Educating our sons - and why reading matters
Updated: May 30
[TW: violence against women]
In the summer of 2020, I started talking to people about my book club idea. The majority of friends and family were supportive and loved the concept, but I was genuinely surprised by some of the responses I got.
Yeah, but won’t that mean you will only be selling to people who have girls? Isn’t kindness a bit girly? Don’t you think the name might put boys off?
I was shocked and my answer every time was, of course, an emphatic ‘no’.
No, kindness isn’t a gendered concept. No, kindness doesn’t come ‘more naturally’ to girls. No, the responsibility for being kind does not rest solely with girls and women. No, nurturing social conscience, teaching how to be a ‘wrong-righter’ in an unjust world and sharing the importance of walking in the shoes of someone else, should not be ‘left out’ of boyhood.
Just before Christmas 2020, I posted a response to the recently-published Fawcett Society report on gender stereotyping and included some of the discussion above on Instagram. A good friend of mine who works with survivors of abuse sent me a message:
Thanks for sharing this. It is important. The consequences are absolutely dire.
Her point was crystal clear and left me reeling.
Perpetuating harmful male stereotypes, fuelling versions of toxic masculinity and asserting that empathy, kindness and compassion are ‘female’ character traits - doesn’t just mean we end up with men who have difficulty expressing their feelings or understanding their partners or taking on a nurturing role as fathers. It results in gender-based violence. This is not a drill. Violence against women by male perpetrators is a huge problem in our society.
I have three sons and, as such, I have a responsibility to raise them ready for a better world than this. I want them to bring about the change we so desperately need and I want them to live unencumbered by what society has always said they should be.
Of course, so much needs to change. Society as a whole needs to be remodelled and reimagined. Structures, processes, systems, narratives. And not just for this particular issue – but for so many others too.
But the good news is – that the little things matter. The influence that we have, as individual care givers in the lives of little people, can and will make a difference.
I don’t claim to be an expert in anything – but I do know children’s books. I spend a lot of my time reading and researching stories for children and I’ve made it my business to curate collections of books that nurture social conscience and teach empathy.
I am a firm believer that reading with children is a powerful tool. Books are an indomitable force for good. In an upside down world where everything feels wrong, we need a road map for empathy, recovery, leadership and community – and children’s stories can play a big part.
So, in our little corner of the world, we’re starting with books – and you can too.
Here are my top tips for boosting your bookshelves for raising little change-makers.
CHECK WHAT YOU HAVE
Go through all of the books you already have and really look at them. Can you spot any lazy or harmful gender stereotyping – however subtle or normalised it might seem? I pride myself on being vigilant about what the boys read – but even I was surprised by some of the things I spotted.
Are there stories that champion brute force over kindness?
Are there narratives that involve boys or men rescuing, dominating or dictating?
Are there books that belittle girls or women (or anyone, for that matter) because of their physical appearance?
Are there titles that encourage the repression of emotion (e.g. Billy was going to cry but he was brave instead)?
Are there tales that delineate what is ‘for girls’ and what is ‘for boys’?
Yes? Then throw them out!
BORROW AND BUY BETTER BOOKS
Start making a list of books you would like to add to your collection. You can browse some of our recommendations here
Check your local library for the titles you are looking for and pass your list out to family and friends as ideas for birthday and Christmas presents.
Don’t know what to choose? Be mindful of the following, and you won’t go far wrong:
Celebrating empathy over aggression
Welcoming positive self-identity and self-love
Promoting self-expression and dealing with strong feelings
Depictions of masculinity that embrace gentleness, affection and nurturing behaviour
TALK IT OUT
Once you have some books that are starting to unpick the harmful narratives swirling around us, use them as a tool to start meaningful, age-appropriate conversations with your little people.
Talk about anything and everything - consent, what it means to be a boy or a girl in the world, different ways to show love, kindness, aggression, families – and keep talking.
This doesn’t have to be a didactic or overly-complicated process – it’s all about sharing lovely stories with heart and allowing ideas about empathy, equality, altruism and compassion to filter through and fire up conversations.
Remember, no conversation should be viewed as difficult – and try not to shy away from any questions that get fired back at you.
WATCH OUT FOR OUTSIDE INFLUENCE
This isn’t specifically about books – but it’s something I’ve always found difficult, so I thought it was worth mentioning here.
I am not a lover of confrontation and would rather boil my own head than correct someone in public, especially someone older than me. But, since having the boys, I’ve noticed that some things people say (however well-meaning) directly contradict what I am telling them.
Why are you carrying that doll? Why are you wearing a coat with pink on? You don’t want that, it’s for girls! Don’t cry, you’re meant to be a brave boy! This book is a bit girly isn’t it?
For a while I let these comments slide and laughed them off. But I very quickly got tired of seeing confusion and embarrassment flash across the faces of the boys as they looked to me for reassurance. So, I started to consistently stamp it out.
Now I say (each and every time) something along the lines of: “No, Aunty Mary is wrong. We don’t think that and it’s not true”. The (in this case fictional) Aunty Mary in question is probably not very happy, but I’m past caring.