Can we undo sexism by the next generation?


Go ahead and brainwash your baby. There are few enough privileges as a parent, you might as well seize this one. If you want to change the world and make it a less sexist place then this little human sponge of yours is the best chance you’ve got. Because truth is, the world is going to try to brainwash your baby right back. I’m wary of anyone being too prescriptive about either parenting or feminism these days, I’ve made my share of compromises with both, and I’m not much interested in perfectionism. But in case you’re after a starting point with anti-sexist parenting then here’s three general tips from my own experience.

1. Question sexism

Questioning sexism with your child might take a bit of effort at first but before long it will become a compulsive tick for you. Why is the Mummy Rabbit in this story cooking dinner while the Daddy Rabbit reads the paper? Why aren’t there any girls using construction kits in the toy catalogue? Why are there no dress-up clothing options for girls except princess costumes? Why was the boy in this TV show made fun of for being scared of the dark but the girls were not?

A good way to frame this for small children is to ask them whether this is fair. Little kids believe in the doctrine of fairness like a church believes in commandments. You will get probably weary of all the examples of sexism you’re seeing and you will make the first five years a time of censorship for your child.


2. Encourage other options

In general, I’ve found providing a full range of play and clothing options for my daughter much easier to do than for my son. For instance, supporting her to be both bookish and boisterous gets little push back from others. But masculinity seems to be something else. It is powerful and unstoppable yet curiously vulnerable to dilution if exposed to anything too feminine.

People won’t be at all comfortable with your little boy wearing nail polish while playing with toy dinosaurs though they’re perfectly fine with your daughter doing it. So, prepare yourself for the disapproval while knowing that every kids loves sparkly nailpolish and this is something worth fighting for.

Until quite recently my son wore tu-tus and it was the cutest thing. All the tu-tu wearing helped me significantly in coming to terms with his developing passion for guns. “I like killing games, don’t I,” he says. “You do honey, you really do.”

I think about We Need to Talk About Kevin during these conversations but I think he thinks about love and acceptance. He knows I don’t like gun play but he likes very much that I am trying to meet him halfway with it. I like that his gun play is an active, imaginative game but I don’t love trivialised violence. So much of parenting, in my experience, is wondering whether you are making peace with something necessary or just succumbing to it.

I have never stopped my son from expressing pain or anger. I don’t shame him for crying either. Overall, there’s probably been a little too much expression from both kids. A word of warning here: your baby might hate the car now, but there is nowhere children like to talk more than there.

In fact, parenting books suggest you use car trips to get teenage children to open up. But I don’t have sullen teenagers yet and I instead find myself wanting to use that line from True Detective, where Hart loses his patience with his police partner and he says, “Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection from now on, OK?”

3. Help your child undo sexist attitudes towards women

Give your child plenty of children’s books with female protagonists. Apparently, there’s this idea that boys won’t read stories about girls but it’s mostly because they’re not exposed to them. Apart from missing out on some very good stories your son would also miss out on an amazing opportunity to imagine being the other.  

There’s a strange feminine bonding ritual I was determined not to pass on to my daughter. It is the supposed camaraderie of women criticising their bodies to one another while exchanging diet tips. I made a rule for myself never to expose my children to conversations like these. I’m not immune to moments of discomfort with my body as it ages but I process those thoughts alone and, in the course of following my rule I’ve actually found my own body image has improved. 

A quick word on sex. Use physical games, like wrestling and tickling, to teach consent. Make it a point in the game that kids (and adults) stop to check if everyone is enjoying the game. And about genitals. I like vulva and vagina used correctly because I like names. They give you a sense of ownership. In terms of teaching bodily autonomy, boundaries, authority and a capacity for pleasure I think a sense of ownership is invaluable for a daughter.    

Where will all of this finish up?    

Writer Anne Lamott advises you to raise your children feminist but warns that children will rebel so you’ll end up with quite the little anti-feminist by the end. I think there’s another kind of problem you could encounter.  

My daughter had an argument with me about my feminism the other day. It centred on her hair, which she likes to have very long and very unbrushed. In the course of our argument she seemed to suggest she might be more "second wave" than me. She questioned my conviction. She said I am trying to change her. She believes my desire to see her hair brushed and tied up is "feminising" her and not accepting her for who she is, which is someone who likes dirty, knotty hair all over her face. Or at least that’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.

I listened with gritted teeth because as it happens I was cleaning her room while we argued about how little I love her. My daughter stormed off then, she was running away. I heard her crying in the back garden and it worried her little brother. He told me he was going down to find her. Right, well tell her to come here because her mother wants to give her a hug, I said.

Ten minutes later he was back to report that she had a message for me — she doesn’t want a hug, she wants respect.