Today is International Women’s Day. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, I am moved by friends posting pictures of their daughters with notes about their hopes for continued strength resiliency and a dream of gender equality. As a mother of sons, I feel the enormity of my role. I feel the weight and responsibility of raising kind, sensitive men who will honor this day proudly and treat all humans with equal respect and dignity.
Quite frankly, I feel the intense weight of raising my boys to not be A**holes.
In my Mama + Baby groups , one of my favorite topics is Gender + Sexuality, mostly because the moms always look a me a little funny when I bring this topic up in relation to their sweet baby. I think how we think about gender and sexuality ourselves informs how we will relate to our kiddos, in addition to the lessons we consciously teach.
So, from my heart to yours, here are my top 5 tips for raising a sensitively assertive child:
1) Model Healthy Gender Roles at Home: I will never forget when my first son was a toddler, something my own father said about watching my husband parent our child. He took us aside one day, and said “ You know, I never realized how much I missed out on as a dad until watching you (my husband) become a dad yourself.” Now, my dad was a great dad, but in that time period (cuz yes, i’m old) his “Dad Role” was to bring home the money and my mom was to take care of the children, teach strength to his boys and give hugs to his girls. He never once changed a diaper, planned a meal, or woke up in the night. In this day and age, I am noticing dads involved in the parenting in a much more balanced and hands on manner than it ever has been before. This re-enforces the message to our children that taking care of babies is the job of both parents (if there are two) and the division of labor does not have to be predetermined by our gender. To that end, if you are in a two parent household, remember to present a united front.
- Both parents are the fair and empathic disciplinarian
- Both parents are loving caretakers
- Both parents respect one another
- Both Parents convey that they like their gender and their chosen roles
2) Make Space For Tears: I actually cannot stress this one enough. I was at the park one day and happen to see two scenarios play out at the same time. I was with my friend and her child (who happens to be a boy) fell down. Now my friend, I would describe her as feminist minded and obviously well intentioned, but what she said was “ your’e ok, shake it off.” Not sure about you, but if my husband told me “Your’e ok” in the midst of my cry, we may be having a problem. At the same time, across the park I noticed a little girl scraped her knee on the slide and was crying into her dad’s arms as he allowed her space to let all of that feeling out. In my home, my first son, despite all of my nurture vs. nature beliefs came out of the womb all stereotypical dude. He tends towards the physical, loud, rambunctious, fiercely independent with a flair towards fearless. He also rarely cries. His natural tendency is actually to tough it out. I always think our work for him, as his parents, trying to encourage him to be empathic and sensitively assertive, is to encourage him to tap into and let those feelings out. The area I am always conscious about stretching in his temperament is sensitivity, both to himself and others. It’s so important for both of us to be sending the message that boys, girls, grown ups, we all cry, just like we laugh when we think something is funny. If you were to go to the park tomorrow and really tune in to the different ways people inadvertently speak to boys and girls, you may be amazed. Even the nicknames send a message. When we reserve “sweetheart “ for girls and “tough guy” for boys, what message are we sending them about our character values? Unfortunately, what I do know is that our boys will eventually be receiving pressure to appear strong when they feel vulnerable, or that to “be a man” means stifling their emotions on the spot.
The more we can do to teach and encourage the expression and acceptance of a broad range of emotions, the more solid they will be in their own humanness and ability to express compassion.
3) Re-enforce the Person Not the Gender: So remember my first son, who leads with assertive and we work on the sensitive? Enter dude number 2. It continues to boggle my mind that my husband and I produced two boys, who look so similar, but are such wildly different humans. My little guy has a more easy going temperament. He enjoys imaginative dress up play more than sports, he will freely give up his toys to whoever asks, he talks to EVERYONE and if the wind even grazes his toe, boy will he cry about it. Given his temperament, our work as parents tends to stretch him more in the are of being assertive and speaking up for himself in a way that ensures he will be heard. Two boys, different people. Take cues from your child first, as opposed to members of a gender. For instance, are there any messages we send to our littles in play? We might see dads rough housing with boys, but playing more quiet games with their daughters. This sends a message, and our tiny humans are picking it up loud and clear. Does this difference in type of play teaches our daughters that they are expected to be sensitive and delicate, while teaching our sons to be aggressive? I think teaching tenderness AND assertiveness is a better way to achieve balance.
Try to think about your own child’s temperament, and adjust your play, actions, etc. to meet the child rather than their prescribed gender.
For instance, I often see people assuming that a girl will be more comfortable with a hug, while the boy would appreciate a high five in greeting. Back to my two boys, you guessed it, number 1 is not into hugging strangers, while my little one would hug ANYONE….different temperaments….different parenting task.
4) Teach the value of equal difference: By being a role model for equality in your own household, you are actually teaching empathy, kindness and respect. Being different does not imply less than. It is important for children to learn that all genders are equally valuable. In my opinion, sexual equality doe not have to mean sameness, but equal value, equal opportunity. This is something to pay close attention to in how we communicate with our partner at home, both verbally and non-verbally. Again, our little people are watching and soaking it up like a sponge. I always tell my clients, “ if you have a conflict in front of your child, make sure to make up in front of this child as well.” It’s important to model respect for your partner in your child’s presence. This can be communicated by complimenting and appreciating your partner’s effort in from of the kids. In our house, I usually make the dinner. My hubby is not naturally a particular verbally demonstrative guy, but in the spirit of teaching our boys to be kind humans, he makes a point of verbally appreciating the effort I made in putting together the meal. Do I need that every night? No, but my boys sure do.
Here is the reality, children who are taught to value and respect other genders are way less likely to grow up to harass others.
5) Value Kindness: As my kiddos get older, this has really been on my mind. I consider myself to be a pretty nice gal. I mean, geesh, I am sensitive as all get out, I think about others and I was a social worker for the majority of my career. That counts for something, right? Won’t my kids just naturally pick up on that and share that value? Not necessarily, they need to see it. This goes back to consciously role modeling for our children what is important to us in our family. As my guys have grown and our days have become busy with activities and everyday hussle, that conscious teaching piece gets lost sometimes. So, every night, and we started this when they were babies, we do something called “ Best, Hardest, Helping.” We go around the table and everyone shares the best part of the day, the hardest part and the way they helped somebody. Aside from giving our often chaotic meals a little structure, we are teaching our boys some of our core values as a family. We are celebrating their success, helping them learn from their challenges, and highlighting the importance of kindness and helping others.
The more we highlight to our kiddos what is important to us as humans, the greater chance we have that they will incorporate those values for themselves and apply them to their interactions with the world.
ok, gang, those are just a few of my ideas. On this day, I want to remind myself that for every girl who is being called over-sensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep. I remind myself to celebrate individuals and difference. Most of all, I remind myself to shower my boys with hugs, listen to them intently and cheer them on through their struggles and challenges just as much as though their success.