Raising Feminist Sons by Taryn Strauss

The generally accepted sensibility of our time is that men want to parent boys and women want to parent girls. However, various researchers have noticed a shift in that inclination in the last two decades.

In a 2010 study, economists from three universities discovered that adoptive American parents preferred girls to boys by nearly a third. The data was based on more than 800 adoptions that occurred between 2004 and 2009.

The researchers suggested that this preference for girls might occur because adoptive parents “fear dysfunctional social behavior in children and perceive girls as ‘less risky’ than boys in that respect.” Adoptive parents are even willing to pay an average of $16,000 more in finalization costs for a girl than a boy. Same-sex couples and single women showed an even greater proclivity for adopting girls.

“The economic trends are pretty clear,” said Enrico Moretti, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Women are more involved in the labor force, and less skilled men are less involved, and women are getting more educated and men are not.”

According to the research, for parents, raising a girl can seem as if it’s about showing them all the things they can do, while raising a boy is telling them what not to do.

For us, it was exactly the opposite, for some of the old-fashioned reasons. My husband James and I had determined twins were enough of a grand surprise for one lifetime, and so we wanted to learn the sex of our babies just to try and get our heads around this whole thing.

Our reactions to the news were so disparate, we sent our sonogram technician into waves of loudspoken devotional prayers for us.

Upon hearing from her the “blessing” that I would be having twin boys, I burst into tears. I didn’t stop crying for a week. Gone were my dreams of girl scout troop campouts, and middle school girl’s empowerment bookclubs, and long dinner-table analysis about emotional dynamics.

What would become of me, outnumbered? Was I to look forward to a lifetime of falling into toilets and mounds of stinky socks, engaging in fruitless dialogue featuring little more than grunted affirmation? I grieved.

Meanwhile, on the other side of table, a different switch had flipped. James had been slow to desire children, then ostensibly horrified by the news of twins, and by the moment of this sonogram was experiencing some high-stakes buyers’ remorse.

When he heard the sonogram technician say “such a blessing, you will have two boys!” his face was diametrically opposite to my own. He lost all composure too, jumping up and down, hollering, running through the halls, hugging everyone in his path. “Boys!” He shouted, “I will be the father of boys!”

From that moment forward, he was all in. I called them “the twins.”

He called them “his boys.”

I understand it now. Not his relief so much, but his passion for raising boys. Previously feeling out of his depth and ill-equipped, he suddenly understood his life’s purpose. He was called. For there is almost no more important work than raising feminist boys in America today.

I ask you, how did you become who you are?

One of the most delightful mysteries of life, is that phenomenon when people raised with unhealthy messages or toxic parenting models become someone completely different as an adult. How did they become who they are? I often wonder this about some of the most miraculous people I’ve known in my life.

How did the bible-thumping white cheerleader who was raised by Southern Baptists in Alabama, grow up to become a proud lesbian married to an Argentinian woman who works for intersectional justice and women’s empowerment?

How did a conservative Baptist black boy from Mississippi grow up to become a Buddhist monk and a Unitarian Universalist Religious Educator who is now a gorgeous woman?

And how on Earth did a white farm boy from Kentucky, raised by the switch and the belt and the trappings of an antebellum legacy become an urban-oriented, artistic, confident, culturally adept, deeply empathetic self-proclaimed feminist with post-modern ideas about gender, race, and power? It is a glorious mystery!

When people say the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, this is how I know that is true. In fact, I would say it is not the arc of the moral universe, it is the arc of people, one by one.

The most beautiful wonder of all is how people transform themselves and in doing so, co-create a healthier, more empowered, and more loving generation of young people.

A new generation of men who are feminists, meaning they weave tapestries of connectedness and support. They lift each other up, and have the strength to live compassionately. People who can see how those who behave fearfully and act violently have weakness in their core, and those who are strong of faith, and strong of spirit may outwardly appear weak and soft, traits that may are traditionally viewed as feminine.

If you are looking for tips on how to raise feminist boys, you’ve come to the right place. In a few minutes, I will offer you my kitchen table wisdom. Keep in mind, ours are not yet three years old, so the jury is still out on if any of our philosophical methods, our constant communication and prayerful intention will take hold and create the kind of boys we believe this world needs.

Before I begin listing our parental aspirations and practices, I want to offer this:

As Naomi Shye reminds in her poem, Shoulders,

We are all raising each other.

