Ways to Empower Children Regardless of Gender
By Amy Hoyt, Ph.D.
Dr. Amy Hoyt is a Visiting Professor at University of the Pacific and Mother of 5.
Feminism is a broad social movement with a long history of advocating on behalf of women. There are many different expressions of feminism within the U.S., and it’s no secret that feminism can provoke strong opinions and lively debate. Despite its controversial reputation and contested agenda, the heart of the feminist movement is really about enabling women and girls to develop their full potential.
Many people mistakenly believe that feminism is about erasing differences between men and women, or about making women more powerful than men within society. On the contrary, feminism is about valuing the unique contributions of all people, regardless of gender. In this way, I have found feminism very instructive when talking to my children about dignity and respect in relationships, including sexual relationships. It is also helpful when teaching children to develop their own healthy attitudes about sex, intimacy and sexuality.
How can we teach our daughters and sons about feminism?
- Find a definition of feminism that you are comfortable with and teach, by words and actions, that all humans deserve dignity and respect. I teach my children that a feminist is someone who advocates for all people to reach their full social, political, physical, spiritual and emotional potential.
- Dispel the notion that feminism is a movement that is only for women and girls. Male allies are welcomed and needed in order to shift the dynamics of power that keep some humans from reaching their full potential.
- Allow your children the opportunity to say “no,” and respect the boundaries they have set. Agency, or the ability to make decisions for oneself, is an important part of feminism. We must allow our children to make decisions and live with the consequences (both positive and negative) of their choices. Our children will learn to trust their judgment if they are empowered to make decisions. If we do not intend to offer a choice to our children, we should form our sentences in ways that do not imply choice. For example, my six-year-old son was asked if he would read a scripture in the children’s group at church the following week. He told the youth leader “no.” The leader laughed it off and asked him to “do his best.” He came home and told my husband and I that he had been asked to do the scripture and that he had decided not to do it. After much discussion my husband and I agreed that he had been given a choice and he had made his decision. We realized that if we forced him to do it, we would be potentially eroding the important lessons we have been teaching him about asserting himself, and that “no means no.” Additionally, we wondered what lesson he might learn if we told him that his decision to use the word “no,” particularly when it applied to his body and actions, would not be respected.
- Hold our children accountable for comments and criticisms based upon gender stereotypes. When my son teased his younger brother for signing up for a ballet class because “only girls do ballet,” I very firmly let him know that he was mistaken- plenty of boys dance- and, making fun of others is not acceptable. I then asked him how he would feel if the tables were turned. He admitted that it would not feel very good and apologized to his brother. By holding my children accountable for their gendered comments, and correcting gender stereotypes, I’m hopeful that my children will learn to stand against sexism in all forms.
Teaching our children any concept becomes more concrete if they see consistency in our words and actions. By teaching our children to value all people, we must be prepared to judge less, respect more and advocate for a world where all humans, regardless of gender, are allowed to reach their full potential.
See our new book 30 Days to a Stronger Child to find lessons related to this topic and learn ways and activities to help your child be stronger!