Raising A Boy

A feminist one, to be precise

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW


I guess I always assumed that if I had kids, I’d have girls.

For a little while now, I’ve been taking mental notes for them like, “Maybe don’t date guys who teasingly call you a ‘slut.'” Little gems that I’d gleaned through experience, to pass on so they’d avoid so many of the pitfalls I’d encountered. And who knows, maybe eventually I will have a daughter and she’ll suffer through my passionate, anecdote-fueled diatribes.

But, right here and now, I have a son. While that difference alone makes some of my stored up words of wisdom useless (I’ll save that tip about bra shopping), some of it just takes a different, before-unconsidered twist. I still have to worry about instilling correct perceptions of beauty and sex and women, but from an altogether different perspective than originally planned.

It’s not just about my own journey, littered as it is with sexist experiences. When reading about things like Steubenville and Maryville (and all of the other villes that undoubtedly occur unpublicized), I find myself shouting along with everyone else, “Stop telling our girls how to avoid rape and start telling our boys how to avoid raping!” And then I realize, oh right, me. I have to do that.

Being in that position now, I realize just how simultaneously simple and complex it is to raise a man with respect for women. I mean, he needs to value people as individuals with differences. To respect other human beings, full stop. That part is simple and straightforward, whether we’re talking about gender or race or religion or orientation. Don’t Be a Dick is the shorthand title of my parenting philosophy book, if I ever write it.

But I’m not naive enough to hope to parent within a vacuum. No matter how clearly articulated my Don’t Be a Dick philosophy, I recognize it’s coming up against a whole host of socially accepted messages about sex as end goal, masculinity defined by violence, and woman being no more than the sum of her parts. My presentation has to be a bit more nuanced and focused if it’s going to come out ahead of all that noise.

Basically, I want him to know that stereotypes and assumptions dehumanize people, and that remembering that everyone else is human, and as a result valuable, is primary. A piece of that means, I want my son to know that there are all sorts of beautiful women, and not all of them look anything remotely like the cover of a magazine. But also that their beauty isn’t the only thing that matters, and women are valuable for far more than how they look. That sex is important, but not for any of the reasons people show in movies or TV. In fact, movies and TV get it wrong a lot. That people of all kinds are smart and capable, and differences, instead of making others less-than, evidence that others have things to offer that he does not. And that’s not just okay, but wonderful and sort of powerful. I want him to know that strength is manifested in different ways. That he’s not defined by his physical urges. That he’s no pig or wild beast that needs to be tamed. I want to teach him that blaming his actions on his body or on someone else is debasing, insulting to his own intellect and character. That sex isn’t some mysterious, murky thing that you figure out through subtle cues and hints, but instead is something to be handled with honesty and discussion and forthright requests.

So, alright, those are just lovely ideas when all written out. Maybe I’ll crochet a pillow. But how does one practically, in real life say to a three year old, “Hey, buddy, all humans are worthy of respect no matter their genitalia. Now finish up your applesauce, it’s time for a nap”? It doesn’t naturally arise in conversation. The other day, my husband compared it all to teaching the alphabet (at which my son excels, in case you were wondering, and I know you were). Right now, we start with just some building blocks. The A-B-C’s. The “be kind to everyone, no matter who they are” part. Eventually he’ll progress to spelling, and then building sentences, and then using those sentences to write meaningful thoughts all his own. How to apply and use the alphabet is the important part, but for now, just the A-B-C’s are enough. For now, just the, “everyone is valuable” is hopefully enough.

Meanwhile, I still try to do what I can. I make sure to point out beautiful women when I’m out (actually just something I do anyway, but now it seems sort of purposed, I guess). I reframe my comments about myself. No longer, “I’m so fat,” but instead, “I feel so fat.” I’m particularly lucky to have a husband who is, himself, Not a Dick and says things like, “Doesn’t mom look pretty today?” when I’m in sweats and un-mascara-ed. We both encourage our son to ask before hugging or touching someone and make it clear that he, too, cannot be forced to hug and touch, even with those well-meaning grandparents.

It seems such a big task. But if I can just break it into chunks—just focus on the A-B-C’s for right now, maybe I can handle it. Maybe it won’t be so hard to raise someone who treats people with respect and dignity, especially if I can hope that there are other parents out there trying to do the same.

Photo: Vivian Chen

Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

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  • One More Sara

    Just typed out an awesome comment about my similar struggles parenting a boy, and then the internet ate it. Oh well… I just wanted to say that I was nodding my head the whole time. Loved everything.

  • Sarah McD

    “Right now, we start with just some building blocks. The A-B-C’s. The “be kind to everyone, no matter who they are” part. Eventually he’ll progress to spelling, and then building sentences, and then using those sentences to write meaningful thoughts all his own. How to apply and use the alphabet is the important part, but for now, just the A-B-C’s are enough. For now, just the, “everyone is valuable” is hopefully enough.”

    THIS. I’m going to file this away for the future. What a brilliant, succinct philosophy!

    • I loved that part too! I some times look at this little person I’m supposed to raise and get overwhelmed with the grandness of life ahead of her and how in the world am I supposed to do that. And then I take a step back and realize that I don’t have to do it all today. Today I just have to keep her clean, dry, fed, and happy. One day, one thing at a time.

  • js

    Don’t be a dick…if only! I know some grown-ups that can benefit from your parenting philosophy as well.

    • Moe

      “Don’t Be a Dick” embroidered on a pillow, finally my kind of crafting.

      • KTMARIE

        I feel a new APW mug (and embroidered pillow) coming…

        • js

          Sorry. I tried to exactly this and reported instead!

