Today is March 8th – International Women’s Day. Today’s question from a reader couldn’t have come at a more apt time.

She asked this question after reading the last week’s article on gender equality. Today, I am taking this opportunity to not only answer her question but also bring about some important points that every woman should consider if she wants to raise children who believe in gender equality.

Here is her question:

Hi Manasi,

How are you?

Read your post of gender equality just now. As usual very good and lucid blog.

I do agree that the idea of gender equality has to be planted at home itself. We do come across mothers who are offended to see their son helping daughter-in-law in household chores but would be happy if son-in-law helps her daughter. If such thinking prevails we will never be able to break the shackles.

Few years ago my son, hardly 6-7 years old, told me that a doctor has to be a man, and a nurse always has to be a lady. Don’t know how they get these notions. I had to sit down with him, and explain that none of the professions are gender specific.

I do tell him to help me in kitchen, and other chores like clearing the table after dinner, preparing milk / tea /sandwiches etc. But you should have seen the face of my father-in-law when my son was kneading dough!!!! (even though he did it just a couple of times, that too willingly).

My father-in-law expressed his displeasure at what son was doing. So when my father-in-law doesn’t like my son helping in the kitchen, would he be OK if my husband helps me? NEVER!!!

When so called educated people are not OK with gender-equality, what can we expect from the not so fortunate people.

As far as India is considered, I guess these lessons should be taught in the school itself.

What measures would you suggest to make people, especially in India, accept gender equality more willingly?
Would be glad to see your reply. 🙂

– SK

Here is my answer:

Hello SK,

First of all, congratulations on being an aware parent. Awareness and acceptance of reality is the first step in deciding how you want the situation to be different.

You are showing your son that there is nothing wrong if he works in the kitchen. You are helping him get rid of the stereotypes that he learned somewhere else that a doctor is a man’s job and a nurse is a woman’s profession. You are already ahead of many women in this aspect so congratulations! (And honestly, thank you from all the women out there who want more such men in their lives!)

Now, I am going to discuss some points that you may not be aware of but they are affecting how your children perceive gender roles, expectations of how a man and a woman “should” behave, and as a result, forming their opinions and deciding actions while interacting with others.

I learned in psychology that children form their gender related opinions by observing and interacting with 3 main resources:

  1. Parents and other members of the household
  2. School
  3. Social influences e.g. neighbors, strangers, and what they see in the media and internet

We have little control over what children listen and see in their school and other social settings.

We can be mindful about the people that we expose our children to. We can assess how good a school is in not reinforcing gender stereotypes before we enroll our children in that school. But that’s about as far as we can go in controlling what our children are exposed to.

Hence the major responsibility lies with the parents. Don’t you agree?

That’s why I am going to share what I see you can do in your situation to help your children become better citizens in the future.

1. Expose them to more people who are shattering the stereotypes:

Both my parents are doctors. Seeing my mother do her job (and quite accomplished at that), never ever made me question if a woman can be a doctor.

But I had other barriers in my thinking. Those mainly came from not seeing men or women in certain professions.

I remember as a child, when I came across Kiran Bedi’s profile for the first time, I had this feeling of awe in my mind. I had not seen any female police officers until then, forget about such an accomplished IPS (Indian Police Services) officer.

Then I met an alumna at an event in my school. She was a top ranking police officer. Hearing her speak about how she tackled some criminals was quite inspiring.

Then came Kalpana Chawla. In the times, when I was dreaming of becoming an astronaut seeing a woman in the space, made me feel that my dream is possible.

When I came for the graduate studies in the USA, I had a friend who was in nursing school. Until then, I hadn’t really seen men as nurses. But seeing his passion for the job, made me realize nothing else really matters. As long as you love what you do, you can excel at it.

The point is, it is easier for children (and most adults) to believe what they can see. So share with your children stories of such brave men and women who do not care about stereotypes.

With internet, such stories are always at your fingertips. Here is one that I recently read.

Introduce them to books that reinforce these values.

Whenever possible, take them to meet such people. These meetings can have a huge impact on their minds.

Just one word of caution, don’t put it in front of them as something unusual. E.g. “Oh wow! Women are pilots now? It’s so great. Let’s go talk to her.”

Instead present it more like an everyday occurrence. E.g. “There are some pilots who are going to share their experiences in the library today. Let’s go talk to them.” Let them find out the pilots are women on their own.

2. Have thought provoking conversations with your children

It is just like you talked to your son about how both men and women can be doctors as well as nurses.

Children are smarter than we give them credit. When something puzzles them or bothers them, they will ask questions. At that time, rather than hiding away from the topic, or brushing them off when you are tired, or thinking that it’s not the right time for them to know realities of life, converse with them.

