Wednesday 24 April 2019

How I raised my three boys to be feminists - Arlene Harris

Gender equality is not a lesson to teach only to boys, it's a trait to be modelled and encouraged from day one, in everyone, writes mother of three sons, Arlene Harris

Standing proud: Arlene Harris with sons Tadhg (18) and Rodhan (14) at home in Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward
Standing proud: Arlene Harris with sons Tadhg (18) and Rodhan (14) at home in Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Arlene Harris

Throughout my life I've had the good fortune of being surrounded by wonderful men; firstly my father, a strong character for whom family was paramount. While known for his larger-than-life personality and somewhat irreverent outlook, he was devoted to my mother whom he unequivocally regarded as his equal - and vice versa.

Being an only daughter, I grew up sandwiched between two brothers and we were reared in exactly the same way - none of us made to feel inferior or superior because of our gender.

Fast forward to adulthood and my own relationship is also based on equality - both my husband and I work, we do our fair share around the house and parenting is something we work at together. It's not always 50/50 or perfect but we do our best.

Of course, I've had dealings with misogynistic men throughout my life, but as family goes, I've been fortunate.

Gender equality was such a normal aspect of my life that when it came to bringing up our three sons - Cailan (20), Tadhg (18) and Rodhan (14) - my husband and I didn't decide how we were going to raise them, nor did we have a discussion about how important it was for them to grow up believing women are their equals. This wasn't because we thought it unimportant, but simply for both of us, it was a given.

Some would say we are a family of feminists but I prefer to see us as a family who places everyone on a level playing field, be it through gender, race, colour, creed, sexuality or any one of the differences which make us all unique.

I remember telling my boys when they were young that some people actually think they are better than others because they have a different skin colour or come from another country - they looked at me with incredulity wondering what could make anyone believe something so ridiculous.

By the same token, they never saw themselves as being any better (or worse) than girls - they were all just kids. As toddlers, I bought them a wooden dolls house with little figures which occasionally were used in the traditional family setting, but more often than not, the house would be invaded by dinosaurs or used as a garage for their countless cars and trucks.

At mother and toddler group, they each went through a phase of making a beeline for the dolls prams - again, these weren't used in the conventional sense of taking the baby for a stroll, but became sought-after machines in competitive pram racing sessions.

The nature or nurture debate has long been raging and having studied and worked as a Montessori teacher in Britain, I believed, like Maria Montessori did, that both aspects are relevant to a child's learning - the environment around a child is nurturing, while nature comes from within.

I could see first-hand that my boys were not instinctively put off by supposed girls' toys, but they did play with them in a stereotypically male way.

My boys also had a toy kitchen and as they got older, we bought them their own cooking utensils so they could get involved with baking and cooking.

They regularly saw their dad and granddad preparing dinner, so there was never an inkling that being in the kitchen was a job suited to one gender or another.

Today, they are all dab hands in the kitchen, the older two (of college age) in a phase of throwing together whatever is the quickest to prepare, while my 14-year-old thinks nothing of getting out a recipe book and cooking something from scratch.

With the #metoo movement still making headlines, it now seems strange looking back that neither my husband nor I ever thought about making sure the boys knew how to behave towards the opposite sex; we simply and instinctively raised them to be respectful of everyone - and as far as I'm aware, the message has sunk in.

Of course, as parents, we all do our best to set a good example and ensure our children grow up to be caring, responsible adults. But sometimes, no matter how good our intentions, getting the right message across can be difficult. Young people are bombarded left, right and centre with conflicting information and images from which we wish we could protect them.

Smart phones are an everyday essential for teenagers and no matter how many parental controls and restrictions we impose, kids will find a way around them.

My eldest son is almost 21, so smart phones were just emerging when he was young. He didn't have unrestricted access to the internet as a young teenager, but being of curious mind and ability, very quickly became much more adept and computer literate than we were and it took us a while to realise that he was able to access a lot more than we gave him credit for.

Facebook was a big thing when he was in first year of secondary school and he was only allowed to use it if we knew his password and had access to the account. This caused some outrage on his behalf but it was parental control or nothing.

This encouraged a conversation about the notion of 'friends' because half of the 1,000 people he amassed within a couple of weeks would be unrecognisable to him if he passed them on the street - so we did a purge of any of the older or unknown people who were clogging up his friend list and might not have his best interests at heart.