  • Steph

    My husband and I are DINK by choice, but my hat is off to you and I pray there are more moms and dads of little boys (and girls) out there just like you and your husband! *hugs*

  • Class of 1980

    Never underestimate the power of just boldfaced telling your son how to treat women (when he’s old enough).

    My business partner has said both of his parents made it a point to lay down the law that women were to be treated with respect. Each of them gave quite a speech on the subject.

    They not only told him how to treat women; they also told him how NOT to treat women. His extremely mild-mannered mother even stopped what she was doing one day and sternly told him that she had better NEVER hear of him treating any female with disrespect. I believe “taking advantage” of girls was also part of the speeches and he was told that he would be taking complete responsiblity if he got any girl in trouble.

    That was around 1969/1970 when he was a teen just beginning to think of dating. He still remembers every single word, partly because they were so passionate about it. It had nothing to do with feminism though. It had to do with being a gentleman as defined by the standards of the era.

    The humorous part is that by the time he was in his twenties, the whole scene had changed. In his early twenties (late 1970s/early 1980s), he worked as a bartender and girls threw themselves at him. Thanks to the sexual revolution made possible by the pill, young women had changed. They were propositioning him for one-night stands by passing notes to him at the bar or just flat out asking. In some cases they just pushed him against a wall and started kissing him.

    They were treating him as an object and he didn’t say “no”.

    His parent’s advice went out the window because it didn’t seem to match reality. Now, he looks back at those days and has a lot of regrets because the culture encouraged treating people as a means to an end. By the time he was in his forties, he made a vow that any woman entering his life would never be treated as an object. It hadn’t bothered him when it was happening, but it bothered him later when he had time to think.

    • MC

      I was just saying the other day that if I ever have a son, I want to sit him down when he’s 11 or 12 and say something like, “Soon your friends will be watching porn and if you ever watch it you need to keep in mind that it’s not what real sex looks like etc. etc.” Maybe he would be so embarrassed that he would just never go near the stuff.

      • Liz

        I often wonder if forthrightness about sex will mean my kids are super embarrassed by me, omg mom stop talking. OR, if it’ll mean they’ll grow up with a different view of sex (i.e., that it’s personal, sure, but not embarrassing).

        One can only hope, right?

        • Shiri

          I was talking to a friend the other day about the way my parents approached sex (really comfortable with talking about it, alternately super blind and too open about their children’s sex lives) and how now, I’m really open about it with everyone (in appropriate situations) except my parents, and he said that sounds like the healthiest attitude possible.

          • js

            My Mom gave me a book, and by the time she did, I had the strong feeling I knew more about sex than she did. My parents never talked about it, so I am trying to walk the fine line between being open about sex and treating sex as a casual thing.

        • MC

          As someone whose mom was thoroughly embarrassing during my adolescence (like, giving a condom to my first boyfriend as part of a Christmas present), I think it’s a bit of both. Now that I am not an awkward teenager, I love that my mom didn’t avoid the hard topics for fear of embarrassing me.

        • Well, my parents never talk about sex but when my mom announces “I”M GOING TO BED NOW” at 8 pm, my dad follows her to their bedroom, and they come back thirty minutes later, having decided they aren’t actually sleepy – well, a kid can make inferences.

          No matter how “open” you are your kid will know you have it – but I totally would have preferred honest discussion. I think I would have gotten over the squick factor much sooner.

        • Anon

          My mom was really open about sex – to the point, sometimes of embarrassment to me, until I started asking anything explicit about how same-sex partners have sex. Then, a wall slammed up, and it became clear that only some sex is okay to talk about. To anyone out there seeking to be the parents that it really is okay for your kids to ask you ALL of their questions about sex, I would recommend either doing a little research to be able to answer questions about same-sex sex (or straight sex, if you’re queer parents)- or at least be able to point your kid to resources without flipping out.

        • I think it’s like the approach to alcohol. If you don’t talk about it, it’s the forbidden fruit and they want it. But you don’t want to encourage it either.

          I always felt like it shouldn’t be strange to ask, but you shouldn’t bring it up in public either. Shame is really REAL for pre-teens/teens. But so is curiosity.

      • AshleyMeredith

        I applaud the effort, but unfortunately you may need to have that conversation at 8 or 9. According to this article, estimates are that kids are being exposed to porn by age 10.


      • Just to throw this out there, we recently got the book “It’s Perfectly Normal” for our kids (8 and 10) which is very upfront about bodies and sex and it’s been really helpful — it helps make the conversations that do come up (and my goodness, strange ideas get passed around on the playground!) are much more straightforward. It is gay-friendly, as well.

  • I’d like to suggest that right alongside with how to treat women, we all need to be raising our sons in the knowledge that one day they might look at us and say, “Um, Mom, I think I’m gay.” The early discussions around gender roles and behaviors is the right place to open up acceptance around orientation.

    • Leslie

      Yes, absolutely. I would like to point out, though, that gay men also need to treat women with respect in their daily lives, even if a sexual relationship isn’t part of the picture. (I assumed that your comment was partly to point out that this article appears to focus on heterosexual pairings; I think it has ideas that go beyond that.)

      • Liz

        I guess my perspective in writing this was that we don’t yet tackle gender stuff in any direction. That for now, a broad blanket of, “Everyone is Valuable,” covers all of it until we get to the specifics.

        • Lindsay

          There’s also real value in being specific about who you mean by “everybody” and being specific early in a kid’s life. I used to work in a preschool and kids would know they need to be nice to everybody, but sometimes they didn’t realize that everybody included That Specific Kid. And specifically saying, “we are nice to girls.” and “we are nice to people with different skin than we have.”

