Just One Thing  - Raising Feminists

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One of the biggest challenges of parenting today is that we can often feel that we're forging new paths. It's likely other generations felt the same, but certainly we can often feel that we are navigating new ground without much guidance. 

One of these areas, for me certainly, has been how to raise children who are feminist - by that I mean children who feel that all people regardless of gender should be given equal rights. The past year has been phenomenal in seeing how much old ideas have been challenged, and more than ever it seems that the next generation could be instrumental in progressing this. 

I asked Sarah-Lou Newman, founder of The Minefield, to share her thoughts on raising feminist sons and daughters. The Just One Thing she'd like to get across to new parents or parents-to-be? "Don't worry about having the answers, just have the conversations"

"Feminism can be a word that carries baggage and conjures up dated stereotypes. The truth is that most of us want to parent, and indeed live our lives, in a Feminist way because all that actually means is equality of informed choice. We’re often doing this without even realising it. Supporting each others choices and our right to make them is actually pretty common sense.

When I was pregnant with my third daughter I felt overwhelmed by the fear and knowledge that their gender would at times become a huge disadvantage. I wanted to make sure I could do everything in my power to arm them with the tools to recognise that they don't have to accept the limitations or expectations that could be heaped upon them as they grow into women. I also knew I couldn't be alone in this.

After having yet another conversation about pink and princesses and combating the gendered stereotypes that began before my youngest was even born, I started The Minefield. No, I won’t keep going until I get a boy. Yes, some girls like trucks and some boys want to wear tutus and what’s wrong with any of that? Nothing of course. But it all went deeper than that. Beyond the important issue of gendered play and cringe-worthy slogans on kids clothes the conversations I was having with other parents, parents of both genders, became entangled in our own fears and understanding of the cultures we live in and how we feel about ourselves, and our families, within them.

The more I asked questions and searched for new perspectives the more I saw this web of interlinked conundrums and ever higher hurdles to overcome. How do I tell my eldest girl that she should love her natural beauty as she watches me apply my concealer and eyeliner in the morning? How do explain that I actually have three jobs which pay me very little money, the most  important of which, looking after her and her sisters, isn't actually considered a job at all? How do I even begin to delve into the deep waters of why most of the cartoons she is watching have only one female character amongst a whole troop of boys? How will she know a chemistry career  is open to her when toy science kits “for girls” are only about making lipgloss and glittery bath bombs? What do I say to her when her young blossoming body starts to get unwanted attention? How do I teach her to have the self-respect to know that her opinion matters when she puts up her hand to speak?

So I started asking anyone who would listen, reading every book or article I could and then hosting events where we could all get together and share our knowledge, fears and ideas and The Minefield grew from there. What became clear quickly was that until we were more confident about our own choices and opinions on these subjects, of which there we so many, we may always struggle to talk openly and honestly with our kids about them too. They can catch us off guard with their questions and a tea-time debate about the complexities of a playground game of kiss-chase can make for a stressful pasta pesto at the best of times, so don't punish yourself when you're not prepared with the “perfect” age-appropriate answer.

At The Minefield we talk about everything, we’ve created a safe and honest environment for anyone, parent or not, to ask questions and explore the myriad answers and approaches to thinking in a more inclusive and equal way. Because you can filter this into your everyday thinking and confront your unconscious actions and hopefully find a happy place to teach your kids to do so also. You don't need to have a long winded understanding of Betty Friedan to explain to your daughter the problematic messages of her favourite Disney movie, just ask her what she thinks of the plot unfolding before her. You don't have to shade their eyes from the latest Katy Perry video  in a panic as she shoots whipped cream from her chest, just question why she is doing it and who she is doing it for. Use a video game as way to question the expectations of violence on young boys.  When she starts out in the workforce, encourage her to ask how much her male counterpart is being paid for the same job. Reassure them it’s ok to ask the sexist drunk uncle at Christmas “actually, I don't get it, why is that joke funny exactly?”.

When raising feminist children we are also raising the feminists in ourselves. Our understanding can be their understanding and they can teach us just as much as we can teach them because they are often so much freer of preconceptions. We as parents are the main influence in their lives and the huge weight of nurturing a small creature into a functioning non-psychotic adult is immense. The best we can do for them is show them that it’s ok to be a flawed but trying-our-best work in progress by letting them see we are just that too. The truth. The delicate balance between living by your principles and needing to make sensible and necessary compromises isn't something to hide. Even better if you can chat about making those choices in the first place. There is strong evidence to confirm that honest dialogue with your kids in the early years will help to maintain open conversations as teens and young adults.

Yes, sometimes they need us to be firm and strong but sometimes they just need to hear “you know what, I don't know the answer to that, let’s work it out together.”  And you can.  There is a book for everything if you look for it and the internet isn’t always a dark and scary wasteland when used for positive investigation. Don't just tell them they can be anything they want, show them. Representation really matters and questioning things is vital. They can’t be what they can’t see has never rung truer in the world we live in today and there is an ever increasing plethora of information, support and resources on all this out there to be utilised and importantly, enjoyed. Knowledge is both power and armour for you both.

Parenting is a minefield. From the moment you conceive everyone has an opinion and you're taught to second guess yourself all the time, but ultimately parenting and Feminism come down to choice and doing what is right for you. Don't get caught in the trap of thinking there is a right and wrong way to do all things. More often than not you’ll feel you're doing it wrong.

Nothing in this world is black and white and if Feminism has taught me anything it’s that we actually all live in a huge grey area. But it doesn't have to be a large fog, a confusing and intimidating mist, just ask questions and talk about the possible answers and you’ll work your way through it just fine."

 

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Sarah-Lou Newman

Sarah-Lou Newman is an artist, mother, feminist and founder of The Minefield, a Feminist Thinking  resource and Meet-Up group for people and parents. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook and  around North London.