The F word every child should know

Lina AbiRafeh
8 min readApr 6, 2022

I spent the weekend interviewing my seven-year-old niece about women’s rights. She had a lot to say.

So, let’s get this interview started. How old are you?

Well, I’m basically eight. Ok, seven and a half. Ok, more than a half.

We’ve talked about what I do… Do you remember what that is?

You help women around the world. You help women get their rights.

Why?

Because people think men can be more strong and can do other things that women can’t. So we don’t get treated the same. But that’s not true. We are very important. Not just very important, but as important as boys.

What do you think it means to be a girl?

I like being a girl. Girls can talk it out. Well, girls can get into fights too. But boys can’t talk it out. They usually use their body to express their feelings. But girls can talk it out. That’s easier. And then they feel better. I know how to express my feelings.

Do the boys and girls get along?

The boys are not usually nice to any of the girls unless it’s like a school project, because they don’t want to get in trouble. The boys just hang out together and then play and fight. The girls and boys don’t like each other. There’s this thing they do, it’s very mean. They put the girls on girl island so the boys can stay alone on boy island.

Is there a difference between the girls and the boys?

Well, the girls want to do girl things. But there are some girls who want to do boy things. The boys don’t like that. And they don’t like playing with girl things. They would never. Never!

In school we just did Women’s History Month. The girls were happy. The boys said “Oh. Women.” They wanted to study men’s history only. They said “What about us?!” And we said we wanted to learn about women’s stuff. Like the only woman who goes diving for pearls. She’s the only woman! And that famous woman painter. The one from Mexico.

In school, the boys don’t actually do anything. They literally just stomp. Some of them just sit there in class and don’t even do their worksheets. Really there’s only one boy that does his math worksheets. So the girls are already smarter than the boys.

What if someone told you that girls were not as important as boys… what would you say?

I would tell them no, that’s not true. I would say it in a strong way. You need to say in a strong way that they’ll actually understand. They’re exactly the same and equal. Well, we’re not exactly the same person. We have a lot of different personalities. But we get the same respect and we need to get the same peace.

That’s right. That’s why I do this work. Because it’s wrong when people think girls aren’t important. It is a problem. And I want to fix that problem. Because we all deserve the same peace.

Meanwhile, her mother tells me, “in the classroom and at home, parents of boys collectively shrug and still say Ah well! Boys will be boys!

I’m shocked that this expression hasn’t died. So boys get away with being physical — aggressive, even. But they aren’t brutes. They’re intelligent, and they’re bored. It seems to me that mothers of boys are secretly relieved. It’s easier, they say. They don’t want to get emotionally involved in endless conversations. The effort and commitment it takes to raising a girl. Mothers have actually said to me “Oh I’m so happy to have a boy. I can yell, he doesn’t cry. He bounces back.” There’s a fine line from this boy to an entitled man who thinks he should be celebrated for putting his dish in the sink.

Boys get away with being rowdy, and — more dangerously — being non-communicative. When could I ever say Ah well, girls will be girls! and then walk away and ignore her?

We started giving her the right messages from the very beginning. “Nobody can touch you,” we told her. On the first day of preschool… “nobody can touch you.” In kindergarten… “nobody can touch you.” Do mothers of sons say the same? I hope so. And do they also tell them it’s inappropriate to touch girls? No, they probably did not. So you’ve left it to me to have this conversation with her over and over and over for the rest of her life, because it’s always going to be her responsibility to manage her own security, and her fault if she doesn’t.

Boys can be as rambunctious as they like. And what are the consequences? A broken bone? Easy. It’s not even my responsibility to fix it. I can transport him somewhere and someone else does that job for me. I cannot do that for a child who’s been wrongly touched. I can’t hand my daughter over to the emergency room for a cast and some pain reliever.”

“There are some boys who are really mean to the girls,” my niece pipes in. “There’s this one boy, he hates my friend and is so mean to her. Some girls can walk away but some girls have really hurt feelings and start crying. But the girls who walk away are proud of themselves because they know what to do. But the girls that start crying just don’t know what to do and they’re really upset with that person. I try to tell that boy “Hey! You were rude.” I stand up for my friend. Girls stick up for each other.