          Kids pick up the differences really early, and sometimes they express that awareness in ways that sound racist or sexist to adults. And it’s not that the kid is a big racist, but that they’re trying to understand something and don’t have the tools and language to communicate all of their thoughts.

          Also, it is SO important to incorporate media, books, toys, dolls, etc that look different than your kid or the kids your kid sees regularly. And as main characters in books and media, not the sidekick role (I’m talking about you, Jake and the Neverland Pirates – I have a nephew, I’m with it). So next time you buy a present for your kids, get one with a main character that isn’t the same gender or race as your kid.

          FYI, my nephew loves this book: http://www.amazon.com/Princess-Dinosaur-Jill-Kastner/dp/0688170455

      • Yes, absolutely:). What I meant to say is that it’s important to watch out for couching the talk about treating women well in terms of “When you grow up and have a girlfriend/wife…” For the boys who will grow up and have a husband, I believe it’s really important that if your values permit, you start in the earliest days allowing for the idea that your son may want to marry a man.

        This isn’t to contradict the point made in the post, only to bring my personal experience to the whole question of raising children in a society with fairly strict gender expectations all around.

        • meg


        • Ana

          I am infinitely grateful that my mom phrased it as “If you choose to get married” and “If you choose to have children”. She still gave her advice or observation, but she made it clear, each time, that her choices weren’t necessarily going to be my choices.

    • js

      I think it’s great that Liz and her family are teaching all people are valuable. I think, as a Mom myself, that these kinds of conversations should happen all the time. Hard conversations about sex, sexual orientation, relationships, body image, etc, aren’t so difficult if they’re constant. Maybe we don’t talk to a 3 year-old about rape, but it’s not too early to talk about his body and who is or isn’t allowed to touch it. In the car, on the way to a play date, we can talk about how lucky his friend is to have two Dad’s that love him. The differences that make all of us unique are out there and children are curious. And, chances are, they may already know someone who is gay. I agree that right alongside sex, my child and I have been talking about what it means to be gay, lesbian, etc. The teaching moments are freaking everywhere, ready or not!

  • I am not a parent yet (nor am I trying to be for a while), but this sentence made me fist pump: “Don’t Be a Dick is the shorthand title of my parenting philosophy book, if I ever write it.”

    I think any person would benefit from this parenting philosophy. I think that you are doing wonderfully with your philosophy, teaching that everyone is valuable and worthy of respect. One day you’ll get to the hard stuff (and don’t we all remember those awkward conversations with our parents?). You sound like an awesome parenting team who is raising a great little boy.

  • As an obviously disabled person (i use a wheelchair) i get three year olds constantly asking “Mommy, what’s wrong with her?”

    The typical response – mom embarrassed, pulling the kid away and mumbling an explanation, is not ideal. It definitely objectifies unusual bodies.

    I’d much rather mom or dad come up and starconversation with me, to demonstrate that i am also a normal person.

    • Liz

      Personally, I would love to read more about this topic if you ever feel inclined to write about it.

      • One More Poster

        As someone with an obvious physical disability, I will go over to those 3 year olds (or adults) and ask, “You noticed I walk funny. What questions do you have?” Their reactions run the gamut, and sometimes I get to have amazing conversations. My parents taught me to deal with stares and finger pointing head on. That’s it part of being me, but not all of me. To not be afraid but also never apologize. When I went to a new elementary school, I sat in front of the class, and all the other kids got to ask me whatever they wanted.
        I’ve never stopped.

        • Shiri

          Wow. That is so open and unapologetic and brave.

    • Leslie

      That’s really interesting! I’ve “learned” in my life that people who stand out in a room–say from physical characteristics, skin color, gender, whatever–generally don’t appreciate being called on as a spokesperson for the group they are perceived to represent. I would also feel very uncomfortable about approaching a person who is minding their own business and asking them to help teach my hypothetical kid a lesson. Could you say more about how you wish these interactions would happen? Do you know many other people who feel similarly?

      • Leslie, you are absolutely right. A lot of people dislike random people coming up to them just because they are different. For instance, the greeter at my grocery is constantly telling me that I am an inspiration.


        But in the case of little kids, they’ve already asked. It is is out there. I could see not wanting to be a spokesperson, but it chafes me when I know that this kid’s first lesson on disability, and the door is wide open for all kinds of crazy stereotypes.

        Its kinda like in Chamber of Secrets when Harry is subject to gossip about being the heir of Slytherin. He hears it everywhere. Fred and George totally go out of there way to confront harry with the gossip (and make fun of it). Then harry finds the twins a bit exasperating, but refreshing. And yes, in this metaphor I am Harry Potter.

        For me, the biggest symptom of being the standout in the room is no one feels comfortable coming up and talking to you. If all you can think to say is “So I notice you have some wheels there!” I will try not to roll my eyes. But I will talk to you, and be grateful you approached me. But I’m also cool chatting about the weather :)

        • Shiri

          Not to make light, but you win for the Harry Potter analogy, and for making yourself Harry.

        • Rosie

          Thank you for raising this: my thought has always been that I would explain to my child that it’s nothing to be afraid of, that person is just like you and me, etc. etc. and maybe ask to speak to the person if my child was still unsure. How do you feel about that approach?

          • Absolutely perfect! I’m not trying to say that any parent is handling it wrong, per se, but I just want the focus to be on humanizing disability. Since many parents have little experience interacting with disability themselves, it can be somewhat of a problem.

            Just by thinking about how you will handle this, you are winning. In my opinion.

          • Heather

            This whole thread was so enlightening and heartwarming, I can’t even tell you.

            Thank you for bringing this up, M Richards, and thank you to all who asked for guidance- you read my mind. I love this community.

