Having raised a boy, and one who considers himself a feminist, I thought it might be useful to talk about what I learned in the process. I did not consciously raise him to "be a feminist." Honestly that never occurred to me. I raised him in the values that I hold and those are feminist values. I also did not raise him to be "more like little girls," which is one suggestion msruthmoss has come across.
I did not disallow guns or games of war in my house while he was growing up. That would not have been possible in a household with two martial artists. Angel grew up with real swords and sticks and staffs in the house. Angel grew up in a dojo with people literally fighting over his head as he ran between their legs. Angel grew up with a physically and emotionally powerful man as his father; a man with the ultimate position of authority in a dojo. Angel grew up the son of a sensei. However, Angel also grew up seeing his mother and his aunt fighting and teaching men how to fight. But more importantly, Angel grew up learning what physical power does and doesn't mean and how it should be used--with great respect and humbleness. Angel grew up understanding the importance of NOT fighting and for men in our society I believe knowing how to fight and that you CAN fight goes along way in helping to deter pressure to fight and prove yourself. Angel, at 19, has yet to be in a fight outside of sparring in the dojo.
msruthmoss talks about male peer pressure and how this is a powerful influence on young boys. I agree with her that teaching your child to say no is essential and to do that properly you need to accept that you will be the main person they practice on. I believe in negotiating with children whenever possible. I think it teaches them to think of alternatives; to realize that power can be shared; and it gives them excellent verbal skills. However I don't see that as a gender issue. I think it is as critical for a girl as for a boy.
Peer pressure is not always overt. In fact, indirect peer pressure is far more insidious than direct. With indirect peer pressure there is no obvious point in which you say "no." In fact you need to make the moment and speak out against the unwritten, unspoken masculine influence. No one is going to ask you if you think date rape is ok--they're just going to make jokes or comments that create an atmosphere where it is acceptable. First you need to recognize, not just that date rape is rape and rape is wrong, but that the jokes and comments are wrong and harmful. You need to believe that by speaking up you can make a difference. Finally you need to be willing to speak up and risk ridicule, social isolation, or worse. That is a lot to expect from a young boy/man and, as a mother, I think we need to accept that they will fail at times. But they will come home with the stories.
As a mother I need to recognize that when Angel tells me a "story" it means he is conflicted about what happened and his part in it. And I need to help him process it. I also need to accept that he may reject what I believe is the "right" action--as a feminist--as a human.
After the age of 13, Angel no longer admitted to many of his emotions and he no longer cried. I had tried my best to allow him space for both of those actions as he was growing up but there came a point where outside influences on what it means to "be a man" in this society took over. Feminist boys need to learn how to live in a society that is not feminist. They need to feel they have a place and a role and currently we don't do a very good job of providing one for them. For Angel, recognizing that this safe space was taken from him; that society doesn't allow the emotions he admits he still has but keeps under wraps, has driven him to try to understand feminism as an adult.
Angel is a thin, young, white, heterosexual, biological male who identifies as a man. He is the exact description that Lesbian Dad describes as the mythical norm in this post. So when I speak of raising boys I need to acknowledge that I can only speak to raising a very specific type of boy and that many of these issues are probably vastly different for mothers raising boys of different races and sexual identities. Angel struggles to see his privilege. It is often a source of friction between the two of us. As I've written about before, we are both struggling with his need to separate from me and discussions of our individual interpretations of feminism and white privilege can get heated. It is hard for me to hear his view sometimes, but I believe I need to hear it; to argue it; but also to accept it as his view. I believe that is the only way we ever get change to occur.
I had many surprises in raising my son and I expect to have many more in the future. I was raised in an all-female household and knew very little about masculinity when I gave birth to him. One of my biggest surprises was the male capacity to nurture. I certainly saw this in Angel at a young age, but I was more surprised to see it in the teenage boys that would interact with him. Angel always sought the attention of older boys and men. Older men would interact with him in a very domineering way (i.e. taking his toy and then trying to get him to fight for it back) but the teen boys--even the roughest looking of them--were always gentle. Showing him what they were doing; teaching him things; empowering him and encouraging him. My sister hired a young man to babysit her boys when they were in elementary school and it was a wonderful experience for everyone involved. Now my younger nephew at 13 has a job babysitting a 6-year old boy. He is gentle and caring and takes his position very seriously. So for those who are raising boys I would advise enlisting the help of older boys in their care and then when your sons are old enough, allow them to care for younger boys. Let's give boys meaningful opportunities to experience and excel at the job of nurturing. Lets enlist the help of boys to raise boys.