This is the true gift of being a part of a multi-generational community that understands Lifelong Faith Development:

No matter your age, you are still being raised.

Perhaps you are done raising your own children, and now you are proud, or disappointed, or relieved, or devastated by who they became. You still have a chance to raise someone else.

Maybe your parents are gone, or lost their chance with you, and you are done being parented.

Can you still be raised?

I believe you can. Call it whatever you need to call it: Mentorship, ministry, teaching, guidance, friendship. We are all raising each other. That is why you are here.

While you won’t find an example on the front page of the NY Times, you can find places in our culture where people are raising each other to become feminists, to become whole.

I want to talk about Queer Eye, the Netflix reboot of an early aughts reality show where five fabulous gay men come to a straight man’s home, and help him learn to take care of himself, his home, his body, and give him some lifecoaching skills that lead him closer to who he wants to be.

The reboot is a bit different, now they visit gay men too, and most recently, a woman in her fifties who accepted their wisdom and coaching into her life. The first thing the Fab Five do when they meet a man who has been nominated to receive them, is they all barrel into his personal space. They don’t shake hands, they hug him, they touch his arm, they touch his face, they break the cultural barriers of male physical distance immediately. Without hesitation, they begin to penetrate his armor. This act of social boundary-crossing in Georgia is radical, and the man who is the subject almost always vocally registers his discomfort.

The Fab Five often visit men who struggle with social anxiety, depression, and most of them are living in some degree of poverty. Best of all, this show takes place in and around Atlanta! Could this be more relevant to our lives as we muddle through life-giving masculinity together at UUCA?

These male subjects talk about the immense pressure to be someone they are not, to be like their fathers, to make tons of money, to provide, provide, provide, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, or the pressure to be strong in ways that feel unnatural to them. A closeted gay man who the Fab Five visit in season one looks visibly stooped over with the burden of his armor, his protective mask that keeps him emotionally imprisoned and isolated from his family.

It’s my favorite episode, because after being loved and coached and nurtured by five compassionate men who only want him to be himself, after he eventually comes out as gay to his stepmom, he just falls down, laying down on his bed, and sobs on camera.

Eventually, he stands back up, you can actually see how the weight of his armor has lifted off of him, and his weightlessness transforms his entire physical being.

We have to raise each other. We have to shoulder each other.

You are beautiful, and loveable, just as you are. You are here to show that to one another. In religious community, we can be more vulnerable, and more honest. We can have different relationships, deeper than the transactional world out there. We can raise each other.

Okay, so you came to hear how to raise a feminist son. You can find articles and resources all day long about how to raise strong girls, feminist girls, and girls who will speak their mind. Our college graduation rate, and our current white-collar workforce reflects those messages.

There is far less information about how to raise boys to be more feminine. In America today, masculinity still equals power and femininity still means weakness. I also want to point out the privilege inherent in asking people to consider raising boys to embrace both feminism and femininity.

How can parents teach their black sons to be proud in the face of police brutality, and white supremacy, while also teaching him to be more feminine? This is a real conundrum that parents of black and brown children wrestle with today.

So I am not saying this will be easy, nor that it is common sense.

In order to raise feminist sons, we must believe that feminine energy is worthy of aspiring to, and overturn our notions of what is feminine and what is masculine, because deep down we know gender is but a construct we have invented to organize ourselves.

We must remove the veil and notice when being feminine is powerful, we must see the strength in being vulnerable, and compassionate, and nurturing.

Here is my list:

  1. Teach them radical self-care.

I love on Queer Eye when Jonathan, one of the Fab Five, talks with men about taking a few minutes for themselves each day to groom, and to care for their own bodies as an act of love. Self-care is deeply connected to self-love. If boys hear that their bodies are beautiful and worthy of love and care, they will internalize that message and be more resilient. And remember, I’m talking about boys, and I’m also talking about each of us.

  1. Teach them to take care of others

At our house, we have two watchwords we use to guide us in our parenting: Resilience and Compassion. All other decisions and moments must be measured against those two ultimate goals. Take note: the goal is not happiness, for that is fleeting. If they are resilient and compassionate, we believe happiness will follow. At times like these, it is lucky to have twins, because from the minute they were born, they were looking at each other, and able to consider each other’s needs. They also have baby dolls, and friends who they care for and when they do, we encourage and acknowledge their compassion and generosity.