          • one more sara

            My thought on thus topic as a parent is maybe try volunteering somewhere where disabled people are likely to be. My mother in law volunteers for a week every summer to lead? Assist? physically disabled adults take a (fairly local) vacation. We took our son there for an afternoon by chance, but it was such a gear teaching moment and all the people were happy to answer his questions. These situations might not be easy to come by, but its probably better than ambushing someone in the supermarket

          • one more sara

            Holy spelling errors Batman! Commenting on my phone.. So apologies for this slightly incoherent comment…

        • One More Poster

          M Richards, I also refuse to be quoted or written about when it’s all they want to talk about–rather than my accomplishments or degrees. I am not a poster child or a spokesperson for your organization; I’m me.

  • (another) Deva

    “We both encourage our son to ask before hugging or touching someone and make it clear that he, too, cannot be forced to hug and touch, even with those well-meaning grandparents.”

    I teach 2nd grade and love love love this. I have my kids do the same, both because it’s a way of letting “no” be an ok answer, and it helps kids learn to articulate if/when they do need a hug. Rock on!

    • Itsy Bitsy

      Hitting the “exactly” button wasn’t enough. I’m so glad that you and Liz both do this!! As someone who has also worked with children I think this is so, so important.

    • Sarah NCtoPA

      This is an important message for children. I think some adults feel that they can intrude on a tiny person’s space because they’re cute and don’t all kids like physical attention? They don’t–just like some adults are not touchy-feely types. It shows that respect must be given, and is also deserved.

      Other stuff here is great too–I actually am more excited about having sons than daughters because I feel that I can teach them more in this regard.

      • Ana

        Honestly? I’m anticipating this belief being a big conflict with my mother-in-law when we have children. We are remarkably aligned in most other parenting areas, but she does love to hug/kiss/tickle the little ones, to the point where I’ve seen shyer baby cousins run away/scream when she comes near them, then she’ll “sneak attack” snuggle them.

        • lady brett

          this is so, so important to me (and doubly so with foster kids, where adults who know us super-well are still complete strangers). because you can talk about respect all you like, but kids learn what they see, and if you don’t respect *them* that comes across loud and clear.

          it sounds like you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law, so i would say that your best bet is to just explain in detail why that is so important to you – and emphasize that you are *not* asking her not to touch your kid, but that you are asking her to please do it on the kid’s terms and be respectful. and acknowledge that it’s going to be hard sometimes (for her and you – ’cause you’re doing it too)!

          of course, you’ll kind of have time to ease in because this doesn’t matter much with an infant (i mean, if a little baby doesn’t want to be held, it makes that *very clear* and hard to ignore. babies demand respect. older kids tend to be more polite.) and when your kid is older, you might have to explain that respect goes both ways (“grandma always listens when you ask not to be hugged, but i want you to remember that sometimes it hurts grandma’s feelings not to get a hug”).

      • Jacky

        Yes! I never understood why it’s considered unacceptable to violate an adult’s personal space, but not a kid’s. I was a kid who did NOT like lots of physical attention. My parents taught me what to do if someone touched me in an obviously harmful way (which thankfully never happened), but not how to react to unharmful-but-unwanted physical attention. Usually I just ran away and hid from annoyingly touchy adults. It always worked, producing “aww she’s just shy” reactions. But I wish my parents had told me something I could say or do that would teach those adults a lesson about respecting kids’ personal space in the future.

    • Amanda

      I don’t know… I am just not comfortable teaching my son he must ASK someone first if they want a hug… I understand that some people do not want/enjoy physical touching from others, but I want to, rather, teach my son how to read these cues. And then perhaps ask if he cannot distinguish a clear answer. To teach him to ask his Dad first if he wants a hug if he is feeling sad, seems a little contrived to me. I would rather he learn to read emotions and the non-verbal cues of the other person.

      But I am totally on board will all else Liz wrote about WRT raising a boy, and how it is so different, and yet so similar, to the “rules’ on raising a girl. I, too, want my son to grow up Not To Be A Dick, and I think we have a solid foundation for promoting these aspirations at home. Out in the real world… I hope the friends he chooses, and the teachers and adults of influence in his life also subscribe to this philosophy. I suspect we may have a few conversations when he is older about how others don’t subscribe, but maybe ought to ;-)

      • Brenda

        I think this applies more to strangers and acquaintances (teachers, for example, or friends parents) than to parents. I don’t have children yet, but I think children should know that they can always give their parents (grandparents, siblings, etc) a hug whenever.

        It’s with other people that you maybe need to ask – giving the teacher a hug on the last day of school, or saying “I feel sad, could you give me a hug?”

        As you get older and get to know people better you start to understand who likes hugs and who doesn’t, and when it’s okay and when it isn’t. But starting from a place of “if you don’t know, ask” and instilling that you can say no to others if it makes you uncomfortable I think sounds like a good way to start to talk about respecting boundaries.

    • b (the other one)

      This is also huge in battling against sexual abuse. If we teach children that its ok for adults or children (both known and unknown) to touch them when they don’t want to be touched, what do you think happens when a child experiences sexual abuse? They’ve never learned that they can say “no” or to vocalise unwanted touch. Its all too important to teach children that they are in control over the touch they do and don’t want and to be comfortable saying it out loud.

  • Thank you so much for writing this. We’ve been talking about having kids in the near future, and the “how to teach respect” has been bothering me. I think it is what I am most concerned about with boys. And girls, but as someone who grew up as a girl, I feel less intimidated by them. This really helps to put things into perspective, and makes me feel a lot better.

