I wrote a letter to my wife a few months before our child was born, and I described the ways in which I loved her, how much I was looking forward to the growth of our family, and the aspirations I had for our child–boy or girl. Yet as I thought about the complex task of raising a strong child, I too thought of the inherent challenges of raising a girl amongst a media-influenced landscape that has established shameful norms that have for decades helped shape the way girls, young women, and grown women see and think about themselves. This is not to discount the influences that boys, young men, and grown men experience, too; however, my aim in writing this post is to better understand and articulate how women experience a world and media long dictated by norms established by men and how I will raise my son accordingly.
Maybe this post was best prompted by a recent viewing of the 2011 film “Miss Representation,” a documentary of sorts that explored, while offering astounding statistics, graphics, and testimonials, the complex and often confidence-shattering world that girls live among–one that I will never fully understand. Yet as I held my wife’s hand through the early morning hours of February 16, I contemplated (that if we had a daughter) what would drive her self-worth and self-image, what role we would play, and how she would come to think of herself. And it struck me even more deeply this morning, as I spoke with some colleagues about this very topic, that even though I am a father to a little boy, my role as advocate for women, and people in general, is no less.
For years, I felt my responsibility to women, and all people for that matter, was to demonstrate respect, compassion, love, and understanding. Yet as I think more deeply about what our world needs, and specifically what I can offer and influence as a highly educated, white, middle class, married man, I have come to recognize that my role has to be so much more than simply demonstrating respect in my relationships. My role has to be one of engaging in uncomfortable and difficult discussion, seeking comprehension of the struggles of those less fortunate, and teaching my son, as well as others in need of guidance, that it is critically important that they learn to value the uniqueness and vulnerability of all people.
It is critical that I teach my son how girls and women are portrayed in our culture–both negatively and positively. He needs to understand that to provide the same values and platforms to women that we provide to men is to build a world together, not to take what has been traditionally and historically seen as exclusive to one gender. He needs to understand that a woman’s body is not indicative of her worth as a human being, nor is it an object to be lust after. He must learn this lesson for men, too. And one of the most challenging parts in teaching him these lessons will also be the greatest: time spent together.
Today, possibly more than ever before, time spent together as a family, without the distractions of technology (which we dictate), can be hard to come by. If statistics floor you as much as they impact me, then you might be surprised to discover that according to a 2015 study performed by Common Sense Media, average daily media use for tweens (8-12 years old) hovered around 6 hours/day. By the time they reach their teenage years (13-18) this figure jumped by 33%, catapulting them to 9 hours of average daily media use, or more than a third of their day. As if this was not alarming enough, the study also suggests that these figures do not include time spent using media for school work or homework (link to study findings: Common Sense Media Infographic).
So if our children are exposed to media during 25%-33% of their day, what messages are we sending them in the time we have when our phones, iPads, televisions, and other devices are shut off and tucked away? Are we finding moments throughout the week to ask them about a provocative ad campaign and their thoughts? Do we challenge their perspectives of what it means when a film depicts women as completely helpless and totally dependent on men? Will I confront my son when he tries to act macho and suppresses his emotions because that is what he has learned from the world around him? Hopefully I will have presence enough in his life that he admires me and trusts that he can talk with me about what he sees in the world–and I’ll use this time to let him know of everything I understand, the mistakes I’ve made, and how I believe we should treat one another, ourselves, and what that might mean for him and his future.
So in revisiting the original idea of writing this post with women in mind, I will do my best to raise my son in a way that he might be wholly conscious of the influences around him and how he can be strong of character, compassionate, vulnerable, and trustworthy–and he will likely learn a great deal of these aspirations I hold by the way I treat his mother, the woman I love more than anything.