Clementine Ford on raising kids in a sexist world

Kinderling News & Features

Families are impacted by inequality between the sexes in many ways. There’s pregnancy discrimination, and the ‘motherhood’ penalty in careers, plus our early childhood educators are overwhelmingly women who are completely undervalued and underpaid.

Then there’s the future of inequality, and what that future will look like for our daughters. So what can we do as parents to help our daughters and sons to live in, and create, a more equitable world?

Clementine Ford is a feminist columnist and author of Fight Like a Girl, and she spoke to Shevonne Hunt, host of Kinderling Conversation about this tricky-to-navigate element of parenting.

Raising a child in our gendered world is challenging

Clementine is now the mum of a son and she says that raising a son today is really scary.

“I think about raising a boy and trying to raise him in a way that will encourage his kindness and softness. All of these things that a patriarchal world stamps out in men. You know that boys don’t cry, boys shouldn’t express emotions, boys have to view themselves as strong and tough and never, never like a girl, because being a girl is the worst thing in the world,” she says. “How do I raise him not to care about those things in a world that is so gendered that it’s almost impossible to escape?”

Clementine says that this gendered world starts as soon as we find out the sex of our child, and is often followed by clothing and other signals to tell others whether you have a boy or a girl.

Listen to Clementine on Kinderling Conversation:

She says it might seem superficial, but she challenges people to see if they treat babies and children different depending on their sex. It’s so deeply ingrained, you may be surprised at what you discover.

Girls are socialised to be weaker, to be seen as less capable almost from birth.

We place “all their worth on the way they look and the way they behave. Girls are sweet and pretty princesses, girls need to not be bossy, to not be controlling,” says Clementine of this bias.

It’s okay if your daughter likes Barbies and princesses

Having said we socialise girls to be pretty, pliable creatures, Clementine says that trying to control their choice of toys or clothing is not the answer.

“When I was a little girl I loved playing with dolls, I loved pink, I loved frills, I loved ruffles….  I don’t think if you let your daughter play with dolls she’s going to grow up thinking that she’s less-than… Barbie is an unrealistic doll, of course, but you can talk to your children about those things,” she suggests. “Let’s have a conversation about how not all women look like this, and how it doesn’t matter if you don’t look like this, about how it’s a fantasy, it’s not real.”

Clementine says it troubles her to see toys being gendered, as they are so often assumed to be.

“There’s no such thing as a girl toy or a boy toy. A toy is a boy’s toy if a boy is playing with it; a toy is a girl’s toy if a girl is playing with it,” she says. “There’s nothing to say that those things should be gendered.”

She recommends talking with your children about this, explaining to them that it’s okay to play with whatever they want. “It’s fine if your daughter wants to play with dolls, it doesn’t make her less intelligent than a daughter that wants to play with trucks, it doesn’t make her less interesting, it doesn’t make her more stereotypical.”

How we speak to our children really counts

The way we talk to both girls and boys makes a big difference, says Clementine.

“I wish that I’d had parents who made me understand that a woman’s value wasn’t tied up in her appearance or her weight or her body or how small she was, how little space she took up, how polite she was, how nice and sweet and conciliatory she was all the time…”

“I was raised as many girls are to believe that it was important to be thin and I wasn’t thin, so when I developed an eating disorder at 13 as many girls do there was also no one around to even recognise that that was what was going on, all people saw was that I was losing weight and they congratulated me for it.”

Girls, she says, are often raised to be aware of the danger of sexual predators, and while this is understandable, she says how we raise our sons is just as important. Boys need to understand that their actions can’t be used against others.

“The human face of violence is someone we all know, it’s someone we’re related to, it’s someone that we love, it’s someone that we go down to the park with and play with. They’re not monsters who live in the shadows and the fringes of society, so they have to come from somewhere which means that we can take responsibility as parents and for making sure they don’t come from our home.”