  • Lauren

    Liz, or other parents, do you have any concerns about teaching your kids such progressive views that they may feel detached from their peers who are raised with the more standard societal views ? Ideally I am sure they would find friends with similar views but middle school and high school can be tough places to be different. I say this while cheering you on 100%.

    • Liz


      I think every parent feels the tension of, “I want my kid to not care what other people think, be a free spirit, march to the beat of his own drum!” while also, “I hope he fits in and finds friends.”

      With the basic stuff above- the, “Don’t treat people like garbage” stuff- my hope is it won’t be TOO against the norm. But, I also know a few folks who managed to scrape through high school without super close friends because (for example) all the dudes in their small-town high school were disgusting.

    • Emily

      My husband was raised somewhat progressively and he fit in pretty well in middle and high school. I think a lot of it is that he had a sense of when he had to step up and when he didn’t. He didn’t chit chat about feminism with his friends (very often) basically.

      I don’t think that the views Liz described are so outrageous that a kid who held them would stick out like a sore thumb. For instance, if a boy hanging around Liz’s son made a cruel fat joke and Liz’s son said “Don’t be such an a**hat.” It might be awkward, but it would not be outrageous.

      • Shiri

        The way you phrased that raises something for me, in that he doesn’t have to say “you’re being inappropriate and that’s not how we treat people,” he can still speak like a kid and have the same language and norms his friends do, but possibly different values. I love the idea of someone using a**hat to make a point about intolerance.

  • MC

    I also love the Don’t Be a Dick philosophy. (Somewhat unrelated, after reading Lean In recently I was thinking there needs to be a companion book titled “Men, Don’t Be Sexist Assholes.” Sigh, if only.)

    I’m currently in the not-sure-if-I-wanna-have-kids camp, but even hypothetically I have always, always wanted a girl, in part because I do want to impart those bits of wisdom I have learned about surviving this culture as a girl. But you summed it up perfectly – these are the same lessons we should be teaching all of our kids, regardless of gender. Not that parenting is ever easy, but raising a boy in this culture presents a new set of obstacles that other generations haven’t really faced. So hats off to you, Liz, it sounds like you are doing GREAT!

  • alexandra

    What does this boy’s father think of all these ideas? As a schoolteacher, show me a boy who respects me and the young women in my class, and I’ll show you a father who honors and respects the boy’s mother. You can tell your child anything you want, but they mostly listen to the example you set.

    • Liz

      This is my biggest, biggest hope. Learn what they live, etc.

    • Amanda

      Love this! Yes, they LISTEN to the example (verbal AND non-verbal) you set. So well put!

      • sarah

        In the immortal words of Jane Austen, “It is not what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”

        Nowhere is that more true than in modeling acceptance.

        • Lindsay

          And Batman.

          • Sarah

            Same difference. :)

  • Gina

    This: “Everyone is Valuable.” I am childfree as of now, but my husband and I have already started to have discussions about how we would raise boys (to me, the more challenging prospect). And one thing that brings me enormous comfort is remembering how my parents did it, and my two brothers turned out so well. It started with my dad laying down the law that none of us were ever, ever to disrespect my mother. From there, I remember watching situations arise and my parents handling them based on an individual perspective, rather than a gendered perspective. When you have 5 kids, there are going to be personality differences. My next youngest sister climbed a 30-foot tree when she was 3 years old and was a fearless tomboy. My youngest sister burst into tears whenever anyone looked at her sideways and preferred playing with dolls. Naturally, my parents had to explain to my brothers why they could roughhouse with sister #2 but not sister #3.

    I’m sure there were many more conversations between my dad and brothers that I was not privy to, but “Everyone is Valuable and deserves your respect” was definitely the basis. I asked one of my twenty-something brothers recently how he learned to respect women, and he answered, “I never learned not to.”

    Also I have to point out–the fact that your husband is Not a Dick is a pretty good indication of how your son will turn out. Leading by example is the single most important thing, I think. Watching my dad respect my mom (and other women) definitely taught my brothers more than speeches ever could have.

    • Heather

      “I asked one of my twenty-something brothers recently how he learned to respect women, and he answered, “I never learned not to.””

      I love this so much.

  • 39bride

    It occurs to me that all of the above is exactly how to raise ANY child–to view themselves and others with respect and be a good person.

    This one part always makes me crazy, though: “telling our boys how to avoid raping.” Rape is not something accidental that can happen regardless of any precautions. It’s not something you avoid like falling off the sidewalk, getting in a car accident, catching a contagious disease. It is the result of someone either 1) using mind-altering substances that affect their judgment in a romantic/sexual setting (in other words, “did my partner just consent, or not? I’m confused and lacking in self-control and mental clarity because I’m high/drunk/etc”), or 2) deciding to disregard the needs and rights of another person (“I want to do this for reasons X, Y and Z regardless of anyone else, and so I’m going to do it”). Don’t do those things and you won’t rape someone. It’s that’s simple, a matter of character.

    I’m sure this sounds judgmental and there’s something obvious I’m missing. If so, please enlighten me (I’m serious). That phrase just sets off all my alarms regarding personal responsibility and makes me very angry because raping someone is a choice, not an accident a respectful and loving person just falls into out of ignorance.

    • Liz

      That’s the exact point. That the phrase “how to avoid rape” is incorrectly used by articles, blogs, news channels, wherever and is always directed at women. It’s the altogether wrong angle- the focus should be, “Do not rape.” The borrowing of the term “avoid” is just meant to emphasize its misuse.

      • 39bride

        I get that part. But using the phrase “avoiding raping” seems to imply that raping someone can be an accident, an oopsie that could happen to anyone. And it’s not that at all. We as a society need to rain down contempt on people who rape, not use a phrase that implies that raping someone is something that could happen to anyone (I’m deleting the contemptuous and disrespectful language that is coming to mind regarding what that phrase implies to the casual “listener”).

