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Speaking with My Son About Sexism

I’m responding to the question posed on the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of parents about how one speaks to his or her child about sexism. I have a few things to share as a mother of a nine-year-old son.

Over the years I have asked myself the following:

  • How do I give accurate information to my son when he is faced with misinformation or when hurts related to sexism and men’s oppression come his way?
  • How can I offer a different perspective that takes into account what he is actually bumping up against and where I think the confusion or hurt is hitting him in that moment?
  • And how can I do this as counselor rather than as client?

Here is some of what he and I have figured out together:

Finding a frame of reference that makes sense to him

When my son was younger, he loved the color pink. At home it was easy to give him space to like pink and wear pink clothes. As he got older, he learned that some people think that pink is a “girls’ color” and that blue is a “boys’ color.” One day in kindergarten he wore pink tennis shoes to school and was teased. We had many conversations about it. It became a frame of reference for how society puts girls and boys into specific “boxes” and tells them who to be and what to like. When other situations like that would arise, he would say, “This is like boy colors and girl colors.” It was a frame of reference that made sense to him, that reflected what he had struggled with.

Putting his personal experience into a larger context

At some point in the past year or two I introduced the terms sexism and men’s oppression, to help him put his personal experiences into a larger context. (This coincided with conversations we’d been having about racism, anti-Jewish oppression, and the oppression of young people.) I thought he was ready for the new language, based on the types of questions he was asking, conversations we were having, and what he was learning about and trying to make sense of.

Before the No Limits for Women project in New York,1 I was watching a video of several delegates talking about it. My son heard the video and came in and watched it with me. Afterward he had questions, and over the course of several days we talked about sexism. Mostly the conversations happened because he was interested and seeking information.

It seemed good for him to know that I was involved in the project and taking a stand against sexism. But I tried to figure out what was interesting to him about it and what his own experiences were, rather than having an agenda of my own. In one fruitful conversation, we shared with each other what we loved about being a boy or girl and what had been hard about it. That gave him a lot of space to talk about what was on his mind while also being an opportunity for me to share my experiences.

Giving information and letting him decide

Recently my son and I were reading a Star Wars book that was going into a lot of detail about violence and horrible things happening to people. (I have had many sessions on hating Star Wars, along with spending hours watching the three Star Wars movies with my son—and loving them, too.) On this occasion, I interrupted my reading and said that I wanted to share my thinking with him about the book. I also said that it was his decision whether or not we kept reading it and that I would back2 his mind. I said that my job as his mother was to give him information and then let him decide.

I told him that when I was reading the book I was getting scary pictures in my head and that I wondered if he was getting them, too. I said that parts of the book contained men’s oppression, including an attempt to fill his mind with scary thoughts so that he would get used to violence and think it was okay to resort to violence. I said that this was part of how society trains boys to be soldiers, and to not show emotion or cry. At some point I needed to cry for a minute to stay thinking. I told him that I would be having sessions on the subject and reassured him again that I would back his mind.

When I was done talking, he closed the book and told me that maybe he would be ready to read it in a year. Then he started to cry. I don’t know exactly what the tears were about, but what had happened seemed like a huge victory for both of us. I had been relaxed enough to share my thinking without clienting at him, to give him space to decide, and to be prepared to back him and stay close no matter what he chose. And he had been able to use information, perspective, and discharge to make a flexible decision.

I would love to hear what other parents of daughters and sons are figuring out on this topic.

New York, New York, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of parents

In March 2015, No Limits for Women (a project of the RC Communities) sent a delegation to the non-governmental-organization Women’s Forum held in conjunction with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Beijing+20, in New York, New York, USA.
“Back” means respect and defer to.


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00