In my work at Dynamo Girl, I spend a huge amount of time thinking about, talking about and working on girls’ empowerment in all different ways. Much of what we discuss in our home is how we as a family and a society can lift girls up and prepare them for the larger world. So much of the current cultural conversation outside our home is that women’s empowerment is not a zero-sum game. Giving women more opportunities, more pay, more equality, does not inherently mean that something is being taken away from men. But is the same true in parenting? In a family, is it possible that it actually is a zero-sum game, in which by turning more focus on our daughter’s empowerment, our sons are somehow losing out?
Braced for devastating responses, I asked all three of my boys over the dinner table whether it feels to them that by empowering their sister we are taking something away from them. Unsurprisingly, I got three very different answers. My youngest son, who is also the youngest child, looked at me and said that he had “no idea what I was talking about.” I realized that is because all he has ever known is a household in which conversations revolve around empowering girls. His older sister is his roommate, sparring partner and model for what a girl should be – case in point, his bedroom walls are filled with Women’s March posters he made with her. Girls’ empowerment has always been his baseline reality.
My older boys’ answers were different, partially because they remember what it was like to live in a house that was not as focused on girls’ empowerment. Both boys immediately expressed frustration that sometimes my husband and I side with their sister, even if it’s not fair, because we’re trying to build her confidence. They could be right. On the positive side, my middle son said that having a strong sister who is willing to speak up and express her feelings, helps him know good ways to speak to his female friends. He also said it helps him understand that what he sees from girls at school is not necessarily all that they are.
My older son said that he believes I wouldn’t have started Dynamo Girl if I hadn’t had a daughter (true). Then he said something truly striking. He told me that the effect of having a mom that’s trying to empower her daughter means that the whole house becomes a safe space (he acknowledged that term is cliché) and that ultimately, everyone benefits from that safe space, including the boys in our family. He said that without a daughter in the family I wouldn’t necessarily be as focused as a mom on making room for everyone’s emotional expression.
Wow and yikes. Beautiful, insightful and a possibly troubling reflection on me as a parent. My son was informing me that perhaps, without a girl in our family, I wouldn’t have created a family environment that invited our sons to express their feelings. Or to put it a different way, that it was only in creating a world that empowered my daughter to express herself, that I inadvertently created a world that empowered my sons to express themselves. My son’s comments struck a particularly resonant chord in light of the recent American Psychological Association Guidelines on how to treat the negative emotional and physical impacts of masculinity on boys and men. As Fredric Rabinowitz, one of the lead writers explained in a New York Times article, “We’re trying to help men by expanding their emotional repertoire, not trying to take away the strengths that men have.” Here Rabinowitz was answering a different kind of zero-sum question himself.
What I realized in my efforts to understand whether I was shortchanging my sons by creating a home committed to raising an empowered daughter, was that I had it all backward. Empowering my daughter actually had the inverse impact on my sons than I expected, i.e. whatever the opposite of a zero-sum game would be (game theorists please chime in.) I learned straight from my son himself that the environment I was creating to build a stronger, more confident, more self-aware daughter, was the same environment my sons need to be stronger, more confident and more self-aware boys. On my quest to raise a daughter who could identify and express her emotions, I had also given my boys what they needed, the ability to identify and express their emotions. Parenting, in this case, was not a zero-sum game. Rather, instead of game theory, more apt would be a comparison to how my youngest son learned to read. By being around a sister who was learning to read, he watched her, he took her cues, he listened to his parents’ painstaking prompts, and one day he just picked up a book and started reading. My hope is that my sons realize what I have come to realize: that being in a home committed to raising an emotionally literate girl has allowed them to find their emotional literacy right alongside their sister. Her gain has been their gain and ultimately our family’s gain.