What to do when you witness sexist parenting

I grew up surrounded by unchallenged casual sexism. But here's one thing I'm going to change.

I grew up surrounded by unchallenged casual sexism. But here's one thing I'm going to change. Photo: Stocksy

When Australian of the Year David Morrison said, '"The standard you walk past is the standard you accept" in his now viral speech, he was referring to sexism in the military. But it's also a powerful call to action to anyone — male or female — to refuse to turn a blind eye to sexism and gender discrimination.

If I'm being honest, I walk past sexism almost every day.

And while Morrison was referring to sexual assault, the sexism that I tacitly accept through silence is also damaging, especially because it occurs to, and in front of, children.

It's the father who commands his boy to "toughen up and stop being a girl".

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It's the disapproving grandmother who scolds "little girls don't play with mud."

It's the mother in the shop asking "which electronics projects are suitable for girls?"

It's the stranger who jokes about "mum spending all of dad's money".

Not a week goes by without me hearing a statement said to or about a child that reinforces regressive gender stereotypes.

Some would say that these comments, especially when said in jest, are harmless; that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. But the frequency and ubiquity of this casual sexism teaches children about themselves and the world around them.

It feeds into a broader system that disadvantages and devalues women and squeezes men into a suffocating mould of masculinity.

Allowed to fester and grow, these sexist comments harden into self-evident truths that provide the foundations for the kinds of attitudes that have led to Australia having horrific rates of violence against women and children.

I know this, yet I rarely say anything when I hear such sexism.

Partly my silence is because parenting is hard enough without people intervening and telling you you're doing a crap job. But the main reason is that I too grew up surrounded by unchallenged casual sexism.

And I believed it.

I may be a feminist writer now, but I started out as "good girl". Good girls avoid conflict, they don't speak out and they prioritise social harmony above all else. And "good girls" grow into "good mothers". And one of the worst things a mother can be is a troublemaker.

It's ironic that to be able to speak out about harmful gender stereotypes, I have to be able to step out of the constraints of my own gender stereotype.

And part of me thinks that there's no point speaking up anyway, because it won't change anything. You might be able to have a quiet word with your parents or friends who are displaying sexist attitudes in front of your kids, provided you have a good relationship with them.

But in most other cases you'll be ignored or else pilloried.

One woman in my mothers group says that redressing casual sexism is far more effective when her husband speaks out than when she does. Sadly, she's probably right.

Men are not only encouraged to have opinions, it's assumed that their opinions are worth listening to.

No doubt part of the reason that David Morrison has been so successful getting the message across about male violence towards women is that white, straight, middle-class men will listen to another white, straight, middle-class man.

As a woman, I may never enjoy the attention and implicit credibility of a white man, but that's still no reason to keep silent.

I may not be able do anything to change or stop the particular act of sexism that I'm witnessing, but I need to try harder to speak out when I see it, because that in itself is a victory.

The expectation that women and girls should be silent is perhaps the most damaging gender stereotype of all. My daughters and their little friends need to see models of women who refuse to be silent.

If I want my girls, and other girls, to grow up free from the shackles of good girl compliance then I first need to un-cuff myself. Here's my three-step strategy in calling out casual sexism:

1. Speak directly to the offending adult

A few years ago I made a commitment to end the cycle of body hatred in my family. I specifically asked serial offenders to stop all fat chat in font of my girls. After I explained my rational, most were happy to respect my wishes.

With other people, I simply say, "We don't talk about how bodies appear in our family. We're only interested in what they do".

The first time I said it, it felt like I was spitting razor blades, but now it just rolls of my tongue. It's surprisingly easy and effective.

The same applies to casual sexism. If I can't correct someone directly then at the very least I can politely but firmly let them know that we don't talk like that. It sends the message to children that such comments are not okay, or at the very least, that there is an alternate view.

2. Speak to the child

It's not always possible to address casual sexism directly with the person making the comment. It can be too confrontational and flat-out rude. Or even damage your relationship with them.

Sometimes it's more appropriate to instead make a causal and non-threatening comment to the audience — namely the children.

For example, when a librarian took a book about trucks off a little girl in the library because "it was a boy's book", another mother tactfully said to the child "My daughter loves books about trucks. We think all books are for everybody."

3. Talk to my own kids about it later

If I don't have the opportunity, or the desire, to speak up at the time, then I'm going to follow-up with my kids about it later. I'll discuss what happened and why it was sexist. Hopefully this will help them to spot sexism when they see it in the future and understand that they — and other people — deserve better.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of Thirty-Something And Over It. www.kaseyedwards.com