As the father of a boy, I often think about how I can raise my son to be a good man. What can I do to ensure that he won’t become a sexist pig, but instead believe in—and stand up for—gender equity? He’s only three years old, mind you, but ever since his sex was confirmed on the ultrasound, that question has been buzzing in the back of my mind. Child-development experts always talk about the importance of zero to three, but when it comes to addressing and circumventing misogyny, is there anything you can do before a kid can even talk about it?
In October 2017, as victims of Harvey Weinstein’s history of abuse and violence continue to come forward, these questions had taken on a new urgency. The day after that story first broke, my wife and I were in the kitchen discussing it, and she described several experiences of sexual objectification from her own life. She’d told me these stories before, but the revelation of such a massive culture of silence in Hollywood brought renewed anger to them. That’s when our son, who’d been consumed with his train set, came over.
“Mommy, what are you talking about?” he asked.
She’d been speaking in vague terms for his benefit, but he knew something important was being discussed. And we didn’t know how to answer him.
“Just about someone who was being mean,” I offered, hoping that would be enough. But, of course, it wasn’t.
“Why?” he asked.
Somehow, I distracted him—Weinstein’s predatory behavior—and all those who stood by and did nothing—isn’t exactly a teachable moment for a three-year-old. But my son’s question stuck with me. And while I couldn’t actually speak to him about what happened, I still want to start shaping a man who will challenge that culture of silence.
I believed very early on, when my son was just beginning to point and utter a questioning syllable—“dat?”—that the words my wife and I used to identify groups of people could have an impact on how he’d end up thinking about them. Once, we were looking out of our living room window and he gestured at someone walking a poodle on the sidewalk. “That person in a red jacket has a dog,” I said. The person happened to be a woman, but I didn’t want gender to always be his first and most primary way of understanding people.
Maybe if he didn’t always begin by separating everyone into these two categories, he’d also break free from some of the assumptions we make about gender and investigate that person as the complex individual they are. This small form of child-rearing activism is far removed ending sexual harassment, I know, but I figured it was a place to start. To some degree, it’s worked: The majority of the time, he refers to an individual as a “person.”
But this week, when I asked other dads on a Facebook group about whether they thought this might help our boys, everyone wanted to focus on something else. Almost exclusively, the response was that the only thing you need to do is treat the boy’s mother well. A dad friend of mine later echoed this sentiment: “I set a model by treating his mother, and all the other women in his life, as utterly equal to the men.”
It’s a perfectly fine response (and, really, should just be a given) but it struck me as ultimately insufficient. I can’t prove it, but I’m near certain that many of the men who facilitated or witnessed Weinstein’s abusive behavior—and perhaps even Weinstein himself—had dads who treated their moms well at home. Clearly, it’s not enough.
According to Christia Spears Brown, a gender researcher at the University of Kentucky and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, I was indeed onto something with the “person” in the bright red jacket walking a dog.
“Kids come into the world knowing nothing,” says Brown. “They look at cues in their environment, and if gender seems to be the most important thing about people—because it’s constantly being labelled—that tells them they better pay attention to how we’re different.” Following that, she explains, a boy will make his best attempt to be a “good” version of his gender, even if being good in this context sometimes means viewing girls as weak, not suited to fighting fires and, eventually, as acceptable targets of sexual objectification and harassment. In other words, making gender primary only serves to reinforce stereotypes, many of which have negative consequences.
In one study from the University of Pennsylvania that Brown cited, preschool teachers were asked to spend two weeks making gender either less salient (saying “kids” instead of “girls and boys,” for instance) or more salient. Researchers found that, afterwards, the latter group of kids who were constantly reminded of their gender used more stereotypes to describe boys and girls and were less interested in playing with the other group.
In her own home, Brown says she’ll often replace gender pronouns in books to create more equity—something my wife has spearheaded as well. Just yesterday, in fact, she reminded me to make some of the “tough” and hard-working trucks in Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, female. “It’s so stupid in this day and age that they should all be male,” she says.
