We Need to Change How We’re Raising Boys
If we only change how we raise girls, we’ll never achieve gender equality.
Patriarchy and egalitarianism are two opposing mindsets between which Indian society hangs in the balance. Depending on the context, the pointer on the scale can tip toward either direction; for example, in rural areas, where the literacy rate is low and global exposure is limited, patriarchy is profound, whereas in urban areas, egalitarian thought processes have been gaining momentum.
In urban areas, however, though gender equality is becoming more important and even aspirational, patriarchy, in some capacity, is inescapable. We see this in family contexts, especially joint families, in which the male head of the household still holds most executive power. Despite the underlying patriarchy, women of younger generations, especially those who live in urban areas, seem to be adopting more open-minded values. More women now are pursuing career-oriented higher education, getting married later, and even choosing not to have children in order to focus on their work. Progressive parents are encouraging their daughters to take the steps necessary to secure an independent, fulfilling life now, more so than ever.
This is all well and good, but what we are not doing is preparing our sons for women who possess these values. We are left with a unique situation where the goals for raising girls have evolved, but those for raising boys have stayed stagnant. This is perhaps because, in our country, boys and men have generally been granted more freedom and opportunity than girls and women. While the latter is catching up, it is imperative for the former to keep advancing, to alleviate the disparity and accept equality. As a plant grows, it is often not enough to keep watering it. Eventually, the pot needs to be replaced by a bigger one to allow the plant to flourish.
When this does not occur, struggles ensue – and the struggles associated with this phenomenon play out most glaringly in marriages. Women who have been urged by their parents all their lives to follow their career goals might abruptly find themselves at an impasse after marriage, if their partners and in-laws do not approve of their priorities. They might also feel the need to mute their independent and assertive selves in order to appease partners who might not be accustomed to those qualities in a woman. This also has negative implications for men. They might not be happy in their marriages, might feel like they are constantly fighting with “fussy” wives, or not getting their due. These consequences and feelings can lead to family conflict, feelings of depression, oppression, loneliness, and lack of satisfaction and could be a recipe for disaster — for both parties.
In order to keep up with the changing times, we need to change how we raise boys, not just girls. Here are some steps parents of boys can take to reduce the gap between the genders and contribute to the equal progress of both.
Be aware of your own biases and prejudices, and how you might convey these unconsciously or subtly.
Do you often use the word “him” when talking about gender-neutral or hypothetical scenarios? Do you think something is awry when you see a women smoking a cigarette, but wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a man doing the same? Everyone has unconscious social inclinations and aversions, which could be a product of the values with which one was raised. While it is difficult to get rid of those biases, it is important to be aware of them and control their subtle manifestation, so as to not pass them on to the younger generations. Try asking yourself if you’re using the same judgment equally for boys versus for girls, and in what contexts any imbalance of judgment might be unfair.
Model egalitarian behavior.
“Do as I say, not as I do” rarely works in parenting. Children learn more by observing their parents’ examples than by simply following parents’ instructions. Therefore, as parents, it is important to model the behavior you want to see in your children. If boys grow up seeing their mother doing most of the housework, even if she has a job outside the home, they are more likely to grow up expecting that women will solely take care of household responsibilities, rather than expecting to contribute equally.
Set egalitarian expectations/rules.
Try to have similar rules for daughters and sons. When that is not possible – because sometimes rules need to be tailored to personalities and circumstances – present adequate explanations rather than using the irrefutable “because I said so.”
Support/expect egalitarian interests and tasks.
Children grow up with the message that it is acceptable, and sometimes even laudable for girls to be interested in action movies or sports — but it is shameful for boys to be interested in romantic comedies or knitting. Try not to engage in gender stereotyping behaviors, such as buying dolls for girls and action figures for boys. Expose boys to entertainment that is not only male-centric. Encourage boys to engage in traditionally female-dominated tasks such as helping in the kitchen. Support nontraditional career choices for both boys and girls.
Talk about emotions.
Avoid telling boys to “be a man” and stop crying. Instead, talk with boys about their feelings. Encourage them to express and articulate emotion. Identifying and expressing emotions are seen as feminine qualities. Boys often grow up not being able to identify precisely what their emotions are, due to the suppression of feelings that they learn in childhood.
Point out female role models.
Children grow up learning about prominent male figures such as Stephen Hawking, Bhagat Singh, Neil Armstrong, and Picasso, but we don’t often expose them to female role models such as Madame Curie, Rani Lakshmibai, Kalpana Chawla, and Frida Kahlo. Education about inspirational women can help break gender divides and stereotypes. If boys and girls are brought up learning about and observing more and more women who make influential contributions to society, it helps to dissolve those gender-role norms and expectations.
Attempt to reduce the gender differences in traditional practices.
Cultural and religious rituals abound in male preference. Many Indian subcultures engage in traditional celebrations that venerate sons; practices involving daughters are mostly related to finding them a good husband. These traditions are not easy to change, but small efforts can be made by parents to decrease the imbalance. For example, during Raksha Bandhan, have siblings tie rakhis on each other, regardless of gender. This tradition represents a beautiful sentiment, but sisters can vow to protect brothers and give them gifts too, and brothers can wish for their sisters’ long lives as well.
Educate about consent, mutual respect, and equality at an early age.
In traditional cultures, men are seen as deserving of certain privileges purely by virtue of being male. It is never too early to inculcate the values of respect and equality in children. Cultivating the importance of consent, both sexual and otherwise, is crucial, especially among sons.
Model/talk about healthy conflict.
These norms will take time to change, and regardless, even in the most egalitarian societies, there is still a conflict between maintaining valuable traditions and encouraging progress and gender equality. Modeling and discussing healthy ways to handle conflict means when disagreements and conflicts inevitably do arise, a healthy and meaningful conclusion can be reached.
If parents catch boys up to the egalitarian values we’ve instilled in our girls, they’ll be better equipped to deal with the India they’ll encounter later on in life. Raising boys without gender stereotypes, especially ones that enforce archaic power dynamics, will help them grow into adults who are able to adapt to changing gender expectations in careers, society, and relationships.
Nitika Gupta is a psychologist at Mpower. She received her professional counseling license in the U.S. after completing her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California and Master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She has more than six years of mental health experience working with adolescents and adults. She helps individuals stabilize their moods and maladaptive situations by teaching skills that encourage awareness, mindfulness, and positive change.