It’s hard parenting teenagers, particularly when navigating the topics of gender, when social media dominates so much of their waking hours and attention. At a time when their brains are programmed to look more to their peer group than parents, it isn’t always obvious who is influencing them. Today a teenager’s “peer group” has expanded beyond the other six-foot eating machines raiding your fridge and the stroppy, latest-celeb-heart-throb-obsessed teens, to include the Wild West of social media.
With influencers of all topic’s mere taps away on your child’s smartphone, a particularly concerning influence is coming from grown men. They are less visible to parents, but none the less are shaping cultural attitudes on what it means to be a man, and how to treat women and girls. Men like Andrew Tate, Russell Brand and INCEL groups, spewing misogynistic hate and normalising sexual violence against women and girls. How can we as loving parents equip our teenagers to question, challenge and navigate these views while they are searching for a sense of belonging and building their own identity? To help answer this question, parent of two and ECC coach, Debbie Moore, offers her reflections on being gender aware whilst parenting children.
How to Raise Gender Intelligent Children
Although my kids are now in their 20’s I, like some other parents in the 1990’s, was becoming aware of the impact of stereotyping on our children. I have a boy and a girl and I encouraged them to play with toys made for the ‘opposite’ gender, I tried not to conform too much to pink and blue, (well not quite 100% of the time), and although my decision to go back to work quickly was initially for my own interest and sanity, I soon started to feel proud of role modelling being a working mum. I didn’t know at the time but have since learnt that between the ages of 3 and 6, our kids are really attuned to gender differences which Christia Spears Brown, PhD, director of the Center for Equality and Social Justice at University of Kentucky discusses in her book Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.
Of course, I also demonstrated hidden biases and sometimes just pure lack of awareness as a parent. In their early education it took me a long time to recognise the impact of almost all of their teachers being women and the unhelpful message that was giving. The parents at our primary school campaigned for ‘at least a male sports teacher’… without realising that was re-enforcing stereotypes even further! Then there was the issue of too few boys to put a reasonable football team together and of course no question of asking girls to join the team.
As they left primary school I remember being surprised by one of the girls at the leaving assembly sharing their ambitions to be a housewife and support their husband’s career and even more by the loud clap and ‘oh isn’t she sweet’ from the parents. I do agree in choices, so I hope 1) they have now made an informed choice, even if it’s the same and 2) I really hope a few young boys are saying the same in today’s school assemblies!
At senior school, I started to notice the difficulties of stereotyping on my son. I found it hard at first to accept my son’s strategy to play badly to move down the rugby team hierarchy. He had been put in the first team due to his physique but really disliked the sport – not a very macho thing to admit at such a rugby obsessed boy’s school. Then despite encouraging our daughter in maths, physics and her interest to be an engineer, the careers teacher said she had no information on careers like engineering and would need to ask her husband to chat to her.
As they became young adults, we’ve encouraged them to explore, respect different perspectives, follow their interests, strengths and passions, and to make their own choices. My daughter now being an Electronics Engineer and my son a Freelance Creative I think is an interesting result of this exploration and encouragement (or maybe I have inadvertently influenced them to become the opposite of what was ‘expected’ from my generation?).
So, now that many of the widely accepted stereotypes from when they were kids become inappropriate, for e.g. boys don’t cry, mummie’s take care of the house, all boys love rough and tumble, girls are no good at math, girls should behave, boys are in charge… What do I wish I had known more about?
My Learnings on Gender as a Parent
- Kid’s capacity to understand equity. We probably trod on eggshells around things, there was a bit of denial and life was sometimes too busy. Spotting the moments for open conversations to talk to your children about the topic of equality and equity is so important. Asking them to share their beliefs, really exploring and making time to listen to them, and helping them to see other perspectives early on is so valuable.
- The impact of social media. We were pretty clueless when social media exploded on the scene, and we could probably have done better sooner with our understanding of how to manage it. I think parents are much more equipped now, but if you are sticking your head in the sand – don’t. This means getting ahead of the latest technology and social media trends to see what your teenagers are being exposed to.
- The importance of talking to kids about what they were seeing on social media and what else and who else was influencing them. The more you do this the more you can help them to understand bias and challenge any damaging stereotypes they are coming across. Social media feed algorithms become personalised with every tap of the screen. This can result in content from any given topic being repeatedly fed to a user, so natural curiosity can quickly be replaced by oversaturation and overwhelm.
- How to equip them as teenagers and young adults to be resilient when they were feeling different and judged by others. The difficulties of saying “no” to a peer group is a tale as old as time, with younger people often being desperate to fit in, but practicing setting boundaries and equipping themselves with language to talk about consent in all areas is key.
- How to support them to deal with challenging situations and how to call out behaviour that makes them or others feel uncomfortable. I think we appreciate more now how hard it is for a teenager to stand up for something different and not to go with the crowd, so practising how to respond and what to say in those situations might have been helpful.
My Messages to the Younger Generations
Now of course they are the ones supporting and influencing the next generation. So, what are my messages to them, now they are young adults?
- Gender stereotyping isn’t helpful for anyone. As well as disadvantaging women, it can put huge pressures upon men. Be brave and call it out when you see or hear it.
- Keep expressing yourself, men and women should both feel safe to do so. It shoes truth, not weakness. Follow the things you love, showing you care is more powerful than showing you’re tough.
- Encourage ‘Good Men’ over ‘Real Men’ – the latter leads to toxic masculinity, which is destructive and harmful to everyone.
- Promote equity over equality. Women need different opportunities and support to reach equal outcomes, because they face different barriers and challenges.
- Become an Ally to Women in your workplace to help close the gender gap created by systemic and societal prejudices.
- Keep an open mind-set, try things, ask for help, start the dialogue, and if you get it wrong – talk about it, rather than remaining silent. Ask how you can do better; you are not expected to get stuff right all the time.
- Get involved in the debate to help make meaningful progress in the equality agenda, we need men AND women to help shift the dial.
- If you consider starting a family, discuss how to ‘sharent’, whatever your partner’s gender and ambitions. This enables both parents to be ‘hands on’ so they can keep developing in their careers and or in their personal growth.
- Inclusivity isn’t only about gender, anyone from an under-represented group can experience inequality. Intersectionality often magnifies challenges further.
Links to Organisations and Resources for Support
- How to talk to your child about gender equality – support for parents from Action For Children
- Our Diversity Makes Us Stronger: a book for kids by Elizabeth Cole exploring social and emotional topics around diversity and kindness
- Be the difference: a book 5–12-year-olds by Jayneen Saunders to help parents spark conversations for how they might be able to support gender equality, even at this young age.
- Bold Voices: An award-winning social enterprise bringing school communities together to learn, discuss and tackle gender inequality and cultures of gender. They do this by preparing school communities with the resources they’ll need to understand this culture and object it.
- Man Cave: A preventative mental health and emotional intelligence charity that empowers boys to become great men. They aspire to create a world where every young man has healthy relationships, is able to reach his full potential and contributes to his community.
- Girls Out Loud– an award-winning social enterprise dedicated to raising the aspirations of teenage girls in the UK.
- Beyond Equalities: A charity that works with young men and boys to have brave discussions about ‘what being a man’ means today. Their mission is to engage them in rethinking masculinity, creating gender equality, and preventing gender-based violence.
- White Ribbon: The UK’s leading charity engaging men and boys to end violence against women and girls by tackling the underlying factors that cause it. Their aim is to transform the long established, and harmful, attitudes, systems and behaviours around masculinity, which fuel gender inequality and men’s violence against women.