At times you wouldn’t have anything wise to say or offer solutions to their problems. But you don’t have to worry if you don’t have all the solutions. Come clean to your children. Sooner or later they are going to figure out you are not perfect human beings. But what they would appreciate is you informing them about various issues.

Your job as a parent is to make them think, make them aware of the problems, and maybe solutions if you have any.

But most importantly, such conversations will prepare them to reflect on their own actions, and question if they are right. It’s that conscience which you need to embed in their minds as children so that when they grow up, they are open to accepting their mistakes and change their actions for better.

3. Recruit your spouse to be on your team

Children are smart enough to know when mother and father are not on the same page, and they will take advantage of it, if given a chance.

Granted, you can still achieve the goal of making them think on your own. But if your husband supports your thinking and methodology, you will progress faster.

Now, many times I hear wives say, “I totally get it. But you don’t know my husband. It’s impossible to change him.”

Let’s make something clear here. I am not asking your husband to change. But I am asking you to take a firm stand if he contradicts any of your teachings. You don’t want your son to be like men of our previous generations. That’s the best gift you can give your future daughter-in-law. So make it happen.

In order recruit your husband, you really need to learn how to communicate – what to say when, when to stay firm, and when to let go. You need to pick your battles.

It is a process. Don’t give up even before you start. And don’t feel discouraged after you start.

If you really care about gender equality, you must go through this challenging process not just for you, but for your son and daughter.

4. Assert the control that you rightfully deserve

Many women give up their power before anybody else takes it away. This is THE major obstacle in our own progress.

We put limits on ourselves right from the beginning. When the limits turn into shackles, we blame the men in our lives, and the male chauvinistic society.

For example, when you tell me that your “father-in-law will NEVER agree to letting your husband help out in the kitchen”, you are already limiting possibilities of what you can do.

It shows that you have accepted the situation without even trying to change it.

And yes, don’t hide behind the excuse that this is “realistic” thinking. You don’t know what is “realistic” until you try it. New adventures are bound to be unfamiliar. But don’t confuse “unfamiliar” with “unrealistic”.

Granted that right now, your father-in-law may not like it or even speak against it. But the question you should be asking yourself is, “What can I do to get my husband to help out?”.

Such a question shines light on a tough route for women, so many times we take an easy way out.

Who wants arguments in the house?
Who wants to do a class on effective communication so that you can face and resolve conflicts with family members?
Who wants to feel the fear and failure that you will face along the journey?

But if you are willing to go through this, you can certainly change the situation.

Parenting is the responsibility of parents. Learning how to tactfully keep away (or ignore or decline) unwanted parenting advice from other relatives, neighbors, and co-workers, is necessary for your parenting success.

At the risk of sounding rude, arrogant, and unkind, you need to tell anybody other than the parents of that child not to interfere.

Be diplomatic and tactful yet firm.

Set expectations on what you expect the role of every family member in the household to be.

These are more important than ever in a joint family. Otherwise you will not be happy together, and ruin your relations for the lifetime.

Would you rather pretend that everything is going well, or would you stand up for you believe will impact your children forever?

You are in control! You just have to accept that first in your mind, and then learn the skills to communicate that with others.

5. Be a role model for your children

Yes, children learn through what you teach them and tell them. But the most powerful teacher is your actions.

All that time when you are trying to tell your son that women can achieve anything, he is learning by watching you.

Every time he sees you not standing up for your own rights, or giving up on your hobbies because you are constantly busy catering to your family, or never voicing your opinions, he is moving an inch closer to defeating gender equality.

Don’t be that mother.

Be a mother that shows him how a woman should be rather than tells how a woman should be.

That’s the best education and awareness you can imbibe in your children’s minds.


In conclusion:

I know, this is a lot to think about. But if not now, then when?

Women our age are fortunate to be in a position to think about such issues, and question deep rooted practices. But these discussions will be wasted if we don’t tackle our challenges head-on, improve our skills so that we can get things done, and learn to respect ourselves so that we can command the same respect that we deserve from others.

Thank for bringing up this question. I wish you all the best in raising your son and daughter to be the citizens who not just support gender equality, but shatter the shackles of gender stereotypes.

We know we need more such children, and more parents who raise such children!


Now it’s your turn

What is your biggest hurdle in bringing gender equality in your home? Which of the above 5 points will help you bridge the gap?

Share in the comments your thoughts, and keep this discussion going rather than just read about it, and forget it.

Thanks to mcconnmama at Pixabay for the featured image.