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How I Accidentally Raised a Feminist

A dad reflects on parenting his daughter

Published on: January 24, 2018

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Strong girl

Have you ever heard of the confidence gap? I hadn't either when I became the father of a daughter more than 20 years ago. The gap speaks to studies showing women are less confident than men — important since confidence matters as much as competence when it comes to success.

Until we close this gap, we will never see true progress toward gender equality.

Parenting without stereotypes

When my daughter, Annie, was born, I knew that she would experience gender-based challenges. One way that my wife and I addressed this: Raise her with a founder’s mindset. That is, we provided Annie with a framework for identifying problems and applying her skills and passions to create solutions.

A founder's mindset isn't just about founding businesses; it means actively creating change and not shying away from injustice. We wanted Annie to be a motivated, self-actualized person who felt confident that she could make a difference.

Not that it was easy. The world we live in is rampant with gender stereotypes so we attuned ourselves to Annie's natural disposition rather than parenting according to gender stereotypes. We remained aware and critical of the context in which she grew. From whom she hung out with to our own biases and circumstances, we strove to be cognizant of how our world influenced Annie's perceptions. Now a grown woman, Annie demonstrates to us daily that she believes in herself. 

In a recent school assignment, Annie defined a feminist as someone who supports the social, economic and political equality of all people by providing access to equal opportunities and treating others with respect and without discrimination based on their sex, gender, race, wealth or ability. By that definition, Annie is absolutely a feminist. In fact, our whole family is.

I have come to learn and believe that raising your children to have a founder’s mindset will naturally guide them toward feminism and leadership. Here's how we got there:

We never let our daughter avoid problems.

One of the bedrock principles of our family operation is to relentlessly pursue problems to solve. Teaching children to identify underlying causes empowers them to solve conflicts, work through personal struggles and drive meaningful change.

For example: I was uncomfortable with Annie selling Girl Scout Cookies because of their high amounts of trans fat but we knew she couldn't just opt out of helping her troop. So she and I worked together to come up with a solution: The two of us baked healthy, homemade cookies, which Annie sold. She then gave the money to her troop. She was still able to participate, but we stayed true to our family values.

Too many girls are made to second-guess themselves or told to shrink away from the spotlight as they reach adolescence. Learning to solve a core problem can help them confidently assert their ideas and personalities.

We taught our daughter to act with empathy.

Empathy allows us to look beyond ourselves and understand other people’s experiences. People who are raised to be empathetic are able to connect more deeply with the circumstances of other people. They're motivated to collaborate and so move us all closer to equality.

We found plenty of simple ways to deepen Annie's empathy. An easy one you can use: Review movies you watch together as a family. Ask questions like, "Why did characters behave the way they did? What were their motives? What plot points affected them?" The answers can lead to surprising (and important) conversations.

We encouraged our daughter to avoid these two words.

There were two words my wife and I banned in our house: “can’t” and “impossible.” Why? Because language shapes our perceptions. As soon as kids are allowed to say “I can’t do that,” they let themselves off the hook (this applies to us adults, too).

Banning defeatist phrases teaches all children to persevere. As Annie grew up, she never once believed she couldn’t do something because she was a girl. She was just as hardworking and capable as her male peers — and, more importantly, she knew it.

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