“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” is one of the more popular definitions of feminism. By that definition, you might think there would be many self-described feminists; male and female. In fact, some young boys are already absorbing feminist definitions. Charlie, a seventh-grade boy in Kentucky, describes feminism as when “females have power and they can do whatever anyone else can do and they’re not less-than people, they’re equal.” His friend Diego, also in seventh grade says that while he isn’t 100 percent sure of the definition of feminism, he would say it is “believing all men and women should be equal.”
It turns out, kids are quite aware of fairness and equality from a young age, says psychologist Dr. Bobbi Wegner. Anyone who has had a conversation with a 5-year-old about sharing dessert with a sibling knows that. They are also astutely aware of when they are being left out, or feel like a friend or sibling is getting something they are not.
This brings us to another feminist phrase; “The Future is Female.” That saying has been spotted on T-shirts across the country and was even used by Hillary Clinton in the wake of the 2016 election. The phrase actually started decades ago, but like a lot of things retro, it is back in style.
Harry, a 16-year-old sophomore in Colorado has seen the shirt at his school. He says that the movement overall is positive, but “honestly, it feels like a little intimidating and a little bias towards men.”
Harry, like many kids, is aware of being left out. In the wake of #MeToo, it seems like there’s even more momentum to empower women and girls.
“Entitlement is being challenged in ways it’s never been challenged before,” says Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men – a non-profit focused on changing perceptions of manhood and reducing violence against women. “What we’re seeing is men being held accountable for things they have always gotten away with.”
It’s a change many women, and some men, would say is overdue. But it’s hard not to also understand where Harry is coming from when he says “I understand the context but I do feel like what about me, where am I? I don’t feel like a community or group is out there that empowers young boys.”
So how do we support our girls, without alienating our boys? We asked the experts for advice. Here’s what they had to say.
Many young boys are surrounded by women and men who have achieved a lot in their lives, who are successful, kind, and contribute to their communities. It isn’t unheard of to have a working mother or a stay-at-home father. Raising boys today can often look different than it did just a few decades ago, so it’s important to have a conversation – or a few conversations – about the history of women in our country.
Rosalind Wiseman, the founder of Cultures of Dignity and best-selling author, says she would start simply by saying “Women have a history of not being able to contribute because they are female, [the shirt] doesn’t mean girls are better just because they’re girls.” And then the next part? Ask “What do you think?” And most importantly -- don’t forget to listen.
“Most of this is asking them what they think,” Wiseman says. “Then frame it for them – I want girls to have an equal chance.”
Another way to offer context is through personal stories. For many boys who see successful women, they don’t always know the barriers she had to overcome. This is a conversation Wiseman wished she had with her own sons.
“I know my children see me as being successful and powerful so they don’t look at me and think ‘she was definitely affected by sexism’,” Wiseman says. But 22-year-old Rosalind couldn’t get funding for her nonprofit as easily or in the sums her male counterparts could.
“It was horrible, it was so frustrating and it was so obvious I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was a young woman,” Wiseman says. Offering that personal anecdote can help bring the complex history to a place where kids can more easily understand and relate.
In fact, as a direct result of our interview for this piece, Wiseman talked with her 18-year-old son Elijah about her earlier struggles. She told us his response via email:
“I hear a lot about these kinds of stories so I am not surprised. You didn't tell us directly but you did tell us other women's stories. Inherently what happened to you is wrong. We are supposed to have equal opportunity and you didn't have it. It would be one thing if you weren't as qualified but if the truth is that women aren't getting the same starting opportunities. You beat them, you had to work harder and you did really well. I am almost sure that the fact that you weren't given things easily gave the fuel to work harder. It makes you understand the opportunity you were given better and then beat the system.”
Wegner tries to use real-world examples with her kids, too. Like when a computer glitch made it seem like her kids didn’t raise any money for their school fundraiser, which gave students a prize for the amount of money they raised. The glitch meant they didn’t receive any prizes, or recognition for their hard work. Instead of trying to fix it, Wegner took the opportunity to talk more broadly about equality and fairness with her kids.
“It’s like they can understand inequity once they see it, and agree it’s not fair,” she says. All you have to do is help them to see the bigger picture.
Be aware of gender expectations
We often have expectations for our kids from the moment they’re born – and even earlier. What type of person we want them to be, where we’d like them to go to school, if we’d like them to play a sport. Gender expectations exist, too, and it’s often those messages that begin even before they are born. Just think of how many gender reveals you’ve seen on social media – a balloon filled with blue confetti or a pink cake concealed under frosting. Expectations go even beyond what color to wear; we often expect girls to play with dolls and boys to be aggressive.
