One of my favorite snapshots, taken last spring.
As I straightened my hair in front of the bathroom mirror, my three-year-old son walked through the door and asked what I was doing.
"Straightening my hair."
"To make it look pretty."
The moment the words came out of my mouth, I wished I could have taken them back. What I really meant is that I like the way I look with my hair straightened, just like I like the way I look with makeup on, or when I wear my favorite clothes. But it wasn’t what I said. What my son heard was that my hair would be pretty after I had finished straightening it.
There are days when my hair isn't done, when my makeup isn't on, and days when I’m wearing yoga pants and a worn t-shirt leftover from high school. Most of the time, I am less than pulled-together. I only occasionally wear makeup, my hair is almost always thrown into some form of haphazard bun/ponytail thing. When it’s time to head out the door, my hurried attempts to spruce up my own appearance are often accompanied by negative self-criticism. We parents, and especially mothers, are the lens our children see the world through. If I am constantly criticizing my own appearance, it doesn't matter how many times I tell them that "everyone is beautiful," or "you’re perfect just the way you are" if I stand in front of the mirror audibly complaining about my hair/love handles/bags under my eyes. Children are not stupid. They see the hypocrisy (probably better than I can).
I have read a ton of articles on raising strong, confident daughters. I worry about the social pressures that my daughter will face; I worry that she won't feel pretty enough or smart enough or just plain enough. But until recently, I hadn't really thought about how all of this affects my son. The truth of the matter is that he is exposed to cultural ideas of beauty and womanhood and "pretty" just as much as my daughter is. He's sitting next to her on the couch when they watch Disney princess movies and beside her in the shopping cart when we walk down the girly aisles at Target. He sees the perfume ads on the backs of my Martha Stewart magazine just like she does.
What makes me even more nervous for my son is that if I don't model and teach what I believe true beauty to be—intelligence, compassion, verve, perseverance, integrity—he has the potential to become part of the same sort of patriarchy that I want so badly for my daughter to discount. Additionally, it would be naïve to assume boys are never self-conscious of their own appearance. Too short/tall/fat/ whatever is an issue both boys and girls face.
My question today is not how to raise a strong daughter. There are scores of articles and essays and lists on this topic already. What I’m after is how to raise a son who respects women and who recognizes the true beauty in others and in himself. A quick internet search produced some very general lists of answers: teach him that it’s okay to have feelings, positive father involvement, etc. Some good thoughts, but like I said, very general. After giving this topic a lot of consideration, I've decided to share some of my own ideas.
Here's my list for me and The Buster:
Here's my list for me and The Buster:
1. Sometimes dress up to do ordinary things. I’m not talking every day, and I’m not talking evening-wear dress-up. Wear a skirt on a Tuesday to go grocery shopping. Put on makeup for my turn to host playgroup. Be comfortable and confident in being feminine.
2. Sometimes don’t dress up at all. Wear yoga pants and clean the house together. Get sweaty and go on a bike ride together. Let him wear my apron to help make dinner. Make certain he knows how much I value spending time with him.
3. In reference to other people’s appearances (and my own), use kind words. Think before I speak.
4. Tell him he’s smart. Thank him for being kind. Admire his bravery. But also tell him the things I love about the way he looks: his red curls, that one-in-a-million freckle that sits dead center on the tip of his nose, how he can make great monster faces, and how much I love his smile.
5. Tell him his sister is smart. That she is just as smart as he is. That she can be as brave as he is. That she is beautiful. But also tell him that he is lucky to have a sister, and even luckier that she can be his friend. Encourage him to use kind words. Agree with him when he says she has “Rapunzel hair” or exclaims “she looks like a princess!” when she wears a hair bow. Tell him all girls are princesses. Tell him princesses are smart.
6. Tell him I am smart. Help him find answers to his questions when I don’t know instead of telling him to wait and “ask Dad when he gets home from work.”
7. Read together, fiction and non-fiction. Read some books off of those “raising strong girls” book lists. Introduce him to female characters that are smart, compassionate, funny, and engaging. Let him see me reading.
8. Explain that sometimes people—girls and boys—have a hard time remembering that they are beautiful. Remind him that we are all the same, all children of God. Remind him to be kind.
9. Give him lots of hugs and kisses.
10. Tell him every single day that I love him.
What about you? What would you add to this list?