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Be Body Positive! And other ways to raise gender sensitive children

By SHANTI GOVINDARAJU.

Will our boys treat women with respect? Will our girls feel like they can speak and be heard? All parents need more practical tools for encouraging these ideals. This isn’t a revolution as much as it is a daily commitment to be a role model for our kids, to encourage them to be who they are, and to enable them to share their feelings with us. We can raise our children to be the change we want – and need – to see.

This article aims to provide some tips to those wanting to raise children who see everyone around them as equals – deserving of equal respect, equal opportunities and equal advantages.

1. Listen 

Children, like adults, can express and communicate their needs and desires. Being listened to and taken seriously helps children express their unique sense of self. Practicing this with your children increases the likelihood of them also listening and taking their peers seriously, especially when it involves the word “No”.  

2. Maintain Equal Relationship With Your Partner

Children watch you and pick up your actions. So your behaviour in your own relationship with your partner is important. Treat each other with respect and keep the power dynamic equal. Don’t feel like you have to rigidly adhere to conventional gender roles. However, this doesn’t mean one partner can’t enjoy cooking and cleaning for the family more than the other, and it doesn’t mean both partners have to work full-time. It just means that you are both equal partners who respect and value one another.

3. Adopt Positive Parenting Styles

Many of us take parenting cues and styles from our parents. Adopt positive parenting styles and do not repeat parenting styles that are harmful and outdated. Most of us have ideas of what we want our children to be even before they are born from their names, clothes, toys, haircuts, hobbies, roles, chores, and what they should be when they grow up. Rethink your expectations. Don’t punish them or disallow them from doing what they want when they don’t meet your expectations.

4. Let Children Express Emotions

Human emotions are not gendered. Avoid labeling certain acts or expressions of emotions as ‘sissy, girlish, weak, inferior’. Definitely don’t say “Boys don’t cry. Are you a girl?” By doing so, we send the message to our children that what is feminine is weak and undesirable. Emotions that are suppressed tend to manifest in toxic behaviour. Expressing emotions in a healthy manner is something we should all aspire to. Validate their feelings and come up with solutions together. Don’t silence your children for having emotions; help them work through it instead.

5. Teach Children Body Autonomy

It’s important to teach your children that they have a right to their own body, including the right to determine what happens to it. Of course, this doesn’t mean letting your toddler eat Play-Doh or allowing your 10-year-old to get a tattoo. Let your children make decisions about their own body (like cutting their hair or dressing themselves) from an early age. Allowing them their own choice in clothes makes them feel empowered and important. Your kids will grow into adults who know it’s not acceptable for others to tell them what they can or can’t do with their own bodies (and vice versa). This also means you shouldn’t force your kids to hug ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’ when they don’t want to. We want them to grow up into adults that can say no to unwanted affection, no matter how much they’re being pressured.

6. Assign Chores Equally

Don’t assign chores based on gender. Sinks aren’t only for sons to fix, and dishes aren’t only for daughters to wash. Everyone is responsible for their own mess. Children, regardless of their gender should be taught how to cook a simple meal, keep their rooms neat, wash a load of laundry without ruining them forever and how to fix a sink. Divide duties equally, in an unbiased way, and then tackle them as a team. It is important to raise children to become functioning adults who don’t rely on their mothers to come clean their house once a week and do their laundry for them. When chores are assigned regardless of gender, every child learns the necessary skills they will need as adults.

7. Let Them Choose Their Toys

Don’t get too hung up on what kinds of toys your kids like to play with (as long as they’re safe, of course.) If your son wants to play with baby dolls, that’s awesome. If your daughter wants a Nerf guns, that’s cool too. And if your sons and daughters switch back and forth between playing masak-masak and Bob the Builder, perfect. Like everything else in life, you should want your children’s playtime to be equal, diverse, and not simply decided for them based on gender expectations. In fact, whenever possible, join in your son’s tea party or your daughter’s Nerf gun battle (but don’t ruin it by dominating and setting all the terms for play). Let them show you how they want to play.