        But like I said, it makes me crazy. I literally see red when I encounter that phrase. If I’m off the rails, please forgive me.

        The other aspect of that phrase that bugs is me is that it seems to encourage the incredibly naive idea that most rapist just don’t know any better and that if we just educate everyone, no one will rape. I think that is not a reasonable idea–there are people out there that are bad/evil/messed up (choose whatever word you want) who are going to rape even when they understand exactly why it’s wrong. Educating “potential rapists” cannot solve the problem alone.

        Yeah, I see red. Not entirely open-hearted and rational on this subject.

        • Liz

          Welp, it’s a rhetorical device. The parallelism underscores the flawed argument of the original statement that girls need to “avoid” rape. I get what you’re saying, but disagree with the resulting implications.

        • Parsley

          I read this totally terrifying article online awhile back (as usual for me, I can’t remember who wrote it or how to find it – sorry!) in which a high school teacher talked about a discussion in class one day where it suddenly became clear to her that her male students really did not understand what constitutes consent and what doesn’t. I believe I am remembering correctly that one of them asked how it could be rape if the woman hadn’t actually said no because she was incapacitated by alcohol. And the teacher was then able to say that consent means saying yes, not just not saying no. And that was a revelation to her students. So, that makes me think that no, it’s not accidental, but that our culture really is not at all teaching our kids what consent means – and what it doesn’t. So, that’s where the teaching men not to commit rape comes in.

          • LBD

            Yes, I read that same article I’m certain. I just went looking for it, was this it? http://accidentaldevotional.com/2013/03/19/the-day-i-taught-how-not-to-rape/

          • Parsley

            Yes! That’s it.

          • A Single Sarah for certain values of single

            So much of this. YES!

            I don’t know about most rapists and the circumstances around most rapes. Education helps in some cases. For instance a friend didn’t realize he had raped his girlfriend until one of her friends told him. He was devastated. I don’t know the circumstances beyond that outline. But it’s the stories like that which convince me that active YES consent is so important to teach.

            Knowing to ask questions and to respect answers is something I value. And it’s why I love Liz’s approach of teaching her son that he can say no to touch and that he should make sure it’s okay to touch someone first.

  • never.the.same

    “Meanwhile, I still try to do what I can. I make sure to point out beautiful women when I’m out (actually just something I do anyway, but now it seems sort of purposed, I guess)”

    Huh? I liked most of the post, but this part confused me. What’s the purpose of pointing out beautiful women?

    • Liz

      It links back to the paragraph above it, where I mentioned trying to teach him that beauty isn’t always reflective of socially approved standards.

      If we have a society saying, “THIS is what beauty is,” that needs to (in part) be combatted with, “Nuh, uh, beauty is this, too. And this…”

    • TNM

      But why highlight someone’s physical appearance at all? I can see if an aspect of appearance comes up – e.g. kid mentions someone’s T-shirt, someone else compliments Mom’s hair – but I think another approach would just be to focus on the 1,000+ other aspects about people’s personalities, interests and activities. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding? In a similar vein, also did not get the purpose of “I *feel* fat” vs. “I am fat”…

      • Shiri

        I think kids see a lot of focus on physical appearance already – in how adults interact with them and with each other, in what they themselves notice in other kids, and in the media they interact with – and I think the idea of reinforcing an individualistic sense of beauty is important. Pointing out attractive things about other people (women AND men) is important. Not saying it won’t make kids not see it, and it may offset the ideas of beauty they get from other sources.

      • Nicole T

        I think that’s what she was going for. When she points out someone is beautiful, it’s not necessarily in reference to their physical appearance. For instance, if you see someone helping another person to pick up spilled groceries, that someone is a beautiful person (at least in that instance). To me, it seems that she’s using beauty to represent the wonderful things about a person and not their physical appearance (which society often misconstrues to be the only kind of beauty).

      • Liz

        Truly, another post entirely could be written about the beauty end. I sort of went back and forth on whether or not to even include it.

        When it comes down to it, even though appearance shouldn’t matter (at least not as much as it does), it does. I wouldn’t mention it to him at all I guess, except that there are harmful messages being sent and they can’t be fully addressed with silence. One thing is, as a culture, I think we sort of naturally think negatively about others. So I try to incorporate compliments into my interactions with strangers any old way. But also, there is very targeted, direct messaging about what makes someone beautiful, and even more specifically, what makes women beautiful. So I point out beauty when I see it. Of course there are other things to remark about folks! But not often with strangers.

        With the self-referential stuff, I think there would be a lot of different perspectives on what’s positive and negative. For me, I think it’s important that if we’re going to voice dissatisfaction with our appearances, we do so from the perspective of, “here’s how I feel,” rather than definitive, objective statements. There’s a whole lot going on there, though, so like I said- another post. Objective statements can be twisted (If mom’s fat, am I fat?), but ignoring that sometimes you feel cruddy about how you look lends importance to appearance in the same way that overemphasizing it would.

      • Liz

        Whoa, by the time I typed out a response, everyone else said much more articulate stuff.

        So, what they said.

    • Nina

      I’m of two minds on this – on the one hand it’s hardwired into humanity to make quick assessments about people based on their appearance. So since this is inevitable, we can maybe help expand the idea of beauty to include a larger range of body sizes and skin tones etc. – and making comments that appreciate this larger range is helpful.

      But since much of our idea of ‘beauty’ really is hardwired (like the universal appreciation for symmetry that even babies have), perhaps it’s even more important to try to reduce the value we place on beauty.

