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"Feminists" or Not, Let's Teach Our Kids True Equality

02/24/2014 07:53 EST | Updated 04/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Movie star Joseph Gordon-Levitt recently came out on national television to Ellen DeGeneres, telling her that he is... a feminist. A couple months earlier, Joss Whedon, noted creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other feminist characters, sparked a heated Internet debate when he told an Equality Now conference that he "hates" the word "feminist."

So instead of adding two more male voices to the deliberation over the word "feminist," we prefer to cut straight to doing what we can, as men, to foster a more equal world. Having worked with thousands of young world changers over the past two decades, and as a new dad and uncle, we believe that world begins with what we teach our kids.

For the record, we consider ourselves feminists. But we didn't grow up realizing it, because at least in our house, equality seemed like a natural state. Our mom was in charge of the family finances and shared the hammer-wielding home maintenance, while Dad cooked most of our meals and did much of the cleaning. They took equal turns caring for us and working outside the home as teachers. We didn't have a label for it, but our equality household helped form our perspective on the relationship between men and women.

"Feminist" is an unavoidably loaded word. If we asked a group of parents if they believe in raising children that are respectful of both men and women, and who believe in equal opportunity, we suspect the answer would be overwhelmingly, "of course." Ask that same group if they believe in raising feminists, and the response may be slightly more hesitant.

But just like most social issues, women's equality isn't a one-off talk between parent and child. It's an ongoing conversation in which words are less important than actions. It's being continually mindful about how we raise our kids.

Home is the first place kids learn about gender dynamics, and it's as much about the way parents treat each other as how chores are divvied up.

Socialization outside the home comes quickly for today's kids. Playing sports we frequently heard that one of our teammates was "throwing like a girl." Often this taunt came from the coach, and even when it didn't, it was never corrected by the adults in our midst. That's why it's important to consider the adults in your kids' lives, and the kinds of messages they send.

We advocate mindfully choosing babysitters, coaches and teachers (when possible) to ensure your children are surrounded by positive adult role models -- strong women and "feminist" men -- who care for and support them.

You can't always choose the adults your child meets, so a little intervention is sometimes required. We're used to hearing that girls are complimented (or disparaged) for their looks more than boys are, but as father and uncle to Marc's two-year-old daughter Lily Rose, it's striking how often "cutie" comes up for girls, and "toughie" is heard for boys. So we try to always respond to "How pretty" with "She's really smart, and she shares so well." Better to come off too proud than let these subtle (though well-intentioned) signs of gender bias creep into Lily-Rose's developing worldview.

Joss Whedon brought strong female characters into our cultural mainstream. Buffy kicked vampire butt, and the boys around her didn't care that she was a her. In fact, they thought she was pretty awesome. And growing up, so did we. It's increasingly easy to find positive role models, from The Hunger Games' Katniss to any Olympic woman hockey player, snowboarder or bobsledder.

There are also off-screen role models that parents can highlight for their kids. Canada's four largest provinces are led by women premiers who are powerful, principled and relatable. Germany, Argentina, Bangladesh and Liberia are among many countries led by women, while Hilary Clinton is a favourite to become the first woman POTUS, and Theresa May is Britain's influential Home Secretary. Corporate leaders like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and General Motors CEO Mary Barra and breaking glass ceilings on their own terms.

Lily-Rose is already signed up for sports, arts, and other various activities to instill early the belief that she can do or be anything she wants. She will surely encounter gender bias and discrimination in her life, more frequently than we'll even notice. The best we can do is to make sure that it doesn't come from us, that we take a stand when we see it, and that we empower her to take a stand herself.

If you expose your kids to idea of equality and respect, you're a feminist in our eyes. Whether you use the label or not, what truly matters is we're working toward the same goal.

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 13 cities across North America and the United Kingdom, inspiring more than 180,000 attendees and millions more online. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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