“We easily box our own children in,” Wiseman says. “Parents will say ‘I gave my son dolls to play with and he wanted to fight with them or he wanted to blow them up,’ which justifies in their mind that gender is biological and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
In fact, a study from the National Institute of Health found that while girls “show more positive emotions than boys in middle childhood,” boys showed more emotions than girls during the toddler/preschool age.
“We’re taught not to be vulnerable, or to show feelings. Not to be too kind because that can be seen as weakness,” says Bunch. “This rigid notion of manhood is harmful to women and girls and boys.”
Even if parents intentionally try to raise their sons to feel comfortable sharing their emotions, that “education” in how they “should” act is absorbed through our culture. The same goes for girls – with messages about what constitutes boyhood vs. girlhood. Wegner says kids become very aware of gender roles and expectations in elementary school. For example, her 5-year-old daughter has come home from school and will no longer play with a truck because it’s a “boy toy.” Even though Wegner says she tries to raise her sons and daughter equally, she realizes they are getting messages elsewhere and bringing them home.
“I’m trying to be realistic and understanding,” she says. “It’s about critical thinking and asking ‘why is that a boy toy or a girl toy?’ It’s not offering an opinion, but asking them to think about that.”
Wiseman agrees about the messages children absorb as they grow up. One simple way to support our boys is to be more intentional about maintaining affection with them as they age. “I did it this morning, actually, I made him come back and give a hug and kiss. We have to be really deliberate with being affectionate with our boys.”
Honor their masculinity
Affection, caring, listening – those words often carry with them feminine expectations, says psychologist and Harvard educator Richard Weissbourd. Many boys will bristle at the notion of sharing their feelings outright because it seems feminine to them. Instead, Weissbourd says, we should reframe our expectations of what it means to be a man and meet boys where they are without making them feel less masculine in the process.
“If you want to do something that is really honorable and courageous, figure out how to love someone else,” he says. “That takes a lot more courage than objectifying or degrading women or hanging out with your bros.”
Masculinity doesn’t mean degrading women or having anger be the only emotion that is acceptable to show. Changing the narrative about what masculinity looks like is not an indictment on manhood, says Bunch, but rather an invitation to expose the cultural expectations on all of us and make the changes we want to see.
“We want boys to be their authentic selves,” he says, and that means embracing their full range of emotions. And for supporters of boys –parents, grandparents, friends, or other family members – to be the antidote to the cultural messages they receive. “It’s looking at what [men and boys] currently do, and keeping the good things and challenging what is harmful.”
Recognize your child’s truth
Not all boys will feel pressure to conform to cultural expectations of “manhood.” Some may feel left out by “The Future is Female,” or feel that there is a double standard that works against them – like if girls in their school get away with something they think boys would get in trouble for.
“Your son’s truth is his truth,” Wiseman says. “It’s not helpful to say ‘well that’s not true.’ You have to say, ‘I totally believe that and see why that’s frustrating.’ It’s also the case that while that’s true, the world is complicated, and these other things are true, too.”
Bunch agrees; citing a young boy he worked with recently who felt that being a white male is a bad thing in today’s world. He says from the boy’s perspective that was true. Often we absorb the message that if someone else is getting ahead, that leaves us behind. It can leave you feeling defensive, or like you’re losing ground because someone else is gaining. But that’s not at all the case, Bunch says. Instead, focus on how much we all have to gain by lifting everyone up.
“We have to invite everyone to the table and not indict people because of who they are,” he says. “The success of women doesn’t mean the failure of men.” And it’s on us to help raise our boys to understand that.
Focus on inclusivity for all
In order to build a society where our boys and girls are equal, that we can empower them both to achieve their dreams, to be successful, and also empathetic and kind to one another, we have to help them support each other.
“We have to get out of this female vs. male thing,” Wegner explains. “I wouldn’t say we have to empower boys because they’re boys, but because they’re kids. And kids who feel good about themselves turn into healthy, compassionate adults.”
In order to do that, Wegner recommends asking kids of all ages to focus on who is being left out. It could be in the classroom, on the playground, after school activities, or at parties or on social media. And if the exclusion is intentional, encouraging kids to welcome others and try to find ways to make them feel included. Trying to teach kids to see where their peers are coming from – regardless of gender – is one way to build inclusivity for all.
And as for the “Future is Female” T-shirt? Bunch says, “We’re uplifting the invisible, not putting down anyone else.”