Smashing the patriarchy has to start somewhere.
I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether my kids would be sexist when they were younger. Like many new parents, I was convinced that nurture would win out and my kids would grow up with open minds and hearts. I’m a rape survivor, and I couldn’t imagine raising kids who would be anything but allies.
By the time my sons had reached their teens, I realized I’d underestimated the impact of social conditioning. Like it or not, my sons (and daughters) were growing up absorbing many of the same harmful messages I once had.
Now that my oldest kids are reaching adulthood, I’ve recognized that progressive values alone aren’t enough to raise progressive kids. If our kids are going to break down patriarchal systems like rape culture, they need to be taught why it matters—and how to do it. Here are eight ways you can teach your kids to fight back against rape culture.
Start when they’re young
By the time kids reach their teens, they’ve already absorbed a variety of cultural messages. That’s why it’s best to lay the foundation long before the teen years.
Now I’m not suggesting that you sit your toddler down for a frank discussion about rape; rather, you can build the foundation for healthy attitudes about consent by encouraging bodily autonomy. Don’t force your child to give hugs or kisses, ask before touching them (within reason), and make sure your child understands that their body belongs to them. Encourage them to respect other people’s bodily autonomy and ask their consent before touching them, too.
As your kids get older, talk to them about rape culture in age appropriate ways. Be honest and answer their questions—even when they’re uncomfortable.
Ditch the gender norms
When my kids began to do chores, I found myself giving my sons yard work and my daughters housework. I was shocked when I realized that I was subconsciously reinforcing gender roles, and I’ve since committed myself to raising my kids in a home where my sons buy tampons and my daughters can play football.
This means that my sons know men have emotions that go far beyond typical notions of what it means to be masculine, and my daughters know they’re not limited by outdated ideas of femininity either. They’re less likely to believe men can’t control themselves around women or to give women a pass when they abuse men, and this rejection of patriarchal ideas lays the framework for a more progressive ideology.
Encourage them to speak up—and teach them how
In my house, it’s often clear that my kids know the right thing to do. They correct each other (and sometimes me!), and aren’t afraid to speak out. What’s more of a challenge is speaking up with their friends and classmates.
Sometimes, kids are hesitant to speak out because they simply don’t know what to say. I’ve combatted this by giving my kids a script, so to speak, by sharing what I’ve told people myself or by suggesting things they could say to their friends when they relay their concerns. Through time, they’ve developed their own talking points for these conversations, which has led them to feel more comfortable calling out their friends or romantic partners for problematic behavior.
Call yourself out, too
No one loves to be called out. When you’re young and still developing a secure sense of self, it can feel particularly vulnerable to consider your own privilege and biases. I’ve found that my kids are more open to discussing privilege when I’m very upfront about my own. As a white person, for instance, I’m honest about my role in white supremacy and I share my journey to dismantle my own racism with my kids.
I often tell my kids that what we absorb isn’t our fault, but what we choose to do with it is our responsibility. Just as it’s my responsibility to dismantle my own racism, it’s their responsibility to dismantle their sexism. When we all recognize our biases and commit to dismantling them, it removes shame from the equation and leaves more room for growth.
Talk about it in casual, non-confrontational ways
There’s no denying that conversations around rape culture and privilege can get heated. One way to reduce the conflict and defensiveness involved in these types of discussions is by making them less personal.
In my house, most of our conversations about rape culture take place around the dinner table in the context of the news. Because the conversations are broader and less personal, my kids are more able to spot problematic perspectives without clinging to them. As a result, these conversations flow naturally and freely, and they make much more of an impact than any lecture ever could.
Don’t make excuses
I’ve taken a lot of heat for writing frankly about my sons’ role in rape culture. The reality is that all of our sons play a role. As tempting as it is to view our own kids as somehow removed from these large-scale societal issues, we don’t do them any favors when we make excuses for them.
This isn’t to suggest that we shame our kids for the role they play in perpetuating rape culture. Shame doesn’t do anyone any good. But feeling uncomfortable, or your kids’ discomfort, isn’t a reason to stop having these conversations. Discomfort is a necessary part of growth at any age, and your kids need you to support them as they grow.
No one is a perfect ally, and being an ally often comes with a lot of expectations and confusion. To be successful, we have to be willing to fail (repeatedly) without giving up. If kids haven’t learned that it’s OK to fail, they’re not going to take risks. And without the risk of failure, there’s no room for personal growth.
Praise progress, not perfection
It’s easy to lose hope when our kids parrot the patriarchy. But kids are just that: kids. As important as it is not to make excuses for them, it’s equally as important to praise their progress.
Allies may not deserve cookies, but our kids need our support. Make sure your kids know you’re proud of them for doing the work, and celebrate their achievements along the way. They have a lifetime to develop their social conscience, but they’ll only live at home for so long.