  1. Give them words for their feelings

For those of you who raised your children on Fred Rogers, a theologian who was profoundly interested in child development, I have some good news. Daniel Tiger is Mr. Roger’s legacy, a cartoon that is set in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, featuring many of Mr. Roger’s famous puppets as the cartoon characters. Each episode offers a song teaching emotional intelligence, and these little ditties stick to my children like glue.

“It’s Okay to Feel Sad Sometimes. Little, by little, you’ll feel better again!”

My children will literally quote these songs to me throughout our day. “Mama, I felt sad, but now I feel a little better again!” Noticing their emotions and naming them. I am never so proud as I am in those moments.

  1. Read books, and watch media with racially diverse girls and women as protagonists.

There is a whole world of books about girls who are loving themselves, their bravery, and their unique qualities. I believe the authors meant for them to be empowering to little girls. They are empowering for all of us to read.

  1. Let them explore their desires and give them access to more than our gender constrained consumer culture offers them

Again, this is often done with little girls. Parents get exasperated with all the princess play, but then make sure to help their girls learn to build with blocks and train sets too. Meanwhile, boys often get short shrift here, learning only one set of skills because our society is less comfortable with boys wearing princess dresses, or playing with baby dolls, or playing “nurse.” Raise your hand if when you were young, your favorite color was pink. Are you sure? Are you sure your favorite color wasn’t pink? Maybe it actually was. . .

  1. Teach them consent and to love their bodies

No age is too young to begin to teach boys to love their bodies and protect their bodies from intrusion. Likewise, once they can speak, they can ask permission before they give a hug or touch another friend.

  1. If it is a two parent-household, divide the parenting and housework as much as possible, even if only one parent works outside the home.

Last year I was the stay-at-home parent, and we had to make an effort for our sons to see us divide the housework and parenting evenly. What did this actually look like? Doing the dishes at midnight. Worth it!

  1. Offer a diversity of male role models

This is, in my opinion, the very best thing about church!

For those of you who are male identified: whether or not you know it, you are a role model for a boy who is younger than you. He is watching you, wondering how you respond. How do you stand, how do you greet people? How do you share the space around you? Do you spread your limbs and take over, or do you use what you need and create space for others? Someone younger is watching you. We are all raising each other and teaching each other to become someone new. This evolution is eternal, and the options are limitless.

  1. Never assign an activity to gender

Intellectually, you may know that painting fingernails is not only for girls and playing with a toolbox is not only for boys. We cannot teach our boys to live in fear of exploring and becoming who they really are. What are we afraid of?

  1. Demonstrate emotional vulnerability

Sometimes we adults are angry, and we cry, and we are afraid, and we try to be honest about those moments, while assuring our young boys that we will feel better soon. They see our emotional honesty alongside our resilience, and they learn how to do it themselves.

  1. Surround them with art and music by women

Our kids love the music of Billie Holliday, and Lucinda Williams, Elizabeth Mitchell, Ella Jenkins, and yes, of course, Idina Menzel and Kristin Bell from the Frozen soundtrack. It is 2018, and we are but human. We could not withstand the force that is Frozen. And anyway, if you are not a parent of young children, you may not know the message of Frozen is a feminist message of emotional vulnerability and sisterhood.

  1. Teach them to struggle. They can do hard things.

I do not know what the future holds. Rising global temperatures, water crises, widespread internment or another civil war? I hope not. But our privileged sons will learn to struggle. It’s the smallest of moments. My partner doesn’t want them to get used to air conditioning in the car. I want them to complete their task, though it’s hard and to hear their inner monologue telling them, “I can do hard things.”

Multiply the small moments, the minute successes and pride in doing the hard thing, and hopefully we will co-create resilient leaders who can guide others to safety, to justice, and to better lives.

Like any parent, I don’t know if I’m getting it right. But this is the job I have been given, and I will try my best to, as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye suggests, shoulder this work of parenting boys.

The poet tells us the road will only be wide, the rain will never stop falling, and this has never felt more true than it feels right now.

We are not going to be able to live in this world if we are not willing to do what that father is doing as he carries his son, carefully across the wide street in the rain. We are here to raise each other.

To nurture each other, and to hold tight to each other’s dreams, as though they are marked Fragile, handle with care.