In Search of Feminist Parenting Skills

My niece recently joined our family. This little girl is almost 5 months old, and I have the honor of spending a lot of time with her, since I babysit her on a regular basis. Watching her grow and learn every day has been something else. I typically don’t like babies or small children – so you know my niece must be pretty special (imho) if she’s won over my sour heart.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that:

One of the primary difficulties feminist thinkers faced when confronting sexism within families was that more often than not female parents were the transmitters of sexist thinking . . . most people assume that a woman raising children alone, especially sons, will fail to teach a male child how to become a patriarchal male. This is simply not the case.

In Women’s Studies classes past, the topic of parenting mostly revolved around criticizing the color pink and calling toy stores out for the way they divide up their aisles. Those critiques are legitimate, as is the criticism from hooks, but what I need now is practical advice for how to be a good feminist care giver (or parent) – not poop to throw around in a poop fight. (Notice my language is getting somewhat cleaner now that I have to monitor what I say with a baby in the house?)

What do feminist parenting methods look like? I have suddenly become acutely aware of the messages we send babies right from the get go. Most people tell my niece how pretty she is. I have been actively reminding myself to tell her on a daily basis that she is smart and brave. When she’s sleeping, I like to send her happy thoughts of being courageous. We sing our alphabet every day and count to ten in English and in Spanish. I want my niece to grow up knowing that it’s OK to be smart and pretty.

Before my niece arrived, I made an effort to find books that show girls as the heroine. We’ve been reading the Ramona books together, and watching the girls on “The Backyardigans” take their adventures. There are no dolls for her to play with at our house. That’s all well and good for now – but I wonder what to do when this little girls starts walking and talking, and I have to do something more to entertain her than let her stare at the blinds or the electrical outlet.

I’d love some advice from some seasoned feminist parents. What books do you like to read with your kids? How have you instilled feminist values in your kids? I’d love to learn from your victories (and mistakes).

 

About Serena:
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.

Comments

  1. I’m not a parent, but I grew up in a feminist household – and I have very fond memories of reading the “All of a Kind Family” series, by Syndey Taylor, when I was a kid. The books are about five girls growing up on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s; the family is Jewish, the parents are immigrants, and the books are just so fun to read.

  2. One of my feminist parenting rules is we do not keep a scale in our home. This may sound odd rule when you are watching a 5 month old baby but concepts about body image and modeling begin early. If youngsters see their parents checking their weight every day or keeping a scale by the fridge they learn quickly that body image and size are one of our top & maybe should be one of their top priorities. As a feminist mother this is one simple piece of advice I like to share with other caregivers that is a small way to make sure we are parenting like feminists.

    • CCB, thank you for that reminder. I am always a little uncomfortable when people are talking about the baby’s weight. Yes, she is growing, and that’s good. But we need to be conscientious of the way we phrase that. I love the idea of throwing the scale out the window.

  3. Great post Serena! I have a neice who is about 2.5 years old and a nephew who is 14 months old. This is certainly something I can relate to with interacting with them. I am much more prepared to deal with children and teens, compared to babies. My neice seems to think pink is absolutely amazing when we shop together, but her mom tells me purple is her favourite colour. Makes me know how smart she already is, since it seems like she is already playing a game with me there, lol! There are no dolls in my house but lots of stuffed animals, construction books, etc. I feel like it is even harder with my nephew because the simple thing to do is to avoid the pink, girl toys for my neice. But then how do I help ensure my nephew know traditional feminine interests are okay for him too? It is not so easy to find a gender neutral toy tea set, for example. Hopefully there are some good responses…

    • Lindsay – what a good point about the challenge of instilling feminist values in little boys. Would love some folks to add in on that one.

    • I was raised in a feminist house and the way my parents did it was to teach us to challenge all norms. If we heard “That’s for boys!” we were encouraged to ask, “Why is that for boys?” Giving us the freedom to challenge things went a LONG way towards teaching my sister and I that “for girls” and “for boys” were the enemy, NOT the things themselves.

      As for finding a gender neutral tea set – how about just get the pink one? Challenge the assumption that pink = girls and is “not for boys.”

  4. Jennifer QKW says:

    feminist mom here – my son is 10 and my daughter is 8 – i have always told both of them how beautiful and smart they are, and they do the same chores in rotation. we read American Girl as an antidote to Barbie and Disney. they both have dolls, legos, and wheeled toys. now, her room is pink (her choice) as are a lot of her clothes. and being a feminist and being feminine at the same time has always been my choice. due to comments by their father (my ex), i’m not sure they believe that what mommy does is as “valuable” as what daddy does, but i am working on that. @jlms_qkw

    • Jennifer, what is American Girl about? I’d love to look into those books. And I think your point and femininity and feminism being partners is so important. I know that when I first discovered feminism, I thought it meant rejecting femininity. Thankfully I learned more about what feminism actually is – because Goddess knows I love my bling and my pink handbags. :D

  5. I love that you tell her she is smart instead of pretty. I did a lot of the caregiving when my niece was an infant to toddler and I always made sure to talk about how smart she was and how good she was at doing things instead of her prettiness. She was a very beautiful girl and that is what everyone told her. She learned early on that adults thought it was hilarious when she acted dumb. Her favorite thing to do was scrunch her shoulders and sing song I don’t know.

