Raising a Culturally Empathic Feminist Child

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As parents, how can we talk to our children about diversity and feminism? Below I describe several ways we might begin these conversations and instill empathy, mutual respect, reflexivity, and humility at an early age.

Cultivate empathy

It all starts here, with empathy. Empathy is at the core of connection, a pre-requisite for unity. Empathy is the ability to take the perspective of someone else and to connect at some level with her or his experience. As a parent there are plenty of opportunities to nourish empathy within our children, but we have to be paying attention. As you watch your child engage with others around them, look closely for these empathy building opportunities.

For example, while it is absolutely normal for a toddler or school-aged child to experiment with inclusion and exclusion, this is also a perfect opportunity for empathy building. Children this age are beginning to explore what it feels like to be included, but also how it feels to be exclusive, which can lead to leaving others out. Questions such as, “I wonder how ________________ feels after you told him he couldn’t play with the both of you?” After you’ve explored the answer together, you can follow-up with a question such as, “Has there ever been a time you felt that way?” When we come from a place of empathy, we suspend judgment and replace it with curiosity. Can you imagine how our country would look with a generation of empathic citizens, who could engage in debates and voice their values while maintaining respect, understanding, and connection? Through empathy they might discover that underneath their differences exist missed similarities.

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Instill feminist family values

If you believe that your daughters should have all the same rights and opportunities as your sons, then you are a feminist. The best way to raise daughters and sons who are feminists, is to practice feminist family values. Actions speak louder than words, and we are the first and arguably most important model for how our children view themselves in the context of their gender. Social discourses are changing but still have a ways to go, giving us more reason to activate discourses of gender equality in our homes. Feminist family theory has identified 4 conditions of mutual support in couples: mutual influence, shared vulnerability, shared relationship responsibilities, and mutual attunement (pulled from Dr. Knudson-Martin & Dr. Hunergardt’s Socio-Emotional Relational Theory, 2010). In a family where mutual support is valued, every member’s worth is validated and every member’s needs are important. Divisions of household responsibilities are not decided based on gender, but through shared decision-making. If we show our daughters and sons what it looks like to equally value each other’s worth regardless of gender, they are likely to take those values into their future relationships and aspirations.

Practice reflexivity

If we want to be unified in our diverse country, we must be able to practice reflexivity with our children. We have to be able to look in the mirror and recognize our own privileges or experiences of oppression, and how privilege or oppression might impact our children. To start your own privilege reflections, here are just a few questions: Were you ever bullied for something you could not change or control? When you look to people in power, are you likely to see someone that looks like you? Are you able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault? Can you show affection to your partner in public without the possibility of ridicule or violence? Do work holidays coincide with the holidays that you celebrate?

 Engaging in gratitude conversations can be a gateway to conversations around privilege and oppression with young children. In our home we try to have gratitude conversations during dinner. We go around the table and each person says one thing that they are grateful for. Sometimes my 5 year-old daughter will say she’s grateful for her favorite toy, or her best friend, or sleepovers at grandma and grandpa’s house. Other times she will ask questions before responding, questions like, “Does everybody have a car like we do? Can everybody see with their eyes like I can?” Through these gratitude conversations we are able to go beyond the “eat all your food because there’s starving children” threat, to meaningful conversations that encourage our children to practice reflexivity.

Foster cultural humility

 There is a difference between being culturally competent, and practicing cultural humility. Being culturally competent of another’s culture gives the notion that you KNOW that culture. The problem with this notion is that it leaves very little room for the possibility of NOT KNOWING. When we “know,” we are less likely to engage in curiosity or conversations. Cultural humility is “other-oriented,” meaning we are interested in what culture means to that particular person. As a parent, this is best fostered in our children through personal and family practice. We should get really comfortable with saying, “I don’t know! I’m curious too, let’s go ask.” Then get out and ask, and keep on asking. A fun way to foster cultural humility is to occasionally get out of your comfort zone and take a cultural plunge. There are so many ways to do this. Travel is a wonderful option when possible, but is only one of many options. Spend an intentional afternoon in the home of a family you know who is ethnically/culturally different than your own, observe their family practices and values and reflect on the experience. Get out and attend a church service different from your own religious practice or attend a community event. Remember the goal isn’t to become competent in that particular culture, but to experience the complexities of it while fostering curiosity and compassion.

Progress not perfection

Last, but definitely not least, remember that the goal is progress not perfection. We are all making judgments all the time. Our mind is primed to do this as a way to make sense of new information and keep us safe. So it’s very likely that despite our best efforts we will make generalizations or get caught up in an “us versus them” dialogue. We are imperfect grown-ups raising imperfect children, and there’s beauty in that. If we own our imperfections, it allows for our children to be human. They are more likely to ask us the tough questions and share their own struggles if we are open and honest about ours. Raising empathic children is an incredibly powerful tool for those invested in our country’s future, and we can make great progress together.

Photo 1 by Merrill Melideo | Photo 2 by Chrissy Powers

COMMENTS (1) ,
  1. Valerie wrote:

    Thank you for great insights

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