I am a feminist mother, and I have raised two feminist daughters. When I was growing up, the word "feminist" was treated as a dirty word. Teen boys would shout obscenities as you walked the halls of my high school if they thought you were pro-women.
I hope times have changed, but there is still much work ahead of us to ensure equality between the sexes. And let me set the record straight on what a feminist is — a feminist believes in gender equality, and understands that in order to bring about gender equality, we have to take action to make social change. These changes have to occur in all our social institutions.
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For those nay-sayers, please know that equality does not mean "the same as." Men and women can have distinct differences. Gender equality simply means that all people should be given respect, dignity and treated fairly regardless of their gender. Women are not lesser human beings than men. Boys are not superior beings over girls.
A child has already learned about gender roles by the tender age of two. That means the family is a critical place of learning in those formative years. As parents, we have a great responsibility in shaping our child's views about their own gender and the understanding of the relationship between the genders.
I don't expect you to read Gloria Steinem as a bedtime story to your toddler, but there are many things a parent can do to help raise a feminist child. Let's take this day, International Women's Day, to focus on parenting our kids so that every generation improves the status of women until gender equality is finally achieved.
Here what parents can do. Dads, you play just as important a role in raising a feminist, and these tips apply to you as well:
1. Look at yourself as a role model
Children are born with immature brains, but keenly observant eyes. They are trying to figure out their world and their place in it. They are trying to understand the implicit social rules. They watch how the people in their family behave, and study interactions amongst one another.
Every day you are broadcasting lessons to your child on what it means to be a woman, just by how you lead your daily life! What do they see? What would you like them to see? If your kid was an alien dropped on planet earth to observe our species and to report back on what is this thing called "women," what would they report?
Take a moment to reflect on International Women's Day of what being a woman means to you. How do you breathe life into those ideas in your own life and relationships?
2. Be aware of quietly perpetuating childhood gender norms
Recently, at a local café, I overheard a woman sharing a story with her girlfriends about the birth of her son. Apparently, the ultrasound had showed she was having a girl and so the baby's entire nursery and layette were all pink. After the birth, the husband rushed home to re-paint the room blue before the baby came home from the hospital.
There are still some lingering, seemingly innocuous gender stereotypes that have more power in shaping perceptions, attitudes and behaviour than we are aware. We do still put kids in gender boxes! So, pay attention and disregard the pink is for girls and blue is for boys rules.
Disregard the gender stereotype that boys like trucks and girls like dolls. Have both. Don't buy the gender-coloured version of a toy. If your daughter wants to wear a construction belt with tools, it doesn't have to be pink. If your son wants to play a guitar, it doesn't have to be blue.
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And finally, invite your girls into all the same play opportunities that you would a boy, and vice versa. Create the same opportunity for exposure to the fun and games for both your kids. Same for taking risks and getting hurt. If you would allow a boy to dangle from the monkey bars at a great height, so too should your daughter. They are not less hearty or tough when they fall.
3. Filter that media
While you and your family are the first and greatest influence on the development of your child, the bigger world and culture will start to flood in soon enough. The greater societal gender messages will appear in how women are portrayed in children's story books, games, movies, advertising, and song lyrics.
Pay attention! Look for media that depicts women positively. Discuss with your kids when girls and women are being portrayed as dependent on men, in lower power positions, looking emotional and weak. Take an active part in seeking out alternative depictions of women.
Have open conversations about how some girls or boys portray themselves on social media. Ask them what they think that is about? Don't lecture — discuss.
4. Be an activist and bring your daughter along.
Marches, protests, letter writing or whatever form of action you may pick, be sure to talk to your kids about your personal stance on gender equality and show them through active involvement that social change can occur if we work for it.
It doesn't have to be a bra burning, but could be as simple as being a member of say, the Canadian Women's Foundation, or by attending events like the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs or by donating to women-focused causes. These are all ways you express your values to your child.
My daughter was active in the organization Me To We, and travelled to Africa to help build a school in Kenya in grade 9. For our girls to feel they have a sense of agency to make a difference in the world at any age is critical.
For me, a crowning moment of accomplishment came when my daughters bought me the children's book about the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as one of my Christmas presents. That said a lot to me about how my efforts to raise a feminist had paid off.
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