    Eventually being smart became a big part of her identity. I had not seen her in a year and a half and just saw her tonight. She knew right away that I wanted to know about what she knows and who she is not how she looks. She excitedly told me about every book she has read in the last year and a half. We talked about Harry Potter Movies and books.

    She makes me proud because I think my feminist smart girl mandate had an impact, even if it did take a lot of time for her to stop giving me that I don’t know bullshit *I still have a potty mouth, my animals forgive it*.

  6. GREAT TOPIC. I have 2 girls, now 18 and 15, and ran an in-home day care for a couple of years. Here’s what I did: I had dolls AND trucks — dress up clothes of every kind — and legos and stuffed animals available. I let them choose. What I discovered was, to me, supremely cool – and logical. Everyone played with everything. The only person who had issues was one hyper-masculine dad who was afraid his son might catch the gay from playing dress-up. The other thing I did vigilantly teach them that all advertising is trying to trick them. There is nothing wrong with being feminine – as long as it is CHOSEN by the individual in question. I hope this is helpful. : )

  7. I have four girls. My best feminist parenting tip is to home educate. I feel that home educating gives me the opportunity to help my girls grow up with enough positive self-image, and self-esteem to make the choices that are right for them, regardless of what society says they should do because of their possession of a uterus!

    We don’t hide them from society, but my husband and I are on hand nearly all the time to help them make sense of the world from our informed-choice, feminist perspective. And all their friends (of whom there are a huge number!) are parented in a similar way, so we rarely hear the ‘yuck ! That’s for boys!’ thing that you hear in school all the time.

    My girls play with boys, and ‘boy things’ just as much as they play with girls and ‘girl things’. They do ballet lessons and rock climbing lessons. They have dolls and train tracks. And no one criticises or judges them for it. They are growing up confident in their own choices and I hope that, by the time they reach adulthood, they won’t ever feel that they can’t do something simply because they are women.

  8. Watch out for animal stories – all the animal species seem to be really short of females. I second the bit about letting kids choose toys – my son and daughter both play with dolls/cars/construction toys/sparkly dressing up pretty indiscriminately, because they can. Modelling is tremendously important. I never talk about my weight, my appearance or dieting in front of my children (not that I did much anyway, but it’s made me conscious of how widespread this kind of talk is, and how deeply it ingrains the idea that ‘being a woman’ means constant dissatisfaction with appearance) And physical activity – girls whose mothers/female family members are active are more likely to be active themselves.

  9. I have an almost 3 year old daughter and I always wanted to make sure she has options in what she plays with, reads, watches and wears. So she has cars as well as dolls but she chose the dolls over cars which is fine with me because she wasn’t forced into the princess thing, she genuinely seems to be quite a feminine person. So she does like looking after dolls and pushing prams and making dinner in her toy kitchen and cleaning. But she see’s her dad doing all those things so doesn’t see it as women’s work and I think that’s important. I try really hard not to overload on ‘girls’ stuff though so that she gets a balance but I don’t want her to think its not ok to be feminine so I’m happy to buy into the pinky-princess part of the world to a point. I make a point of buying some ‘boys’ pjs/clothes and books for her so that she knows its ok to like pirates and trains and dinosaurs too. I NEVER buy the pink version of a toy where there is a primary coloured one because I find them so insulting!

    My dad was the stay at home parent for a lot of my childhood which I think has had a massive impact on how I want my own family to operate and subconsciously, the type of man I married. My husband is a nurse and I am about to start a degree hoping to work in medical science and I really hope that our careers prove to her she can do whatever she wants.

    I feel like there are a million little things we do which will hopefully make a difference when she’s older. I hope it works :)

    • Nicky, thanks for sharing your story. I think it’s good that your daughter sees her dad doing housework. We’ve been telling my niece that everyone needs to share the load as far as housework goes. We’ll see if it sticks. :)

  10. I have noticed one thing…these days we often encourage our young girls to take up a variety of ” masculine” activities, while failing to give worth to “feminine” activities…this is not the message I want to send to my girls…I want them to be happy with a variety of interests and abilities, whether they are traditionally masculine or feminine, and above all, to be glad to be a girl, and proud of all those wonderful qualities generally associated with being a girl

    • I think you have a really good point. And I think it’s important to teach our kids – girls and boys – to embrace the positive aspects of both femininity and masculinity.

  11. I’m a little late to the party and can’t add anything to the parenting tips, but wanted to say that if your neice is counting to 10 with you in 2 languages AND singing the alphabet with you, by the age of 5 months, I think you may have a gifted kid on your hands. Most children can’t even speak at all by 5 months, that usually doesn’t come till about a year, so ya, your neice IS really really smart! Congrats to your family on the wonderful addition.

    p.s I love the comment about not having a scale in the house. ^__^ Great advice that.

  12. As a feminist parent of both a son and a daughter, I simply let my children play with and of the toys they wanted. (I avoid violent ones like toy guns). And let the interests they developed go from there. Now my son is learning to cook and take apart his bike. My daughter is a high honor student that loves to care for younger children. They’ll take you where they want to go, just follow them

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