“Parents, raise your sons right!” is a frequent plea seen on social media when men disrespect or mistreat women. Men’s attitudes towards women start in the home, and the messages you transmit and behaviours that you teach will stay with your sons for the rest of their lives. In a world where men have to embrace gender equality, these at-home messages are becoming vitally important to their future success in the workplace and comfort at home.
We spoke to Jonathan Bosworth, a counselling psychologist with a special interest in gender issues, to find out what parents need to do to make sure that their sons grow up regarding and treating women as their equals.
1. Model gender-appropriate behaviour for your children
Jonathan says that the way that parents behave towards each other at home will strongly influence how their sons regard and treat women.
“For parents, the most important thing is to be aware of the gender roles they play. Model appropriate behaviour for children and show them in the way that you and your co-parent treat each other,” says Jonathan.
Very few households today are gender-equal, so what does this mean in practical terms? Jonathan says that parents should start with a conversation between themselves, stating a commitment to raising sons to respect gender equality and treat women right. They can also acknowledge to their children that they are not perfect and discuss how everyone can improve as a family.
2. Allocate chores equally among girl and boy children
When children help around the house, don’t allocate chores on the basis of gender. Boys and girls should help equally with doing the dishes, washing the car, watering the garden, hanging up the laundry, or whatever else needs doing. This will stop boys from seeing certain tasks as beneath them, or from seeing women as incapable.
As children all start out with more-or-less equal strength and heights, there’s no gendered reason for a child being allocated one task or another. However, as they age, it’s fine to allow them to negotiate with one another and you to take on tasks that they are more comfortable with. “Have conversations about strengths or preferences rather than about gender,” says Jonathan.
3. Watch their language – and yours
“Man up, you sissy!” or “He throws like a girl,” are comments that are derogatory towards other genders. It may seem that words are not harmful, but in fact they reinforce stereotypes, which are the basis of gender discrimination. Ban these types of comments in the home, and if you find that they are coming up regularly, have a discussion with your son about what is meant by them, and why they are problematic.
4. Keep the conversation going – and acknowledge that it’s complicated
Gender equality is not a lesson that you teach your child once
Gender equality is not a lesson that you teach your child once in life but is part of your everyday conversations and interactions. Respond to gendered roles in toys, media and books, asking your children why they think the story’s been told like that, and how it could have been told differently.
Jonathan points out that both children and their parents will get it wrong some of the time. “You can’t be the perfect parent, but you can learn from your mistakes through a trial and error process,” he says.
For this reason, it’s useful to frame “treating girls and women equally to boys and men” as a goal or a journey, and for you and your children to discuss successes and failures along the way.
5. Don’t sexualise early friendships
If your son has a friend who is a girl, don’t immediately talk about a “girlfriend” or act as if the friendship is in some way unusual. Encourage diverse friendships as a healthy acknowledgement that we are all just people, and that there are lots of things to like about a person that have nothing to do with gender or sexual attraction.
6. Help your boys to see beyond good looks
It’s natural for young boys - and people of any age - to comment on the attractiveness of girls and women. Don’t reprimand these kinds of comments (unless they are offensive or dehumanising), but rather try to steer the conversation to focus on other qualities like being kind, funny, clever or fun. Be more interested in who their friends are than what they look like.
7. Look out for messages in the media and advertising
Despite advances in society, most media and advertisers reinforce gender stereotypes. You can’t prevent your son from being exposed to this kind of messaging, so rather teach him to think about what he is being shown. Encourage him to ask questions and analyse, even as early on as when you are reading him his first books.
8. Teach him to take care of himself and others
Get your son to iron his clothes, polish his shoes, make himself a sandwich and do all the things for himself that mothers might traditionally have done for their sons. And then make him responsible for helping others, showing him that both competence and kindness are not only women’s work.
9. It’s never too early to teach him about consent
From a very early age, show your son that you respect his right to say what happens with his body, and teach him that he has to do the same for others. If he asks you to stop tickling him, for example, stop. But then make sure that you teach him to extend the same courtesy to other people, especially women. While you don’t have to explain the ultimate sexual definition of consent, you can start spelling it out by saying things like, “If she doesn’t want you to touch her like that, you stop immediately.”
10. Show him strong women, and gentle men
Make a point of expressing admiration for or interest in strong women in academia, business and sport to your children, so that they don’t pick up on the ongoing messaging that men are better than women in those arenas. Also, allow boys freedom in their identities and behaviours without promoting a stereotype of an “ideal man”. Allowing more freedom for all of us breaks down power dynamics and the need for rigid gender roles.
The bottom line
Every generation has the opportunity to improve on the attitudes and behaviours of the one that came before. You can help your sons to embrace gender equality by taking the right steps and modelling the right attitudes in your own home. It will make their lives easier and their relationships more rewarding – and it’s the right thing to do.