As soon as my sons were born, the sports paraphernalia started trickling in; a soft basketball to toss around, a onesie embroidered like a baseball uniform. My husband talked excitedly about when the boys would be old enough to play t-ball and about coaching their basketball teams. Sports were a part of his childhood which he looked upon fondly, and he could not wait to share his enthusiasm.
Sports have always been a regular feature on our TV, but after the kids came along, I started to notice a change in what we were watching. There was a little less football, and a lot more women’s soccer. “Look, guys,” my husband would point out as our toddlers ran around the living room, “do you see the women playing soccer? Look how far they can kick the ball!”
I asked him about it later. “Well,” he replied, “It’s important to me that they see women in athletics, too.”
When you have young children, you’re tasked with educating them about the world. But more often than not, we teach them about the world as we think it should be, rather than as it is. As parents, we tell them to be kind and to share, even though we know that they will grow up and begin to see inequalities around them. We tell them boys and girls can be anything they want to be when they grow up, but eventually they will start to notice a pattern – the faces on the classroom poster of U.S. Presidents are all men, the pictures on our money are all men, the names they memorize in history class are mostly men. Their elected representatives, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and sports heroes? Men, men, men.
With the Olympics, however, comes a unique opportunity to show children a different side to the story. When women take the field (or the track, pool, or court) they are not on the sidelines or mere footnotes to the bigger story. They are front and center showing the world that women do not have to be pretty, quiet, or demure if they don’t want to be – they can be strong, fast, and powerful, too.
This image is as important for our boys to see as it is for our girls. I grew up in the 90s, in the days of “Girl Power!” when parents told their daughters that nothing could hold them back. But then as the girls in my generation got older, we entered the workforce and still bumped into glass ceilings, were paid less than men for the same jobs, and realized balancing a career and family wasn’t always a simple task. Raising feminist girls wasn’t enough, it’s time to start raising feminist boys, too.
As it happens, our family life looks fairly traditional. My husband goes to work, and I stay at home to cook and care for the children. He enjoys watching sports, and I enjoy knitting while he watches sports. This is a balance that works for us, but we want our children to know that just because our family works a certain way, other families may look different and that is perfectly fine.
Children, however, have a tendency to normalize what they see and become skeptical of what is unfamiliar. So we try to give them new perspectives when we can. Watching women power down the track isn’t the only way to help familiarize them with strong women in leadership roles, but it certainly is a fun one.
I want my boys to grow up with role models of both genders. If girls jumping into the pool this summer can admire Michael Phelps and his world record number of medals, then my sons can look up to Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd when they step on to the soccer field. If we act like men’s sports are for everyone to enjoy, but women’s sports are just for young girls to watch, we reinforce the message that we have been fighting for centuries, that women are somehow inferior.
The truth is, even the athletic community has a lot of catching up to do in this area. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, which won the World Cup in 2015 were paid $2 million, while a year before the men’s team was given $9 million despite losing in the round of 16. This summer, women will have fewer opportunities to win gold medals than men at the Olympics in Rio, which features 169 events for men and only 137 for women.
Women’s sports, however, do not deserve to be seen as second rate. Not only do they provide great entertainment, they inspire young athletes of both genders. When one of the Olympians competing this summer is a young woman who swam to Greece’s shore while pushing a broken down boat full of fellow Syrian refugees to safety, it’s laughable to think that women’s sports don’t have anything to contribute.
When my husband starts talking about signing the boys up for soccer next spring, his goals are not to win every game, or to start grooming a future pro (although, should it turn out that way, I’m sure he wouldn’t complain). Parents introduce children to sports as a way to teach them about the importance of being healthy and active, teamwork, and setting goals to reach. Women’s sports can teach these values to both boys and girls, just as well as men’s sports can.
So while college football and NBA basketball are still regular fixtures at our house, when we’re looking for something to do on a spring Saturday, we will happily take the boys to watch a college softball game. If my son asks me what hurdling is, I’ll search YouTube for “women’s hurdling” and show him the results. When the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team plays in Rio, you can bet we are all cheering them on.
The benefits to young women playing sports are numerous – it reduces the risk of osteoporosis, breast cancer, and depression. But I believe there are benefits to my sons as well, in seeing our family and, this summer, our entire country, cheer on strong women. I hope this will teach them that it is okay to root for and support people who might be different from them, and that doing so will cost them nothing.
As our boys grow up, I know that we have many conversations ahead of us about what it means to view and treat women as equals. I’m not even sure if this early exposure to women’s sports will end up being a game-changer. But I know this – last summer, as we watched the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team win game after game in the World Cup, I caught my son running furiously around the house, yelling, “I’m a lady! I’m a lady!”
“Hey honey, what do you think a lady is?” I asked him, trying to hide a giggle.
He stopped briefly and turned to me, “It’s someone who runs really fast,” he answered before taking off again.
“Yup,” I said. “That sounds about right.”
That’s the impression I want him to have for a good, long time.