Because being a woman means that you’re strong, smart, and you have your own path to be who you want.”

You’re absolutely right! I love that.

Her mother continued. “Admittedly when I found out I was having a girl, I knew. Even in a so-called developed country, I knew.

I knew I would have to tell her to protect her body. I knew I would have to tell her sometimes — most times — life would not feel fair. If she bulldozed her way forward, she’d be called a bitch. If she stepped aside, she’d be stepped on.

I knew I would have to tell her she’s capable of anything, but she’d still have to make choices about her career, partnership, motherhood that would never neatly align.

I knew she’d have to sit in a rowdy boy-centric classroom and wait patiently with her hand raised, and still never be heard.

She’s only 7. But I can’t shy away from educating her because the conversation is difficult for me. It’s an injustice to artificially keep her disconnected just to keep her safe. Or to assume it’s “too much” for her to understand. I can’t shelter her and call it safety. She needs to be armed with knowledge, information, and perspective — that is safety. That’s where I focus. For her sake.”

The conversation got me thinking…how are we teaching the next generation about feminism? And more importantly, how should we be teaching them about feminism?

It’s not an easy word — not even for grown-ups. We need to boil down to basics. Get tangible. Help them understand what it means concretely — in their own world. In their lives and their homes and their classroom.

Focus on equality when explaining feminism to children. Tell them that feminism means that girls should have every opportunity that boys have. My niece reminds us that we’re “exactly the same and equal.” And it’s ok to say it “in a strong way.”

Kryss Shane, author of The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion, suggests offering to split a cookie, and asking if girls should get less of the cookie simply because they are girls. Simple metaphors help. Kids often see things through the lens of what is fair. And they know when things feel wrong — or unfair. They will understand that we all deserve an equal share of the cookie. That’s fair.

Shane goes on to explain that kids need to understand that feminism is better for everyone. It isn’t about being anti-men or boys. “Just as your birthday is not anti everyone else’s birthday, we can spotlight the importance of one group of people without it meaning that no one cares about another group…” On a similar track, it is vital for boys to be involved in lessons on feminism and equal self-expression — it is past time to do away with the “boys will be boys!” attitude and encourage boys to do more than “just stomp.”

One way is to point out sexism when it exists. For instance, assumptions about who wears what colors, who plays with what toys, and conversations around what women and men can or should be or do. Debunk any assumptions. Set off a mental alarm anytime a kid says “girls should…” or “boys always…”. Language is important.

Most young girls have already experienced or witnessed some degree of sexism in the classroom or in their lives already. They’ll notice how girls are treated differently in certain situations. Teach them ways to call out that behavior. Give them strategies to combat sexism in their daily lives, standing up for themselves and for each other, and making others feel included.

At the same time, we need to highlight the impact of feminism on the lives of women and girls. Many of the rights we have today are due to the feminist movement. Using simple examples like girls being able to study, play sports, wear pants, go to work, live alone — all of these things that were not allowed before and might still not be allowed in some places.

Tell kids that boys and men can — and should — be feminists too, because a feminist is a human being who believes that women and girls are equal and whole individuals whose lives are valuable. Show them this in its full diversity and with its full range of choices. And remind them that everyone should be free to make their own choices, even if we don’t agree with those choices.

But teaching the next generation about feminism goes beyond telling kids what feminism is. That behavior must be modeled for it to be understood, and replicated. Parents, teachers, and caregivers have a critical role to play. This means dividing household chores evenly, encouraging kids to adopt diverse role models, introducing media that breaks traditional gender boundaries, teaching consent, and more. We cannot be what we cannot see.

And there is something terrible that happens when a girl realizes that the world sees her as less-than. We can’t allow that to happen. As my niece said: “We get the same respect and we need to get the same peace.”

Keep messages simple. Kids are smart, they get it.

My niece certainly does.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!