5 Ways to Raise an Empowered Son
At a time when we talk about empowering women, we need to talk about raising empowered boys.
Let’s face it -- India, the whole world really, faces a volatile social climate where the two populous genders are reexamining accepted social norms of how they’ve dealt with each other. Rates of divorces are at an all-time high; #metoo movement is sprouting across countries; more and more women are demanding the glass ceiling be shattered. Women and men are more at conflict - domestically, professionally and socially - than ever before.
In times when everyone is talking about empowering women, it’s time to put the emphasis on raising men who can deal with empowered women as equals. When there is an atmosphere conducive and receptive to a woman's self-assertion, more than half the battle would already have been won.
As global feminist icon Gloria Steinem says,
I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.
As the mother of a boy, I am aware of the challenges that boys face - at the hands of tradition, their peers and the society. The pressure to ‘man up’, to be strong, to lead, to take, to win, to be strong. And as the mother of a boy, I question myself every single day if the choices I make (and things I make him do) will help him change his outlook towards women from that of his forefathers.
In that sense, I do make a conscious effort to tacitly or directly, teach my son some values that will help him become a better human, a good person, a man in the crowd of boys – and not just by virtue of the fact that he 'wears the pants'.
Here’s how you can raise an empowered son:
I want my son to know how to treat women, whether they are his wife, mother, sister, friend, colleague or just a person he passes by on the road. I want him to know that women should be cherished, respected, and treated right. I don’t ever want him to think it is okay to talk down to a woman, lay his hands on a woman out of anger, or even use inappropriate language in front of a woman. He gets a pat on the back and appreciative words when he treats girls in the park as equal partners in the games he plays. I make him hold out the door for me, or hold the door for his grandmother as she get off the car. Respect is non negotiable.
Despite the paradox that a lot of leading chefs are men, cooking is still considered a prerogative of the women in the house. Admit it, boys are never taught that cooking is an essential life skill. Even at school, boys that choose baking are scoffed upon. Parents never gloat over a son that can cook! As a result, very few men cook after they get married (never mind that they used to when they were bachelors) and the expectation is that the wife will take care of the kitchen even when both partners are working.
I got my child to get fond of cooking – rather early. He was all of two when he was able to butter or jam his toast. Later, when I made omelettes, he was my assistant in the kitchen and beat the eggs.
I can proudly say that today he can independently rustle up instant noodles, or a French toast, and even a vegetable sandwich with soup from a packet – unaided. This also means he can survive all by himself if he is away from home when he grows up. Rather basic. But breaking perceptions starts with small steps.
Breaking the Myth of What's Considered a 'Woman's Work'
This is in continuation to the above point. Some time back, I read about the Kisaruni group of girls' schools in Kenya's Maasai Mara unveiled its first all-boys high school. Ngulot High School's first lesson: When empowering women, we must include men. The new school will also offer education about culture-specific gender norms. Classes at Ngulot will include presentations from local mothers about their daily routines -- fetching water, cooking, collecting firewood -- and how these tasks contribute to their families and the community. This isn't just boys taking home economics.
Valuing unpaid household work, and sharing those jobs between genders, is critical to gender equity, even according to the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment.
The gender bias that exists in terms of only women having the responsibility of household work irks me. More importantly, in today’s day and age, it is redundant. My son is encouraged to take part in chores, breaking down the social construct of "woman's work" - so he does help me chop vegetables, or water the garden and dusts his own room. Even if I wash his socks and underwear in the washing machine subsequently, he does 'wash' them during his shower. He is most thrilled with the prospect of learning how to iron his clothes this summer vacation!
Identity and Self-esteem
Sure the girls are rising up, but how do we ensure the boys are not left behind? We tell our daughters that is it okay for them to have a career and do the jobs that were reserved solely for men.
But we don’t tell our sons that it is okay for them to be paid less than their wives or stay at home to take care of the kids while their spouses continue to work. Men are openly derided or laughed at if they don’t have a job.
The other day, I took at cab that was driven by a woman. My son was travelling with me. I consciously proceeded to 'interview' the driver. It so turned out that her husband worked in a call centre and took up duty in the night hours, so he would be home to take care of their two kids, while she worked, in the day. These are rare experiences and I made the most of it to teach my son a valuable lesson. That 'it takes two to tango'.
Gender Neutral Behaviour
Girl empowerment cannot succeed until we raise our boys to be humanists. This implies boys who believe that feminism does not mean being feminine, it means equality. This rightly conditions the men to support and treat women as equal partners - these then get translated to the workplace where men demonstrate the right behaviour.
We coach our daughters on how to stay safe outside at night but we don’t tell our sons to step up if they see a man harassing a woman in public. Women are applauded for stepping out of the home but men are shamed for daring to stay inside. It starts with the culture at home, how are the mothers, sisters, daughters, treated.
Why can't boys play with dolls? Or girls play football? Girl empowerment needs a healthy ecosystem of boys who believe in equality as much as girls do. Of boys who are in touch with their feminine side - who are unafraid to cry, who can be friends with girls, who are raised to believe that strong and sensitive are not mutually exclusive.
Teach the boys to appreciate women - that is the only way you will be the change you want to see in the world.
(Aarti K Singh is an independent writer with close to two decades' experience in various media. Having worked in radio, TV and print media, she is now indulging in her passion to rediscover the world, besides juggling a PhD and raising her son)
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