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Why I'm Raising My Sons Like Daughters

Little boys are taught that certain dreams are off limits. Little boys are taught in a million ways that they can do whatever they want -- as long as it's not for girls.
12/21/2015 03:32pm ET | Updated December 21, 2016
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Siblings wrapped in blanket in garden

Gloria Steinem recently posted her Christmas wish list. The list is fantastic, but one item really spoke to me as the mom of three boys.

"I'm glad we've begun to raise our daughters more like our sons -- but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters."

The societal expectations placed upon little girls are far from perfect. Women are expected to be beautiful and nice and never, ever bossy. However, we've come a very, very long way from the 1950s, when getting married and raising a family were the only real life goals presented to women.

I was raised to believe I could be whatever I wanted. I was praised for having big dreams in the traditionally male-dominated worlds of law and politics.

The same is not true of little boys today.

Little boys are taught that certain dreams are off-limits. Little boys are taught in a million ways that they can do whatever they want -- as long as it's not for girls.

Amos loves nail polish but won't wear it anymore because people (adults and children) have told him it's for girls. Griffin loved My Little Pony until he got the message that that show was for girls. I hear well-educated people tell me ALL THE TIME they wouldn't let their son wear a certain shirt or participate in a certain activity because it was "girly."

Girly meaning bad. Girly meaning undesirable. Girly meaning less than.

This attitude is harmful, not just to the little boys being subtly told that who they are and what they enjoy is not OK, but ALSO to the little girls being subtly told that who they are and what they enjoy isn't good enough for boys.

I recently heard Anne-Marie Slaughter, of Why Women Can't Have It All fame, on Freakonomics radio, and I thought her insight into this issue was spot-on.

She said:

So here's what I realized: I have two sons, and I looked at my sons and I thought, "You know, if I'd had a daughter we'd be raising her 100 percent differently than the way my mother was raised, and even differently than I was raised," although my father was very progressive and he raised me to have a career. But if I looked at my sons, I thought, "I'm raising my sons pretty much exactly the way my father was raised." I mean, we're raising them to have a more active role as fathers. My father never changed a diaper. Certainly my husband changed plenty. And I expect my sons to. But we're still saying to men, "Your worth in society is a function of your breadwinning. It's a function of how much money you can make and how high you can rise in your career." And that is a very limited set of choices. It's the flip side of saying to women, when my mother was raised you know, "Your worth in society depends on can you get married and can you have children." And my point is all of us should have access to both. As a woman I absolutely want to be able to compete. I want to have a career. That's been fabulous. But I sure don't want to do that at the expense of also being a mother and a wife and a sister and a daughter. And so, what I now say to my sons is, "If you believe in equality and you marry a woman or a man, whatever, and you believe that you're going to support that woman's career, then it may require you being the lead parent and your spouse to be the lead breadwinner." And that's been the situation in our marriage. And they understand that I couldn't have a big career unless Andy played that role. So that's the place where I'm really saying to men, if you believe in equality, it can't be, "OK, I believe in equality but I'm going to take every promotion I get, and if you get a promotion, I'm not going to move for you.

When we tell little boys that "girly" things are off-limits, we're not just limiting the toys they can play with; we are limiting the very path to their own self-determination and happiness.

We have to raise little boys to believe that nurturing and primary caregiving are just as valuable as ambition and primary breadwinning. We have to teach them the only choice that has real value is the choice that will bring them personal fulfillment.

It's hard. It's hard to undo what we've been taught. It's hard to look at our own choices and wonder whether we would have taken a different path had it been open for us. It's hard because raising children has as much to do with ourselves as it does with our kids.

But we have to try. Let your son paint his nails. Let your daughter cut her hair off. Tell your son he'll be a great father one day. Tell your daughter she'll be a great boss. We have to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable when our children push against societal expectations -- even if they'll get teased.

People often tell me I'm setting my children up to get teased. First of all, I haven't met a person yet who escaped childhood without confronting the cruelty of their peers. I prefer to teach my children to deal with teasing -- not avoid it at all costs. Second of all, I don't want to teach my children that they should alter their behavior based on the opinions of others.

In an interview recently, Gloria Steinem said, "I hope that we will one day change society to fit the unique individual, not the unique individual to fit society, but we all are in this place, and we're all trying to find our own solutions, and we need to support each other in those solutions."

That's on my wish list -- for myself, for everyone, and ESPECIALLY for my boys.

I love my boys. I love every little thing that makes them uniquely them.

They can be whatever they want to be... even girly.

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