to To the Contrary. Earlier, she spent nearly four years with iVillage, the leading Internet site for women; her assignments included the design and supervision of the hugely popular Education Central, a sub-site of Parent Soup that was a soup-to-nuts parent toolkit on K-12 education, designed to support parents as advocates and supporters of their school-age kids. She also served as the iVillage partner for America Links Up, a major corporate Internet safety initiative for parents, ran Click! – the computer channel - and had a long stint as iVillage's Washington editor. In addition, she has developed parent content for Jim Henson Interactive and served as Children’s Book Editor for both Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com. Before moving online, she had a long and distinguished career as a broadcast journalist, as senior national editor of National Public Radio, political and planning producer of NBC's Today Show (whose audience is 75% women) where she worked for nine years (and was also the primary producer on issues relating to child care, education, learning disabilities and child development), and as the first executive producer of Channel One, a daily news broadcast seen in 12,000 U.S. high schools. She has published a children’s book: It’s A Free Country, a Young Person’s Guide to Politics and Elections (Atheneum, 1988) and numerous children’s book reviews in the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World. A creator of online content since 1994, Samuels is a partner at The Cobblestone Team, LLC, is married to a doctor and recent law school graduate and has two grown sons who make video games, two amazing daughters-in-law and three adorable grandsons.

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