      I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I will soon be raising a daughter and I really want to teach her that her appearance is just one part of her. Personally, I allow too much of my self worth to be governed by my looks, and sometimes overshadow the million other things I could take pride in. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think I will start with limiting my comments about appearance and focusing praise on things that people have more control over, like being kind. But I also know the reality is that she will learn from me, so overcoming my own insecurities will be even more important.

      • Liz

        I’ve been trying to think of those two things as separate issues that I can attack separately (1. expanding the definition of beautiful and 2. deemphasizing appearance). Because both sort of have their natural place (like you said about hardwired ideas of beauty, but that society has taken that gamut and narrowed it way farther, and then the fact that appearance naturally is meaningful, but as a society we’ve amped it up to be overly meaningful), and I drive myself crazy trying to pick either/or.

  • My husband and I are working on the asking for hugs to empower my son to say no and understand that there are very real boundaries with his own body and touching that he gets to control. It is so hard for me because my son is the one human I have ever met that I want to snuggle 24/7. And my co-worker tried to mentally prepare me for the day that he will decline my hugs and my heart will break as I take it personally. But I need to remember that the goal is to empower him and teach him healthy boundaries. So I’m just so glad he lets me hug the holy hell out of him right now. I knew other parents were doing this, but I’ve never actually read it before (especially relating to boys!). So thanks for putting it out there.

    • One More Sara

      We are trying to do this with a lot more interactions with our son now.. My partner A really loves tickling him, but having been a super ticklish child myself, I hated the feeling of being powerless to stop it, even when I said no, kicking and screaming. I don’t want to downplay rape, but I think that tickle attacks are kind of a stepping stone down that road. Because A was never very ticklish (so he doesn’t get what a tickle attack actually feels like) and not super aware of rape (or fear of rape), he didn’t understand why I always freaked the eff out when he would do this to our son. I explained to him that K needs to learn that when he says no, people *should* stop, and in turn if someone tells him to stop, he should *always* listen and stop. When I explained it this way, my partner understood quickly, and now he usually stops the tickling on his own, but sometimes he still needs a gentle reminder.

      • I like what you said there:

        “when he says no, people *should* stop, and in turn if someone tells him to stop, he should *always* listen and stop.”

        That will be good to further explain it to other.

        • Morgan

          When we get in to tickle/kiss time and Jess says no, we stop. Half the time, she says “more” and points to where she wants more tickles/kisses.

    • Morgan

      My kid’s nearing 2, and we do this a lot. We ask her if she wants a hug and she gets all coy and happy and says “NO”. So we don’t hug her, and she is THRILLED at the power she has, it’s amazing. She hugs us all the time, and I fully admit I often hug without asking, because cuddles. But I think it’s so important that she realizes that she can say no and be listened to that I’m willing to play this game. I realize that I might be violating my own rules of asking, but parenting is an inconsistent game, and she also needs loving touch. We’re working on the right balance.

  • Love this post – and especially your husband’s comparison to learning the ABC’s. And the fact that he is Not a Dick :-)

    Also, “un-mascara-ed” should be in the dictionary. Someone call Webster.

  • Keakealani

    This reminds me of an article I read fairly recently, here: http://goodmenproject.com/families/the-healthy-sex-talk-teaching-kids-consent-ages-1-21/. I remember being struck by the relative lack of tools for parents especially in raising boys, and to some degree all genders, when it comes to being a feminist and espousing progressive ideals. I really love your strategies and if I ever have kids (although it’s not in the card now), I know I’ll be referring back to this post!

    • Colleen

      This is exactly what I was going to post. This piece you mention is so, so, so, so good. Everyone who has any kind of dealings with kids should read it. I have a 3-year old daughter & 1-year old son. I expected that teaching them these things (which I’d labeled Feminism) would be different between the two of them. But truly it is just teaching them humanism/respect for others.

  • SarahT

    I love this post! I have a son who is now 18–and he’s a great person. It is possible! One of our core values as a family has been kindness, and that actually turned out to be counter-cultural, especially for men. I always told my kids that if they couldn’t be kind to their siblings, there was no way they were going to get to go hang out with their friends. The kindness that we all strove for (often failing, but holding as an ideal) in words and actions became part of who they are now. The fact that you and your husband treat each other and your son with respect will go such a long way!!

  • Bryna

    BIG TOPIC!!!!

    I have a 5yr old son and a 19yr old soon-to-be-step-son.

    The 5yr old is totally enamored by the 19yr old. He thinks that he’s the bees knees – and he really is, although sometimes he is blatantly obviously a sponge for Bad Ways To Treat Women As Told By The Media.

    The other week the 19yr old was cooking in the kitchen with his girlfriend and casually called her a “b*tch”.

    Needless to say – he got one heck of a lecture, in front of the whole family, including the 5yr old. I told him under no circumstances was he to use that language talking to ANYONE in our house, and if he did it again he could pack up his things and leave. We also discussed that he was now not just an almost-adult on his own, but also a role model for the 5yr old. That includes the responsibility of showing his little step-bro how to act as an adult.

    We have three things that we’re trying to teach the 5yr old about at the moment: kindness, respect and intellectualism (be nice, be respectful/helpful/sharing and learn things) – and there is NO room for derogatory language in that triangle of self worth!

