Out of the box: Teach values, not gender

describe the image In his May 29th opinion piece , David Perry makes an admirable and vitally important call to “arm [our daughters] with the tools to question, resist and change our patriarchal culture.” As a proud feminist, I desperately want all our daughters – regardless of race, ethnicity, class, etc. – to grow up in a world where they see themselves reflected abundantly and positively in our social systems and structures. I want this for our sons too, so that the work place becomes more enriched, home life becomes more balanced and both men and women feel less pressure to live up to the unrealistic expectations that society imposes on them – politically, economically and sexually.

Perry claims that we can fight our culture’s emphasis on appearance by “working against the grain, resisting gendered language and emphasizing the internal over the external.” While I praise this and agree that emphasizing character and personality over physical traits is key, there is little we can do to avoid the inevitable intertwining of the internal and external. It’s not just that women are expected to look a certain way, but we are also expected to think and feel a certain way – about marriage, children, our careers, etc. Family, media, our religious institutions and our peers force these expectations on us from birth through adulthood. And when what we think or feel diverges from what we expect or from what others expect of us, the baseless notion of, “I’m crazy” or “there must be something wrong with me” starts to set in. In a world of three billion women all with varying, complex experiences, I have to think that there are more out there thinking critically about what society’s prescribed for them than not, even if they don’t admit it. I am sure the same can be said for men. Although patriarchy privileges men – mainly white men at that – they also bear the weight of gender norms, which peg them as aggressive, emotionally stunted and/or a family’s primary source of income. So how do we normalize the “crazy”? How do we let our values, rather than our gendered perceptions of the world, dictate how we raise our children?

“So how do we normalize the ‘crazy’? How do we let our values, rather than our gendered perceptions of the world, dictate how we raise our children?”

The earlier this education begins, the better. I want to emphasize that this isn’t about raising genderless children. It’s about giving our children space to think and feel before social pressures get the chance to crowd out, dictate or reprimand their choices. It’s about teaching our children to think critically about the world around them. It’s when we box them in that we set them up for the pressure, the tension and the inability to truly live their lives according to their (and not society’s) values.

What else can we do as future or current parents to demarcate that space?

1. Be aware. Know that we live in a gendered world that infiltrates how we talk to, dress and play with our children. By being aware of the choices we are making for them early in their lives, we can create varying experiences that expose them to different toys, colors, activities and people.

2. Have intentional conversations. Engage children in discussion by asking them what they think and how they feel about their friends, school, community, etc. Provide resources for them to learn, rather than just dolling out your opinions. Let your children know they have a voice.

3. Advocate. Set an example for children by being an advocate in your community. Engage children in service and advocacy from a young age so that they can begin to see and understand the symptoms of systems that they are a part of.

4. Don’t leave the boys out. Engage with sons around these topics just as much as daughters. Many women already feel pressure to balance their career and raise a family, so the more we can clue boys into what’s going on, the more of a shared responsibility this teaching will be in the future. This also gives boys an opportunity to share their feelings and shows girls and boys that sexism hurts everyone, which will help build empathy between them.

5. Be self-critical. Be aware of your own relationships with both partners and friends, and understand how gender dynamics do or do not play a role in various aspects of it and why. Maybe there are opportunities to course-correct that you didn’t realize.

6. Provide formal education. As children get older, we should educate them about social systems, how they work and why they exist. In particular, everyone should have to take a gender studies course, so that both boys and girls have a basic understanding of patriarchy, gender and oppression.

I love the quote, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken,” because it implies the originality that we all possess. The ways in which gender stereotypes significantly limit us  – much like stereotypes of all kinds – diminish our ability and inclination to be original. In fact, they instill in us a fear of originality. Supported by many religious systems and, therefore, a set of moral codes that determine right from wrong or natural from unnatural, we’ve created a global gender police force, motivated by fear and righteousness (scary!), that instantly acts when someone has stepped outside the box. This theorizing often results in verbal and physical abuse and systemic disenfranchisement, mirrored in all forms of discrimination. Imagine the world we could live in if originality in all its forms was always a virtue and something to be celebrated.

Julie Kalt served as a New Sector Alliance AmeriCorps Resident in Social Enterprise with the Aspire Institute from 2012-2013. During her time at Aspire, she focused on building capacity at the intersection of communications and operations. Prior to working at Aspire, she worked at Egon Zehnder, an executive search and management consulting firm. While in college, Julie served as the Student Director of Repair the World at Tufts Hillel and held positions in the MA State House and The White House Project. She is passionate about empowering women and girls and serves as a volunteer with Strong Women, Strong Girls and the Red Thread Foundation for Women. Julie graduated from Tufts University with a BA in International Relations and Religion in May 2012.