How to be a feminist dad

A thought-provoking new book provides fathers with a roadmap for responsive, egalitarian parenting.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

In this #ParentExpertQ&A, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Shapiro, a senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, whose new book Father Figure: How To Be a Feminist Dad was published two weeks ago. It’s a fascinating book that weaves together philosophy, biology, cultural analysis and feminist theory to help guide fathers down the path of self-reflection and self-intervention. I asked Jordan about the book, its inspiration, and a few of the concepts and patterns it explores.

What inspired you to write Father Figure?

I always wanted to write a book for men, and this was the moment that seemed to make sense for it. As I watched the last few years, not just in the U.S., but but all over the world, what was really clear is that there was sort of a backlash to changing notions of gender — the question of non-binary and trans but also #metoo — making the ways we think about gender no longer stable. What became clear to me was that men who got their sense of identity from patriarchal images didn't have something to replace it with. I really wanted to say, “Hey, here's a way to make sense of a different time.”

In the book, you introduce the concept of responsive fathering. Can you talk a little bit about what this means and what it entails?

I call it responsive fathering in the book, but the truth is, there's no reason it should be gendered. It's really responsive parenting. It’s this idea that you're not writing the narrative that everybody else is abiding by. Instead, you're responding to other people's narratives. Yes, you have your own narrative that you're writing — we all do. But you also acknowledge that everyone else is also writing one. We so often think of our kids as sort of supplemental characters in our story — like they're our kids, instead of them being separate people with their own story. For instance, when it comes to our kids, we often think we're listening, but all we're doing is trying to understand and filter the messaging.

One of the other ways I talk about it is this: Treat your children the same way you would treat a co-worker. In the sense that yes, you treat your co-workers with the level of, “I understand you have an opinion.” But you also treat your co-workers with, “I'm not going to take an inappropriate opinion, either. I'm going to argue with you. I'm not going to tell you’re great.” A lot of parents too often accept anything their kids do because they just want to be encouraging. But part of respect, in my mind, is being willing to challenge, and being willing to argue.

In your book you discuss some of the problematic male role models and archetypes we all grew up with — Homer Simpson, the story of Star Wars, Greek mythology. You explain that the men in these stories often reinforce elements of sexism and toxic masculinity. But I wonder what we, as parents, should do about this? I mean, I can't shield my kid from Star Wars.

Engage with kids about it. I’ll use Greek mythology as an example. In our culture, we put that Zeus-like masculine patriarchal authority as the sort of superior aspirational ideal that everybody should be after. And I think it's important to recognize, and talk to kids about the fact that it's not the only thing.

One thing you also pointed out is that fathers often play with their kids more than mothers do. Can you expand a bit on that and what it means?

For that whole section, I have to give credit to Anya Kamenetz, the NPR reporter. She's a friend of mine. We were on a panel together talking about video games and kids a few years ago. In the panel, someone asked about the differences between our two books on kids and screen time. And she said, “the real difference is that Jordan is a man. So his [book] is all about playing with your kids. And I'm a woman. So therefore, I have to think about the logistics of managing their lives.” And I was like, oh, wow, that's a great point. And then I was like, I guess I’ve got to write another book now. But yeah — fathers spend more time playing with their kids, and that sends kids the message that the home is maintained by women for the purpose of providing a place for male leisure and relaxation.

This is a good segue to what fathers can do to build a more egalitarian household. You wrote in your book that you and your partner divide household chores and parenting duties. I’d love to hear more about what you what you do to ensure that there's gender equality in your home.

Right now, what we have is a world where we don't acknowledge that certain duties have value. And where unpaid labor in the household is most often done by women. We think of it as motivated by love, or motivated by some kind of gender essentialism. Because we have that narrative of so-called women's work, we don't give it any value, — we think it's something they just want to do as part of being a mom. So keeping score allows you to go, “Hey, this has value — this is a task someone's doing not because they’re motivated by love.” Instead, you're going, “this is something with value that is getting done,” and that allows you to then make sure there's some kind of equal distribution. It may still be according to traditional gender roles; in some cases, that may make sense for your family. But the problem is when you don't acknowledge that [the distribution] is not because of gender or sex — it’s because culture has organized it that way.

In my family, we just do a lot of talking about that. A lot of acknowledging and a lot of saying who did what each day — talking about that with the kids, having that discussion openly. We say things like “All day, I've been working on X and that kept me from being able to do my job today.” Kids go through so much of their lives not recognizing that their parents and their teachers are working — thinking that it’s just what they naturally do. And that ends up perpetuating this idea that those things that are being done for the kids have no value, and then that gets reproduced into an intergenerational cycle of inequality.


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