Don’t be a delusional parent; teach your sons about gender equality right from the start!
By Tanu Shree Singh
“Girls can’t fight,” they said. So, I defeated both of them in a Nerf gun face-off. And I confiscated their guns.
“You were saying?” I asked in a distinctly superior tone as they pleaded for their guns.
“Girls can not only fight, but can also kick our sorry backsides at it,” mumbled Vivaan.
“Huh? Did you say something?”
A sound apology later, we settled for goodnight hugs. Yes, an apology—for making a generic gender statement. Yes, it was a game, and yes, it was said in jest, but that is exactly how it all starts. “Girls whine”, “girls can’t fight”, “girls do not play cricket”, “girls love to cook”. These are not random harmless statements. They lay the foundation for the dark wall that defines gender boundaries.
Minimising sexism is one of the most daunting tasks that we, as parents, face today. Sexism is now a deeply ingrained part of society—from seemingly harmless stereotyping to abominable acts of sexual violence. We shield our children from news pertaining to rape and other sexual attacks. But as parents, the onus is on us to raise a generation of braver and more respectful men than before, and of stronger, more independent women.
In December 2012, there was a heinous case of a young woman being raped in the middle of Delhi, who subsequently died. I was hiding newspapers, hurrying to switch channels, and having hushed conversations—all in a bid to protect the boys from news of gruesome acts of violation. But one cannot protect beyond a point. Eight-year-old Vivaan asked me: “What is rape?” I explained as simply as I could, and tried to answer every query they had.
But am I doing enough? Are we—as mothers of sons—doing enough? When people casually tell me, “What do you have to worry, you have sons!” I flinch. As the mother of sons, I feel I have a special responsibility to bring up boys who are respectful of women and treat them as true equals.
The delusions of mothers of sons: My boy can never do such a thing
Any boy, irrespective of financial or educational background, can be tempted to misbehave with girls, belittle them or harass them. So, the sooner you lose that illusion about innocence, the better. The only way to be sure is to educate and sensitise your son much as you can.
Dolls for girls, trucks for boys
If your son plays with dolls, he won’t grow up to be a sissy, any more than a girl who plays with Nerf guns will grow a moustache. There is no connection between acceptable masculine behaviour and choice of toys. There is, however, a definite connection between varied, healthy choices and a wholesome personality growth. Vivaan loves to cuddle up with his stuffed raccoon, and sissy wouldn’t be the word anyone would use for him!
My son is like a TV hero
In many TV shows and movies (there are, of course, exceptions), the girl forever needs rescuing, boys tease girls but are loved by them, and women are shown as bejewelled, manipulative cooks. Keep a check on the media your child is consuming and have gender-related reality checks every once in a while.
Boys will be boys!
Stop saying “you know how boys are!” or justifying rude or irresponsible behaviour. A dash of testosterone should not translate into aggression and result in violence. Aggression of any form is not acceptable, period.
He doesn’t behave like that
If you are shouting at the maid, you are teaching your son that it is okay to be rude to less privileged women. It is fine to argue with girls in his school, but he cannot talk to them any differently from boys he has disagreements with. And he cannot use sexist language. Irrespective of gender, fights are simply not permitted.
Don’t cry like a girl!
The mechanism for crying is fairly similar, regardless of gender! Saying that a boy is crying like a girl tops the list of silliest but also most destructive things ever said. You are telling your son that men do not cry, so whatever is bothering him needs to be ignored, not resolved. And you are telling him that crying is an inferior thing to do, that girls cry and are, therefore, inferior.
If your son is crying over a dead sparrow, an emaciated person living on the street, or the pet he lost last week—don’t shuffle uncomfortably. Give him a hug, and appreciate his sensitivity.
Encouraging boys to talk about feelings and discussing dilemmas will make them stronger men, not weaker. And they will generally be more sorted, and not see themselves as stronger than, or very different from, women.
My son doesn’t need to know about sexism
If you do not teach your son about sexism, how will he learn what is unacceptable behaviour? It takes a lot of conversations and reinforcements to overcome the casual sexism of schools, and the world around. Be honest, and they will listen.
Aww, he is still a baby!
Even when your son is fifty, he will still be your baby. But that does not mean that he will still be a baby to the rest of the world. It is up to you to be aware of the fact that he is growing up and teach him about personal space and grown-up behaviour, and help him to adapt to the changed expectations from him as he grows up.
My son will never date
He will, so you should help him understand boundaries that he needs to respect in a relationship. Teenage romance lays the foundation for how your son treats his partners—whether girlfriends or boyfriends—in future relationships. You need to be the mother he can discuss his relationships with, but also the mother who serves as a constant reminder that he needs to treat his partners with respect.
Male role models are important, so encourage your partner to put away the laptop, newspaper or phone. It is important for your son to see that his father respects women and takes an equal part in domestic and parenting responsibilities. If your partner makes statements that reinforce gender biases, now is the time to make him stop.
As the mother of two boys, I feel I have an additional responsibility. I try to undo all that they learn when they step out. I try to get them to see that gender equality doesn’t imply crossing boundaries. I try to get them to try varied books, and activities that are callously labelled girly. I try to teach them to question, seek answers, and constantly evolve.
Yes, I am a mother of two boys, and no, my fears are no less than yours.
(Extracted with permission from Keep Calm and Mommy On by Tanu Shree Singh, published by Duckbill Books.)