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On Raising Feminist Men

How can we honor boys' natural interests in play swords and wrestling, while raising them to be sensitive and kind-hearted?

Published on: September 09, 2016

feminist boys

I'm gonna be honest: This article contains gender stereotypes. I am going to talk about "boy energy," craziness and roughhousing. I will be making assumptions. I know that. I also know that there are many girls with massive amounts of energy and there are quiet, calm and gentle boys. What a fantastic array of kids there are in the world! But this post is dealing in generalizations so just bear with me.

I feel like I want to reach out and talk about raising boys. Raising sons. Raising men. My greatest fear as a mother and a feminist is that I will raise boys who treat women as though they are not full humans with their own needs, wants and desires. I work hard to make sure that they understand that no girl or woman owes them anything — not a smile, not deference, not access to the skin she may or may not choose to show.

I am trying to breed kindness, empathy and understanding into the very fibers of their thoughts. I hope that they will always know that they are free to have and discuss their feelings and that, in doing so, they will make their lives and the lives of those around them better. I don't ever want violence to be a part of their lexicon.

And yet...


I also never want them to feel that they have to apologize for being boys. Ever. I never want them to feel that they have to fit into a box I am trying to shove them into. I want them to love every part of who they are. Just as a mother of a girl wants her daughter to feel proud of every part of who she is, I want my boys to feel proud of every part of who they are. I want them to love their energy and toughness. 

My greatest fear as a mother and a feminist is that I will raise boys who treat women as though they are not full humans with their own needs, wants and desires.

I want to have their play feel fun and interesting. That often means jumping up on their best friend's back or grabbing their brother around the waist and wrestling him to the ground. Sometimes that means that we talk about war and violence and their play revolves around that. It means that when we play animals the animals are often capturing and eating each other. Their energy and interests are gifts and I can't wait to see them use those gifts in the world as adults.

And yet...


Sometimes that is a tough line. What looks or feels aggressive to me? What might look or feel aggressive to another parent? Another child? Are they being respectful of other boys and girls around them who may not want to play the same way that they do? 

So what's a mother, a feminist and someone who loves her crazy and energetic boys to do?

Consider compassion

Sometimes I need mothers of girls to give us a little space. Maybe a bit more understanding. Not every interaction will be perfect. Maybe your daughter doesn't love having some stranger kid at the park run up to her and pretend to chop her in half with his play light saber. I understand that. But maybe my son just had a great time with another stranger kid he just did the same thing to. Or maybe I am working on teaching my son to be gentler and kinder and we are working on it. Maybe he accidentally hurt your child when they were play wrestling. I'm sorry. He will apologize and follow rules but please maybe put yourself in the shoes of a mom who has to deal with multiple interactions like this in a day.

Moms of boys are often parsing out each interaction to see which ones cross the line and which don't. Sometimes it's hard to know. Or sometimes the lines we thought we would draw before we had boys have been erased, redrawn, erased and drawn again multiple times. Maybe my boy's behavior seems aggressive to you but he just played that game with his best friend for two hours and had a wonderful time.

I would love it if I could sit quietly in a cafe with my son while he reads next to me. I'll be honest: Sometimes I am jealous when I hear about a friend's kid who sits and draws quietly for an hour. That was never my kid. My kids wanted to play, be active and be loud. So I went with it. I am raising the kids that I have, not the kids I imagined having when I thought about parenthood. But this was also a good way of showing me from the get-go that this was about them. Not me. This is their journey and it's my job to help make sure that they are happy in their way and not mine. That has been a gift. 

Don't be fooled

Many years ago, I learned about a boys' school that teaches about different wars in history class and then hands out toy swords and shields at recess so that kids can have a context in which to play out their interests. Those interests and passions are not shamed or stifled. They are channeled. It is a lesson that I have tried to follow. 

I try to direct their interests. Sports are a fantastic way to allow that energy and aggression out in a healthy way. Interested in animals killing other animals? Let's get you some books on predators and study more about the animal kingdom. How do predators hunt? How does prey hide or defend itself? Interested in war? Let's read books about the Civil War. Let's talk about your uncle who is in the Army. Let's learn about Genghis Khan and how he was an amazing military strategist. Let's read about history and go see some historical sites. History is full of crazy violence. What can we learn from that? How do we solve global problems now? Let's talk about the UN and NATO and all of those other things we have created to try to prevent wars.

Never be fooled into thinking that toughness is all there is. Boys have big hearts and they are full of tremendous sensitivity, caring and love.

We recently bought the soundtrack to the Broadway play Hamilton and we are loving it. My 12-year-old and my 8-year-old alike request it. I had guessed that they'd be interested in it and I was right. They love the songs that describe the Revolutionary War, the specific battles and the strategy behind it. But I have also been surprised. Their favorite song? It's not about war and battles. It's a song about friendship and a group of young patriots and fighters who are about to embark on their idea of an adventure together.

Never be fooled into thinking that toughness is all there is. Boys have big hearts and they are full of tremendous sensitivity, caring and love. That is always there. I consulted a friend whom I consider an expert on this topic. She raised six boys as a single mother. Her youngest is 15 and the rest have all become wonderfully sensitive and strong men. She told me a story about her oldest son who is now 35. He got a BB gun for Christmas when he was little and was filled with pride and excitement about it. He played the cowboy game for a while but came in one day absolutely sobbing because he shot a bird off of a telephone wire.

I think figuring out where the lines are can be tough for our boys as well. 

I think about these things in the wake of shootings in Mukilteo, Marysville, Isla Vista and, sadly, other places. We do have a responsibility in raising these boys. We, as mothers of boys, need to take it very seriously. But we also celebrated President Barack Obama's recent Glamour magazine article about feminism. Millions of women are raising strong, sensitive, kind-hearted men every day. I should know because I was lucky enough to marry one. His mother did a wonderful job. And he is a partner in raising two more.

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