Friday, December 4, 2009

What is feminist parenting?

In order to develop a working definition of feminist parenting, I have combined the findings of three studies on feminist parenting with definitions of feminist parenting found in edited volumes and other scholarly works on the subject. Much of the research I used to form my definition of feminist parenting was found in sources on feminist mothering and needed to be appropriated by applying to them the gender neutral term parenting. What I eventually developed was a list of characteristics, values, and behaviors found in families that practice feminist parenting.***

Characteristics, Values & Behaviors
Several studies indicate that neither sex nor biological relationship determine what makes a good or appropriate parent. Likewise, the number or marital status of parents, or sexual orientation of parents are equally inadequate in determining the capability of a parent. What does matter is the quality and type of parenting performed by whatever parents are available.*

The first characteristic of feminist parenting is that it can be done by any person who takes responsibility for a child and that it will promote the acceptance of a diverse definition of what constitutes a family. Therefore, for the purposes of defining feminist parenting, the word parent should not imply gender or genetic relation. Similarly, when used in the plural it should not imply a specific relationship (i.e. married, divorced…), romantic or otherwise, between the parents.

When more than one parent is present, all parents in a feminist family will share equally in the physical and emotional work of caring for children regardless of sex or gender identity. Children also share in household responsibilities at an age appropriate level so as to teach them responsibility, fairness, and practical skills for self-reliance. Both children and parents perform domestic duties that are atypical for their sex in a conscious effort to challenge traditional gender roles.

Feminist parents encourage open communication between all family members. Decisions are made as inclusively and democratically as appropriate to the child’s age and level of understanding. “It is inevitable that parents have more power than children” because they “have more knowledge and skill, control more resources, and ultimately have the physical power (at least when the children are young) to pick up…or physically restrain” their children. In instances when a parent must make a decision based on their parental authority (i.e. physically restraining a child to prevent them from harm or refusing to buy a coveted item), feminist parents communicate their reasoning for these decisions to their children. Despite the inevitable necessity for a parent to make some decisions despite their child’s wishes, parental authority is not taken for granted and children are not discouraged from questioning excessive or unfair use of adult authority. This open and inclusive communication and decision making allows for a warm and intimate parent-child relationship.

Children of feminist parents learn to challenge not only patriarchy and sexism but the idea of hierarchy itself. Parents encourage and model acceptance of diversity. Parents engage children in discussions about imbalances of power between groups of people based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other discriminating characteristics and teach them to recognize discrimination. Children are taught to view the world through a feminist lens and to think critically about the dominant culture.

Because children are taught to think critically and parents include them in decision making processes, children learn to be self-reliant, have self-governance and mutual respect. These skills allow parents give them appropriate levels of autonomy. Having children participate in household chores, allowing them autonomy and an open communication process is empowering to all members of the family. This also helps prepare children for interaction with the world outside of the family which may not hold the same values as they or their parents or where they may encounter discrimination.
Styles of Parental Control

The field of developmental psychology has developed four styles of parental control. These parenting styles have been researched extensively and produce differing outcomes. Because feminism is based on an understanding of power and control, it is useful in understanding and defining feminist parenting to understand the power and control dynamics associated with it. It is additionally beneficial that there is research on the outcomes of the parenting styles put forth by the field of developmental psychology because this research will be useful in deriving outcomes of feminist parenting later.

… Each of these four styles of parental control (authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent & neglectful) has an associated level of parental involvement, acceptance and warmth. …

The authoritative parent accepts that they have some authority over their children but encourages negotiation of rules and standards, prefers open communication and reasoning with children rather than punishment, is judgmental, allows appropriate levels of autonomy, and encourage free thinking and expression of feelings. These parents are described as very involved, displaying high levels of warmth toward and acceptance of children. Although the parent has slightly more power than the child, there is more of a balance of power between them. [This slight power imbalance is due to the parents’ inevitable control of access to resources and societal responsibility. It is important to note that authoritative parents intentionally do not use this inevitability to control the child].

...[This] authoritative style of parenting control is most similar to the feminist parenting style. Feminist parents use as little authority as necessary to parent and encourage their children to actively engage in decision making processes similar to that of the authoritarian parents described by the developmental psychologists. This is an interesting correlation since feminists refute the idea of hierarchy and fight for equality of power.
Joint parenting

Another type of parenting developed by the field of family studies, although inspired by the feminist movement, is joint or shared parenting. Joint parenting involves the sharing of household and childrearing responsibilities. This form of parenting does help to level the amount of work that each parent performs and encourages equal participation in work outside of the home. The main goal of sharing the work of parenting is to empower both parents, particularly the mother, which is also an aspect of feminist parenting.


Simply combining shared-parenting with authoritative parenting does not equal feminist parenting, however. In order to practice feminist parenting the parents must identify as feminists. They must consciously instill in their children an awareness of intersectionality and other feminist values as well as the ability to view the world critically through a feminist lens.

Feminist parenting provides significantly positive outcomes for children and studies show clear evidence of transmission of feminist values down the generational line. Children of feminist parents are more accepting of diversity, recognize discrimination, “have a willingness to challenge oppression” and a desire to change society. Children are also more self-reliant, autonomous and have the ability to think critically.

Parents also benefit from feminist parenting in that all parents regardless of sex are empowered and respected by their co-parents and children. Relationships between feminist parents in romantic partnerships are more equitable and satisfying to both sexes. Parents also benefit from their children’s heightened political awareness and feminist consciousness. Because children are allowed to openly communicate and debate with their parents the transmission of feminist values becomes reciprocal.

If we take a moment to extrapolate from the proven outcomes of feminist parenting the possibilities for social change and the feminist movement it becomes clear that this is a significant step toward the goal of equality. Patriarchy and other oppressive structures have gained their power in having been naturalized through patriarchal ideas and practices of family. Just as patriarchy and power imbalances have been naturalized by the patriarchal family, so to must we naturalize equality through feminist parenting.
In order to accomplish this, we need more literature on feminist parenting methods with inclusive language and better readability that is readily available for consumption by anyone looking for parenting information. It is important to develop practical methodologies of feminist parenting that enable us to move from theory to praxis.

*** This is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote. Citations have been removed for increased readability. If you are interested in the full paper with reference list, please contact me and I will gladly send you a copy to review in exchange for comments. I plan to continue my research in graduate school and welcome as much "constructive criticism" and feedback as I can get.***

1 comment:

  1. Good one on Mothering in the Margins - it helps a lot!

    We clearly share similar parenting experiences and views.
    I've been reading one that I'm hooked on -
    I have a feeling you'd get a lot out of it.

    Incredible job on your blog; keep it up.



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