Although slightly irritated, I think he was somehow glad of my interference as it put a halt to the race for the most 'friends'.

Aside from the feelings of anxiety social media can evoke, pornography was and still is a big problem for children accessing the internet. It can be found at the touch of a button, assaulting young eyes and minds with images and distorted ideas of what relationships and bodies should look like.

So it is more important than ever that parents' voices are clearer than anything they may see online.

It's not easy talking to teenagers about these things, but no matter how difficult the subject, I have found that it's absolutely crucial to broach the subjects of sex, porn, rape, abortion, sexuality and the many other topics which would have been brushed under the carpet by parents a generation ago.

I tackled these subjects as soon as I thought the boys would come across them, and I'm so glad I did.

While they may have been embarrassed at first, they realised that I was going to talk about these issues anyway, making sure they knew that there are right and wrong ways of behaving, regardless of what the online world deems acceptable.

Of course, talking about sex with your child can be cringe-making for both parties. I first broached the subject with my eldest when he was about 10. I can't exactly remember how the subject came up but answering his questions, I casually imparted the relevant information, while I was cooking and he was sorting his football cards.

I divulged what seemed necessary at the time and asked him if he had any questions - "Yeah," he answered. "Do you think I should swap Wayne Rooney for Steven Gerrard?"

At the time, I thought he hadn't taken in anything I said, but it became clear later on that he had, but that he just hadn't been too bothered by it.

When sex education classes came about in school, none of it was a big deal for him or for his brothers, who learned the facts of life through osmosis and asking questions here and there. We always answered questions as honestly as was appropriate for their age.

I've always been one for talking things out, so as they got older and more aware of the world around them and the differences between the sexes, we would regularly discuss topics which were in the news - often involving certain behaviours between men and women. Because no topic is taboo, they have always been able to debate and give their opinions - the abortion referendum, LGBT equality, divorce, recent rape trials - all of these we discussed at length. I have been proud and reassured each time to realise that we have raised three fine young men with good internal moral compasses.

They believe that everyone is equal and should be afforded the same rights. They have respect for people of both genders and, importantly, know to expect that same respect for themselves from future partners.

But while reinforcing the message that men and women are equal is essential, it's also important to recognise that we are different in many ways and should celebrate those distinctions rather than insist they don't exist.

So, if I'm attempting something which requires a bit more brawn, one of my menfolk will usually offer to take over - whether it's opening a tightly sealed jar or carrying a heavy box - and they will always, without question, rush to take grocery bags from me and put away their contents as I return from the shop.

This is nothing to do with them believing they are more capable but simply recognising they are physically stronger than I am.

By the same token, I'm also more emotional than the men in my life and well up over films, pieces of music or a sad story. My other half also has a soft side and has been known to become misty eyed on occasion.

This is important for boys to see as it shows them that not only is it okay for men to be sad, but it's normal and healthy. So, while they definitely don't get teary on a regular basis like their mum, if faced with a sad situation, they don't have a problem with showing their emotions either.

Looking back, we were quite strict with the boys - having both worked in the restaurant business we never allowed them to run wild when we were eating out - and if they couldn't sit still and behave, we would leave.

Same went for the word 'no' - if we said something wasn't possible, we both stuck to our guns. I remember my middle son having a tantrum over a lollipop when he was three or four. I brought him into another room and told him to scream as loud as he wanted for as long as he wanted. Angry wails ensued but subsided after a while and when he came out, I told him how lucky he was that he never had to endure that again as all he ended up with was a sore throat from shouting and still no lollipop - he never bothered with another hissy fit.

This parenting style again wasn't something we decided on, but it just evolved that way and would have been exactly the same whether we had sons or daughters.

Parents of boys are often urged to make a defined plan to raise their sons as feminists, but while this is important, I feel it shouldn't be about feminism at all. Sure, boys need to be taught to treat girls nicely and equally but the same needs to apply to girls about the boys in their lives. The message should be to raise all of our kids to be nice to each other.

Of course there are nasty men out there, but there are also some nasty women too. There are just as many wonderful fathers, sons, brothers and husbands as there are wives, daughters, sisters and mothers.

Our children are the future and in order to stamp out the feelings of fear and division which is spreading like wildfire across the globe, I believe we need to do our utmost to teach not only our boys, but also our girls to treat each other with kindness and respect.

Irish Independent

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