Why we need to stop teaching girls to be nice Brown suggests going so far as to talk to your three-year-old about the lack of gender balance in books. Parents often resist doing this, she says, because they don’t want to be a downer and emphasize to their kids that the world is unfair. “But what parents don’t realize,” she explains, “is that kids notice the differences and then just assume that’s the way it will always be.”
Along with helping your kid recognize stereotypes, Brown says beginning the dialogue around gender representation early bears a different kind of fruit later on: “It’s hard to talk about sexual harassment and assault when your child is 12 or 13—which is when they need those messages—but it’s easier if you’ve always had conversations about the ways in which stereotypes aren’t true, and harm kids.” That girls are valued for being sexual objects is one of those, she says, and it’s easier to broach the subject if you’ve already deconstructed Disney when they’re three or four.
Brown pointed me to the work of Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who has developed an intervention exercise to provide preschoolers with tools to challenge the strictest gender police they ever face: their peers. The curriculum involves teaching kids six simple retorts to common sexist statements. For example, if a classmate tells a boy he can’t be a ballet dancer because only girls can do that, he’s coached to say, “Not true! Gender doesn’t limit you!” When Bigler tested the exercise in a classroom, she found that, even six months later, the kids held fewer stereotypical views and were more likely to say they’d be willing to stand up to their peers’ sexism.
One friend of mine, a father of a four-year-old boy, said that his son had already self-initiated this type of pushback. His kid had recently picked out a backpack marketed to girls and had been told by the other boys that he wasn’t supposed to use it because it’s pink. Unfazed, his son told them that made no sense. “I was really proud of him and made sure that he knew that,” my friend recalls. “I said, ‘What are they thinking? That’s crazy!’”
Of course, it’s not always easy to watch your own child on the frontlines of a culture that resists nonconformity. In the next breath, my friend said it made him nervous that his son, when given the option, always picks the pink and sparkly item. “I worry about him being teased,” he admits. “And I think subconsciously, that’s why I sometimes nudge him toward the superhero stuff, which he also likes.”
But no matter how much we succeed or fail at talking to our kids progressively about gender, when it comes to busting stereotypes of the “other,” there may be nothing better than more exposure to that other. Richard Fabes, who studies gender and child development at the Arizona State University, says that friendships with peers of the other gender lay the groundwork for mutual respect later on. The problem is that, if left to their own devices, kids have very few of them.
“When children come together in groups and play, there’s a preference for same-sex peers,” says Fabes, who explains that this is likely a result of the difference between the way the girls and boys tend to play. Gravitating toward friends who are similar to themselves increases over time, changing only in adolescence, when most kids become curious about the other half. By then, says Fabes, it’s too late. “They’re interested romantically without having been peers and friends first,” he says. “The objectification can come as a result of that dynamic.”
Parents of preschoolers, says Fabes, must actively encourage and facilitate cross-gender interactions. Although it may be a challenge for the child at first, depending on how gender-typical they are in their style of play, those experiences will create social resilience. “The more time that boys and girls spend interacting, the more comfortable they become with each other and the less likely they’ll act in ways that use gender as a basis for discriminating bias, teasing and other problem behaviour,” says Fabes.
Once you really start to consider all we could be doing to raise kids who will speak out against the culture of silence around gender-based violence, it’s a bit overwhelming. Sometimes I’m too tired at the end of the day to even do the little effort required to replace pronouns in books.
But even if we set the bar low to begin with, no doubt some parents who read all this are going to respond with “Can’t we just let kids be kids? Do we really need to be meddling with what a three-year-old reads, who they choose to play with, or their ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl? Does the word stereotype even belong in their vocabulary at that age?”
But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that the impossibility of talking to three-year-old boys explicitly about Weinstein, and the things that have happened to their moms, ultimately forces us to look toward deeper, more structural solutions than simply treating our partners well and having a five-minute conversation about being nice.
We teach our kids how to say “please” and “thank you.” We teach them how to cross the road without getting hit by cars. There are so many ways that, rather than leaving them to their own devices, we provide guidance. I think the real resistance to moulding men who will stand up against the Weinsteins of the world is that it also means doing the hard work of retraining ourselves.
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