8. Let Them Choose Their Activities

Dance classes are just as good an option for sons as martial arts are for daughters. And if your daughter only wants study ballet while your son is only interested in football, support that too. Allowing your kids choices regarding their preferred activities is one way to teach them about equality and the importance of pursuing what makes them happy. Show positive reinforcement by being proud of their accomplishments in their chosen activities – make it a point to attend their dance recitals and football games.

9. Embrace Diversity

If we collected RM 1 every time a parent told their child “don’t misbehave or the garbage collector will catch you”, we can fill up both Tabung Harapan AND Tabung Najib by now. Discrimination based on gender, class, ethnicity, disabilities, age, and other statuses is pervasive in our society. However, this can be changed. Teach your kids not to fear differences, but instead to accept all humans for their differences. Our own reaction to people who seem different gives children cues on how to handle others. When our child asked about a homeless disabled person who was begging on the streets, we explained to him that everyone has different abilities. “Disabled people can do the same things able people can, just in different ways,” we tell him. “But disabled people are looked down upon, ignored, and disadvantaged by abled people. They have a hard time finding jobs because many employers only see the disability. This may be the reason he is homeless.” Then we asked him, “how do you feel about this?” After our discussion, our child decided to donate some of his pocket money to the homeless person.

10. Teach Them To Ask For Their Rights

Your kids shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what they think they deserve and should be taught to NOT just “grin and bear it.” These behaviours and way of thinking will be carried forward into adulthood, including when negotiating things with partners or lovers, employers, colleagues and  friends. In a society that consistently silences women, lessons in self-worth are doubly important for girls. Have frequent talks with your children about situations (both inside and outside the home) which made them feel disempowered and discuss ways they can handle these situations better the next time around. Empower your children at home.  Teach them to use negotiation for what they want, even for simple things like an increase in pocket money. Teach your children to stand up for themselves and others to be treated fairly.

11. Be Body Positive

Make a conscious effort to be positive about your own body at all times. If you’ve put on a few kilos and can no longer fit into your old jeans, say “Yay! Time to get a new pair of jeans” (instead of “oh no! I’ve put on SO MUCH weight”). It is good for them to hear you being positive about your body. Your children will then learn to be positive about their own bodies too. Speak to your kids often about how all bodies are beautiful. Teach them to love, celebrate and care for their bodies at all stages while at the same time respecting & celebrating the bodies of others.

12. Talk About Sex

Being honest and open about sex and sexuality should never be embarrassing, shameful, or taboo — so don’t be afraid to discuss this very important part of life with your kids. Don’t punish your kids for masturbating; teach them instead about privacy, safety and hygiene. Don’t place unnecessary value on virginity – debunk myths about virginity, sex, masturbation, sexual orientation, gender identity. For example, we know there’s no such thing as being a virgin (https://swoon.theodysseyonline.com/virginity-as-social-construct) and masturbating will not make you blind. In fact, be proactive and encourage safe sex. Teach your kids about sexual health, sexual preference, good consent, and sexual responsibility. Then, trust your kids to use the wisdom you’ve imparted, rather than monitor their every move or shame them for their sexual choices. Here is a good resource to look to if you’re unsure as to what kind of information your child needs at a particular age: https://www.heysigmund.com/kid-needs-know-age-age-guide-sex-education/

13. Research & Learn

There’s so much that we don’t know and need to learn. Always keep yourself updated and learn new things so that you can relate and talk to your kids.

14. Have Fun!

At the end of the day, just guide your kids to discover themselves and explore life as much as possible while ensuring that they are able to do so in a safe environment. Have fun!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Shanti Govindaraju is a full time mom to a precocious 9yr old & part time crafter-sewist-baker-cook. She thinks the future is in the hands of the baby feminists we raise today.

Additional input by Ryan Ong, Thilaga, Suri Kempe, and Pang.