I Was Raising My Son To Be Sexist, And I Had No Idea

by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp
A mother wearing a red shirt and blue jeans talking to her angry son with crossed arms while sitting...
Kathleen Finlay / Getty Images

My son, 10, is smart, funny, sensitive. He’s a good kid, and on most days, I’m a decent parent. We’re a middle-of-the-road, white, middle-class family living in suburbia. We do all the things families like ours do — sports, music, pets, birthday parties, playdates. Our boat is rarely rocked.

But I was jarred out of complacency this past week and forced to think about how I’m raising my boy when one of my idols, Charlie Rose, fell in a very public way. Multiple women have come forward accusing him of sexual harassment. Reading details of his exploits, I felt alternately ill, angry, and sad. Although I was horrified by the Harvey Weinstein allegations that came to light recently, frankly I wasn’t surprised because it’s Hollywood and sexual harassment is so normalized in our culture that we expect it to happen. I expected more from Rose and journalism.

I began thinking about what would make a man — especially a man who seemed so earnest and successful in a career focused on morals, accountability, truth — think it was okay to treat women that way. Under what circumstances would it ever be okay to lure a young female employee (decades younger) to your home for work and expose yourself to her? How could you ever justify calling an employee late at night to share your sexual fantasies about her? My mind wandered, and I began thinking about my job as the mother of a young boy. I realized I had failed my son, myself, and society at large.

I have coddled my son and catered to him because he’s a boy. I’ve let his angry outbursts and tantrums slide. I’ve let him treat his younger sister as less than. I’ve done the very things as a parent that I saw and hated as a girl. Like my parents before me, I’ve given my son permission to think that because he’s a boy, he can get away with more. And at its core, that’s the basis for sexist behaviors. At the very least, these behaviors can be subtly damaging to women over a lifetime — death by a thousand paper cuts. Or they can be abrupt, shattering experiences as we’ve seen with so many stories coming out about sexual harassment and rape at the hands of powerful men.

Michelle Obama summed it up neatly when she restated an old aphorism: “We love our boys, and raise our girls.” She nailed it when she also said, “We raise [girls] to be strong, and sometimes we take care not to hurt men — and I think we pay for that a little bit.” At the back of my mind, I’m constantly worrying about whether what I say to my son is too harsh. I often try to soften things for him. It’s something I don’t do with my daughter.

I’m more reluctant to give my son consequences. He’s never really forgiven us for having a second child, and it often manifests as unkindness toward his little sister. She will be on cloud nine about something; he sees how happy she is and how much my husband I enjoy witnessing her enthusiasm. So he makes a sarcastic remark meant to belittle her. I always stop and point out that this is bullying behavior. But I don’t take the conversation to the next level, and I don’t give him consequences.

I don’t talk to him about what it means to live in a patriarchal society and to be privileged because he’s a boy with white skin or the responsibilities that should come with that knowledge. I need to teach him to recognize his privilege and act in a way that shows awareness. That means teaching him to question his assumptions, his implicit biases, and not to take advantage of or belittle those in less powerful positions.

This is especially important because my family lives in a whitewashed community where the homogeneity compels conformity to an almost obsessive degree. So-and-so just got a Volvo. Wonder if they’re back in style? Maybe we should get one. His parents got him a phone when he turned 11; I should get one. All the boys I know are mean to their sisters; you’re asking too much of me. My gym teacher says girls aren’t smart, so I can too. Everyone else does it, why shouldn’t I? Bad behavior begets bad behavior. Boys aren’t just being boys when they grab a girl’s ass or stare at her breasts or call her a prude when she objects. They are deliberately demeaning another human being.

From time to time, my son has angry outbursts, especially as puberty kicks in, and instead of shutting them down, I look for reasons why. Why would he be so upset? What’s behind all that anger? On some deep level, I’m probably trying to answer the same question I’ve been asking subconsciously since I was a little girl: Why does our society privilege men over women? Instead, I shore up my daughter and myself by reading about feminism and starting a Girl Scout troop. I tell my 8-year-old to ignore the mean things her big brother says.

We also go to therapy and talk about it. And while it’s great that we talk about it, it’s now clear to me that he needs consequences. Shouting and yelling is abusive, period, and I need to send the message that it’s unacceptable. I can’t help but wonder how many times Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose (and the millions of others like them) were verbally abusive when they were kids, and how many people stood by and watched. We already know a great many people stood by and watched them as adults.

I recognize that part of life is learning to navigate the bad behaviors of other people. Be like a duck. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. How many expressions do we have that teach us from a young age to ignore the hurtful things that other people say and do? Yet ignoring sexism and sexist behaviors, especially when we are more aware today than ever about what sexism is, seems irresponsible.

It’s a small step that I hope will have a big impact on my son, but I plan to talk to him about sexism and his privilege as a white male. And he will have consequences when he is unkind or abusive. I’m not going to let things slide anymore because he’s just being a boy.