My cousin had just given birth to a boy, and there was a flurry of excitement at my grandmother’s house. Aunts rushed over to decide what would be an appropriate gift for the baby. The jeweller stopped by with a selection of gold chains, and budgets were discussed as all pondered over how much they should spend.
I looked at them in puzzlement. “Didn’t you just give her something the last time she had a baby? Why all this confusion then? Just spend around the same amount!”
My grandmother turned to me and waved her hands dismissively. I didn’t know what I was talking about. “Chee, voh toh ladki thi,” she said, a look of distaste on her face. “Ugh, that was a girl.”
I looked around. No one’s feathers seemed unduly ruffled, but mine were standing on end. I slammed my coffee mug on the table with a loud clatter, and stormed out of the room.
Unfortunately misogyny is so ingrained in us, we don’t even recognise it when it stares us in the face. It’s about time we put a stop to this senseless preference for a male child, and we can do this by teaching not just our girls that they are equal to men, but there is also a need to teach our sons that they are not superior to anyone just because of their sex.
Here’s how you can raise your sons to be decent men, respectful of both sexes.
Don’t stick to gender-specific toys or colours
Children start noticing differences in gender from a very young age. At this time, when play with toys is introduced, parents specifically pick out action-based games for the boys, and dolls for girls, subtly encouraging boys to be more aggressive and dominant, and girls to be nurturing. When a boy tries to play with dolls, his parents or friends discourage him, tease him, and he quickly learns not to play with them. He also starts thinking of ‘girly’ toys as inferior because of the manner in which he is discouraged to play with them.
The next time your son picks up a doll or kitchen set, don’t discourage him. Let him indulge in pretend-play. It will foster a rich imagination, and will teach him to be more nurturing to everyone in his life, be it parents, wife or children.
Work at breaking gender stereotypes in every direction, not just when it comes to toys. Don’t laugh at him for liking that pink quilt. Let him have it.
Don’t allow him to make derogatory statements about girls
“Girls are silly!” my daughter’s five-year-old friend says. His mother laughs indulgently because she knows this dislike for girls is temporary. However, disrespect dies hard. Nip such talk in the bud. Remind him in no uncertain terms that his mother was a girl once, and such talk will not be tolerated.
Encourage him to play with girls
During play, boys tend to exclude girls more often than girls exclude boys. This is not inborn. Rather, it is a result of subtle cues imbibed from those around him. Encourage him to have playdates with girls so he grows to think of them as equals. The more time a boy spends with girls in neutral surroundings where he is not made to feel like he is better because he is a boy, the more respect he will have for them.
Let him do it ‘like a girl’
Don’t tell him he does something like a girl and mean it in a derogative way. Doing something like a girl is not an insult.
A statement like “You cry like a girl” is damaging in a multitude of ways. It makes him think of crying as something to be ashamed of, and simultaneously passes on the belief that behaving like a girl is something to be ashamed of too. Crying is in fact the healthiest way to express emotion.
Make them both do chores
Give your children chores, and shuffle them about so your son and daughter get a chance to do everything. Boys and girls should both help in looking after their baby sibling, cooking, cleaning, making the beds and contributing in any way required.
Cooking is a life-skill. Everyone, irrespective of gender, should know how to cook.
No means no!
When you hug, kiss or tickle your son, and he asks you to stop, stop immediately. This will teach him to respect personal boundaries – his own as well as those of others.
Talk to your teenage son about consent. Silence does not equal to consent. If he is with a girl who is unsure or hesitant, he needs to keep his hands off her. A drunken yes is not consent. Only an unequivocal ‘yes’ given by a girl in her senses is consent. Teach your son to respect the wishes of the girl he is with.
Talk about objectification of women
Your son will be exposed to sexist behaviour, objectification of women and misogyny everywhere, and it is important for you to discuss these issues at home. He will see women in various states of undress portrayed as objects to fulfil male fantasies in advertisements on television, in magazines, and in movies. Point them out to him so he will be able to identify when women are being objectified and will not perceive it as the norm. He needs to recognise that women are not objects put on earth to serve men in the kitchen and in the bedroom.
Raise a gentleman
You do not hold the door open for a woman because you think she cannot do it for herself. You hold it open for her because it is a way of showing respect. It is a form of manners, not sexism. There is a difference. Teach him manners.
Support each other
While we religiously raise our girls to be supportive wives, we fail to teach our sons to be supportive husbands. Instead, we do the opposite and tease men who pay attention to the wants of their wives by calling them henpecked. This needs to stop. Show your support for each other as a couple, respect each other’s opinion, so your son learns by example.
Revise your definition of a ‘real’ man
A real man is not someone who roughs up a woman, but someone who treats her well. A real man is a gentleman, who stands up to protect the rights of a woman. A real man is someone who doesn’t feel threatened by women.
A real man is a feminist.
(A condensed version of this article was published in The Deccan Herald on April 28, 2017. https://www.deccanherald.com/content/608775/to-raise-feminist-son.html)