One of my 4-year-old son’s favorite pastimes is putting together his jumbo jigsaw puzzle depicting a dramatic NFL touchdown. On any given day, you’ll likely find him splayed out on the dining room floor, surrounded by puzzle pieces.
“Look, Daddy, she scored!” he said after finishing it the first time. My wife and I realized our son assumed some players in the puzzle were women and others were men. Rather than correct him, we affirmed his belief that people of all genders could play. We did this not to deny reality, but to affirm his notion of equality.
As a dad of two young white boys, I strive to prevent them from thinking they’re entitled to whatever they want. The emerging national conversation on toxic masculinity has made me more steadfast in my commitment to raising them with a strong sense of justice and healthy relationship skills. I want my sons to know the gospel calls everyone to a life of respect, empathy and equity. This counters the pervasive, toxic cultural belief that men must be “tough” all the time.
When it comes to physical contact—like giving or receiving hugs—we reiterate the mantra that everyone is the boss of their own bodies, planting seeds for the importance of consent. Similarly, if confrontations with friends (or siblings) become physical, we talk through how problems are best solved by expressing our feelings with words.
Each night at dinner, we go around the table as a family and share our “favorite” and “hardest” parts of our days. Rather than give credence to the notion that boys should keep their emotions inside, we use this time as an opportunity for our sons to name the things they felt throughout the day.
Perhaps most important, when our 4-year-old has questions about God (which is quite often lately) we stress the idea that God cares about us—all of us—and about equity. As our kids grow and face the realities of a broken world, we intend for their faith to be centered in the God Scripture reveals: a God of justice and reconciliation. A God whose baseline is fairness.
- When your family experiences the reinforcement of gender or other stereotypes—in the media, books, sports or what you hear people say—call them out and talk through their harmfulness together. If, for example, your kids ask why the only women they see during NFL games are cheerleaders, use the opportunity to discuss gender disparity at work—and seek out women’s sports so those athletes are also part of the picture they’re receiving.
- Read together the many passages of Jesus’ encounters with women throughout the Gospels. These stories stand in contrast to the gender norms of both his culture and, to a different extent, ours today. For example, read John 20 and discuss the significance of how Jesus first revealed his resurrection to women.