This past weekend I spoke at the National Organization for Men Against Sexism’s 41st Annual Conference. The conference included presentations and discussions of important social justice topics including ending men’s violence, classism, transgender issues and gay bashing, sex trafficking, pornography and the commercial sex industry, and international violence against women.
I was tasked with talking about fatherhood and feminism, and I covered everything from the extreme gendering of toys to the division of chores at home and the need for better family leave and work policies to support involved fathers. The truth is, though, that for a moment I doubted the significance of my talk as compared to the discussion of the serious issues of economics, child custody, reproductive rights, and the matters of life or death people face due to mass shootings, domestic violence, honor killings, and police abuses.
But, the words of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last week reminded me that thinking about how we raise our children, about what they see and what they learn from our world, is perhaps more crucial than ever.
As Michelle Obama discussed the importance of parents being role models, she noted, “With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us.” She went on to remark that in their roles as president and first lady, she and the president know that their words and actions “matter, not just to our girls, but the children across this country.” And she articulated what we’ve all known but couldn’t quite put into words, “This election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.”
The first lady wasn’t done. She continued:
“I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. … I want a leader who will be guided every day by the love and hope and impossibly big dreams that we all have for our children.”
Hillary Clinton herself addressed little girls when she made history and officially clinched the nomination. She told them, “I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.” In her keynote speech at the convention, she added:
“I’m happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. I’m happy for boys and men —because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
Then, following up on Michelle Obama’s remarks, Clinton stated that not only are our children watching but that “the president we elect is going to be their president, too.” She described her desire for a country “where all our children can dream, and those dreams are within reach” and she ended her address by calling for us to be stronger together and to “build a better tomorrow for our beloved children.”
It is these same motivations that make me and other parents hypervigilant about our children’s toys, books, and other media, about the gendered roles we play in our own lives, and about the policies that perpetuate Leave It to Beaver-era gender inequality. In fact, I think challenging the gender divisions children learn is crucial to our future and theirs. And these gender divisions are inescapable; they pervade everything from the placement of science toys in toy stores to the color schemes thrust on our children to the disappearance of female characters from toy collections and children’s books to which parent is able to take leave from work to be with them.
No matter how good individual parents may be and, despite teaching children to respect everyone and to believe they can be anything, the fact is that children learn from what they are shown by their peers and the culture around them. One of the earliest and strongest lessons they learn precisely as they are trying to define themselves is gender bias. Indeed, research has shown that children prefer male political and business leaders to female leaders.
So what we teach our kids as a society really matters and ultimately informs everything that is to come. When boys see the absence of women in the public sphere and in their favorite books and movies, they learn that girls and women are inferior. It does not take much of a leap to understand that when these boys grow up, they may not respect women’s leadership abilities or their right to fair treatment in the workplace or at home. And if they have disassociated themselves from “girly” emotions, they may also lose touch with their own humanity, likely limiting their own dreams and potential in the process. Girls, too, internalize their “inferiority” and diminish their hopes and dreams accordingly.
Everything children learn about gender — what they must wear and how they should sound, which parent does which tasks, which bathrooms have diaper-changing stations, what careers are considered male and which female — inform the type of adults they eventually become and the sort of society they will perpetuate. This is why it is so important to show children that in the adult world everyone matters, and everyone has equal opportunity to dream and succeed.
Our goal as parents is to raise our children to be happy, well-adjusted adults who can pursue their dreams with no limitations and no divisions, gendered or otherwise. Our goal as citizens is nearly the same: we should want a well- educated, ambitious, and confident next generation who will continue the progress we’ve made. It’s easy to recognize that the children are the future. The hard part is recognizing that if we want their future to change, it starts with the world we leave for them.More On