  • Leah

    I’ve struggled with the same thing with raising my toddler especially since he is an incredibly affectionate little boy. He is the kid that wants to hug and kiss all his “friends” at the park and I’ve found that what works for us is teaching him that he can’t touch without permission. It’s genderless so I feel like he is learning to respect everyone’s boundaries and it also teaches that it isn’t just hitting or biting that isn’t allowed, it’s unwanted physical attention of any kind. I also make sure to remind him that he can tell people not to touch him, this goes for family members who get too affectionate with him, if he doesn’t like it. He can’t learn to respect other people’s boundaries if he doesn’t feel like his are honored. Obviously the method will change as he gets older and runs into different challenges but my husband and I think that teaching basic boundaries of space and desired vs undesired attention is a good start. Regardless, it all sounds great in theory but teaching this lesson feels like trying to climb a mountain while pushing a boulder up hill. I know it will sink in one day but it is awfully slow going.

  • LBD

    Thanks for writing this! I don’t know if this was inspired by me and another commenter talking about our fears regarding raising feminist boys in one of the posts on feminism last month (we found out last month we’re having a boy, and had a lot of FEELINGS about that) and the lack of resources I perceived there were versus raising feminist girls, but it certainly helps, as well as all the comments. Thanks again. Passing this on to the husband.

  • lady brett
    • Liz

      Really interesting. I’ve thought a lot about the way we oversexualize nudity, but never about how that works with touch.

  • ellie

    I too love SO MUCH about this, but one bit stood out as worrisome to me:

    “I reframe my comments about myself. No longer, “I’m so fat,” but instead, “I feel so fat.””

    The thing is, this is also dangerous wording. “Fat” is not a feeling, and describing it as such is one of the first things dealt with in therapy for eating disorders and body issues. Fat is not a feeling, so why are you saying it at all? I would argue that there’s no reason to ever say either of those–or similar–statements aloud in front of a child. And instead of talking about how your body looks, reframe it as what you love about what your body can do. This creates in children an appreciation for the physical body rather than the appearance. “I love how good it feels to run! My legs are awesome!” or “Isn’t it neat that my fingers are double-jointed/my eyes change color/my hair curls/etc.”

    • anon

      Yes, I have a distinct memory of my mom holding her belly fat and saying “I wish I could just cut this off with a pair of scissors!” (kind of playfully, fake-cheerfully) when I was young (several times).

      What do I catch myself doing? Feeling my belly fat and thinking it’s fucking horrible, even though I’m not overweight at all.

      I deeply wish she had not talked negatively about her body (or her feelings about her body) in front of me, and I’m going to make an incredible effort not to do so in front of my kids.

    • Liz

      Folks will differ on this. And have, in the comments. A lot.

      There is a lot I refuse to say in front of my son, and sure, positive statements are ideal. But sometimes people feel negatively about their bodies (or about other things, too). And those feelings happen regardless of objective facts.

      Sometimes mom feels fat. And then she moves on with her day. Sometimes we all feel badly about ourselves. Pretending that’s not the case doesn’t make it not happen, and instead makes appearance more powerful than it actually is when… meh, sometimes I feel fat, oh well.

  • Thank you for this! I, too, always pictured myself with girls, and now have an almost 8-week-old son. As someone with an M.A. in Women’s Studies, this has all been on my mind a lot. I love your approach!

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  • April

    Reason 9,368 why I’m glad I will never have kids. Way too many things to worry and stress about.

  • Holly

    a few days later… ok.
    As a mom with an 11 y/o boy, and a FH who is pretty amazing I have to say a lot of this isn’t only telling your child or having a conversation with them. That is important too, and kids will ask tough questions – but easy answers tend to be best, esp. when they are younger. If they want to know more, they will ask more. Yes. It’s like talking about drugs. It’s a conversation you have often and in little moments of time – reminding them what you expect so they have something to live up to.
    But really it’s a lot of doing the part and them seeing how you are. We of course remind him how to be nice to others and expect him to treat everyone with respect and have them do the same in return. Again, how my FH treats me is how I expect my son to treat the women in his life. We have to be mindful of what we recieve so that we know what we are teaching them to expect.
    We can only give them the info and teach them through our actions. After that it’s pretty much up to them because they are their own person.

  • April Bennett

    So nice to see an article about this. I am raising two boys, ages 4 and 9, and now is when the rubber hits the road with this stuff for my nine year old. I am having the sex talk with him soon, and I am intent on giving him real resources on these subjects as he grows. All the while being laid-back about it. ;) But I know that what is most, most, most important is how I treat and see myself. I am the first woman in his life. <3

  • HyeKeen

    Overall, I like the sentiment of raising a feminist boy, teaching him to respect ALL people, but there are just a couple of quibbles I have with some of the expressions:

    1 – It seemed very heteronormative – what if he’s gay? Obviously gay boys need to learn to respect women as well, but maybe he needs to learn to respect other boys too. And what if he feels attracted to boys but you focus on girls/women and he feels he can’t express his sexuality to you.

    2 – “I feel so fat” is really the same as “I’m so fat” – there’s no real difference IMO. I highly recommend the article by Amanda Kin http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-king/telling-daughters-i-am-beautiful_b_2166212.html.

    • Liz

      His sexuality didn’t really come into play in any of the above.

      Two different ideas were addressed, sure- how to treat/view women and how to treat/view someone you’re engaging with sexually. But the two don’t really intersect at all. The point is: he’s a male in a society wherein males have privilege over females- hence why it’s important that as a male, he learns how to properly view a female. That idea has no relation to his sexuality. Only to his position of privilege. As I said, the second idea- the idea that he needs to ask permission before touching someone and grant permission before they may touch him, etc- is important regardless of sexuality.

      Regarding the second, I understand many will have different ideas of what’s acceptable there (and many have commented in disagreement already). In my home, I’d prefer to acknowledge that sometimes we all feel negatively about our bodies. It’s better to allow that to be a normal thing than something shameful or unusual. Feeling negatively is VERY different than making broad statements as fact.