Last weekend, my 2½-year-old daughter walked up to me at the library with a board book in her hand: Feminist Baby Finds Her Voice!, by Loryn Brantz. The book was full of bright, cute illustrations and girl-power messages—“Feminist babies stand up tall! Equal rights and toys for all!” My daughter stood by my knee patiently as I read the book aloud. She asked no questions, made no comments, and was off to the train table before I closed the last page. I was left sitting there, wondering who the heck this book was supposed to be for.
I knew about the recent glut of feminist biographies for young readers—your Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, your Bygone Badass Broads. But until my daughter surfaced this one for me, I didn’t know that, in the years since the 2016 election, publishers have produced many “feminist” board books for the youngest not-yet-readers. On Amazon, I found a small virtual shelf of books in this genre: three installments of Feminist Baby, including one intended for “feminist baby” boys; a book called Baby Feminists, which reminds readers that a string of celebrated women, from RBG to Malala, were “once babies”; one called This Little Trailblazer, with cheerful cartoons of famous women like Rosa Parks and Florence Nightingale; and An ABC of Equality, with entries for “LGBTQIA” and “Oppression.”
In case this needs to be said: I’m a feminist, I plan to raise my daughter as a feminist, and I know, of course, that these books have the very best of intentions. But since having a child, I’ve also become hyperaware of the fact that we often misunderstand very young children’s minds and expect a lot more adult thinking from them than we should. The organization Zero to Three surveyed parents in 2016 and found that respondents expected qualities like self-control and empathy to develop a year or a year and half earlier in a youngster’s life than they actually do. Kindergartens and even preschools have become much more academic than they once were—a state of affairs that specialists in child development regard with alarm. Board books are traditionally intended for children ages 0–3. Should we really expect toddlers to have the capability for abstraction that’s required to understand a concept like “LGBTQIA”?
“I would never discourage people from buying a book about feminism,” said Christia Brown, a developmental psychologist and author of Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How To Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. “These books definitely don’t do any harm,” she told me, but “I don’t think, in and of themselves, that’s how you raise a child to be a feminist.” The kind of complicated, abstract, and historical thinking used in these books, she said, is probably beyond a toddler’s comprehension.
That’s not to say that little kids don’t think about gender. By the time kids are 2 or 3, Brown said, they will try out gender stereotypes by making statements like “Girls are … ” or “Boys like … ” My daughter isn’t there yet—“I a girl!” is the most we’ve heard on the topic so far—and maybe that’s why a book that argues girl babies can be vocal and assertive meant so little to her. My daughter hasn’t even gotten the message, as far as I can tell, that girls are “supposed” to be quiet and boys are “supposed” to be loud. Won’t an intentionally paradigm-busting book like Feminist Baby be completely lost on her?
Maybe, Brown said, but she’s already thinking about other things that will eventually feed into her awareness of gender. Some of the things parents of toddlers can do to help fight gender stereotyping are more subtle than introducing a vocabulary of empowerment that we older feminists find familiar. Early on, Brown said, we could give children books that represent human variability—ones that quietly offer examples of kids who like to run, kids who like to read, kids who like to climb, without necessarily referring to a preexisting stereotype that’s being “busted.” The idea that there are lots of different kinds of kids out there is immediately applicable to their world—a toddler, especially one in day care like mine, sees tons of other children all the time and is constantly noticing their differences. (“Harvey doesn’t like cheese,” she announces. “Genevieve likes kitty cats.”) By introducing an array of types of children in books, without being too theoretical about it, you can tap into that interest and lay a baseline understanding of human equality.
Brown said that because young kids are fairly concrete thinkers, parents should act “feminist” in ways that are directly tied to their lives—like using “kid” to refer to a peer, instead of “boy” or “girl,” or teaching about consent by reminding a child not to pet a dog or hug a friend if they clearly don’t want to be petted or hugged. She added that parents can find plenty of stereotypes out in the world to critique and that kids might be a little more able to understand those critiques when they’re a bit older. Around age 4, she said, I might start noticing instances of gender bias in the wild and bringing them up: “If you’re in the toy store and you see a vacuum cleaner with a girl on the side of the box, you could point it out and say, ‘Wow, they think only girls would want to play with that! Isn’t that too bad?’ ”
I’ve noticed that parents who have kids who don’t yet express many preferences seem to use clothes and books and toys to signal to other parents what their family culture is like. I chafe at this—my husband and I agreed that we wouldn’t put J. in a onesie or T-shirt with a message until she was old enough to know what it meant and to approve of that message—but we all do it, in one way or another. (A well-made, solid-colored shirt, of the Primary.com variety, sends another kind of signal.) If you want to buy a copy of Feminist Baby for your friend’s toddler, there’s no harm in it. Just know that it’s more for you, and your friend, than for the kid.