Since Harvey Weinstein – and countless other prominent men – have been outed as sexual predators (at worst) and clueless misogynists (at best), adults are more frequently giving our daughters empowering talks and broaching subjects like consent, patriarchy, and basic human decency with our daughters and sons.
When it comes to truly supporting the next generation to move beyond the patriarchy and #MeToo, however, we often expend more effort talking the talk than we put into walking the walk. In fact, there are three specific ways that many moms and dads unwittingly nurture patriarchy and shape our children to fit perfectly into their predetermined male/female roles in this dominator/dominated culture.
It starts when we dehumanize our children through emotional stratification
From early toddlerhood, parents unconsciously strip both genders of their rights to their full range of human emotion.
Our culture has classified emotions as belonging more naturally to men or women, but this is a false dichotomy. Emotions belong to both genders. “Feminine” and “masculine” emotions are merely constructs of the enculturated human mind. While parents generally treat emotional displays with relative acceptance when children are infants, we commonly change how we react to the emotional expression of our daughters and sons as they grow out of infancy. We start to teach our children that boys feel one way and girls another way, and the belief that there are “feminine” and “masculine” emotions begins to take root.
The problem worsens as we reward girls for submissiveness and boys for dominance
When girls “act out” or behave in ways that are deemed “aggressive,” they are admonished. WE tell them “be nice,” “nice girls don’t talk that way,” and “we don’t hit.” Consistently girls get the message that being loud, physical, or otherwise confrontational isn’t how they’re supposed to behave. They’re supposed to be smaller, quieter, more reserved, more accepting even if others are taking their toys, pulling their hair, or touching them without permission.
When our daughters do speak up for themselves (albeit clumsily or caustically at times), we may call them “selfish,” “sassy,” or “smart-mouthed” without realizing how our criticism and shame often leads them to mask or internalize “negative” emotions and choose to silence their strong voice in order to remain in our good graces.
While parents send some of the same “be nice” and “don’t hit” messages to boys, it happens less often and will decrease as boys continue to grow because we adults believe “boys will be boys.” This belief perpetuates the myth that boys are aggressive by nature and there’s only so much “taming” that parents can do. We tell boys not to let others “push them around” and congratulate them when they show their toughness and mettle in sports. We raise them up as conquering heroes and expect them to “never quit” or give in. Thus, male children, from a very young age, are expected to be more dominant and female children more submissive.
Deviations from these “norms” get called out by adults, and soon by children themselves as they inevitably absorb the beliefs about how boys and girls should be. The seeds of #MeToo are planted early on even if boys are allowed to wear pink and girls can play with trucks, because the overriding messages children get based on their behavior is that it’s “normal” is for males to dominate and females to be dominated.
Many common parenting and discipline techniques further normalize non-consensual, coercive relationships
Multiple times a day, well-meaning parents who don’t spank their children still unwittingly prime their children to accept force and coercion as normal. Some do it when they manhandle their toddler into the car seat. Others do it when they use time-outs to “make” a child behave. Some parents remove privileges unless their children “clean their plate” or insist that their children let grandma hug them.
All of these forms of manipulation normalize force and coercion and may resign children to tolerating it, not just from parents, but in their other intimate relationships as well. While there are noble intentions behind some of the aforementioned parental behaviors, the more often we take advantage of our authority, superior strength and size, position, or access to resources, the more our children will come to believe that it’s natural for the people who love you to hurt you (or for you to hurt the people you love).
Because boys and girls have already learned who the top dog is and who isn’t, this acceptance of force in relationships plays out differently for both genders. Boys learn that as the dominators it’s their job to apply the force. Girls in similar but converse fashion realize that it’s their role to accept the subservient position.
We cannot bring about change until we own our own complicity in propping up the existing system
This article is not meant to cast blame on parents or anyone else. It’s critical, however, that parents understand the powerful precedents we set by our choices. I wrote this piece to inspire moms and dads everywhere to become agents of radical culture change and transform our parenting so that it stops perpetuating toxic beliefs and harmful behaviors.
If you’d like to do one concrete thing today to help dismantle the dominant cultural worldview and more fully empower your children, download “Seven Ways You Can Victim-Proof Your Daughter” from the Conscious Moms’ Circle, an international community of conscious parents on Facebook.