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This is how we can raise boys to be (second) gentlemen

With Douglas Emhoff as the country’s first “Second Gentleman,” what does this monumental shift mean for boys? How can we help kids learn from this historical moment? Experts weigh in.
Democratic presidential candidate Biden and vice presidential candidate Harris hold first joint campaign appearance as a ticket in Wilmington, Delaware
Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff during a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 12, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

Kamala Harris shattered a glass ceiling when she became the first female vice president of the United States. But she’s not the only one who made history. Her husband, Douglas Emhoff forged new territory as the first “second gentleman,” a title that has now been added to the dictionary.

Describing himself as “Proud husband to @VP Kamala Harris” in his Twitter bio, and respectful of the women who have held the role before him, Emhoff seems aware of the eyes on him as he sets the tone for future second gentlemen…and future first gentlemen.

“The message has always been that men lead—and that white men lead—and this example is going against that assumption in a very visible way,” said Dr. Tovah P. Klein, author of “How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success” and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development.

So, what does this monumental shift mean for boys? And what can boys learn about changing gender dynamics when the First Lady is a college professor who keeps her public-facing job while the Second Gentleman steps back from his successful career as an entertainment lawyer?

In other words, how can we help kids learn from this historical moment?

Lay the foundation

Erin Davies of Charlestown, Mass. is a proud “boy mom” to Ray (6) and Joel (4). Davies said that she has tried to “set the stage from the beginning” for her boys to view women and men as being equal, and the boys weren’t surprised to see a female vice president being sworn in when the family watched the inauguration on Jan. 20.

It is significant that the boys have a visual example of a woman in power and a man in the support role, especially at a young age. “For boys who don’t ever see woman in a position of power, you can’t just assume they’ll imagine that,” said Klein, who raised three boys. A simple way to guide children is to point out people in positions that are typically filled by the opposite gender, like a female bus driver or a male nurse.

Erin Davies of Charlestown, Mass. with her sons Ray (6) and Joel (4).Janelle Carmela Photography / Janelle Carmela Photography

“Boys and girls should see both genders in the White House, as CEOs, as orthopedic surgeons, as construction workers, as sanitation engineers,” agreed Susan G. Groner, author of “Parenting with Sanity & Joy: 101 Simple Strategies.” “As much as we want girls to know they can do it, we want boys to know that the girls can do it too.”

Introduce children to strong women

Though it seems like a natural fit to give a girl a book about Kamala Harris, that book is just as useful for a boy. Children will learn about a disproportionally large number of powerful men in history class; you can balance their education by introducing them to strong women at home.

Groner said, “We want girls to read books about powerful women because we want them to know that they can be powerful. But boys need to see that too. And the more boys read books about powerful women, the more we normalize the idea.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Kamala Harris is sworn is as U.S. Vice President as her husband Doug Emhoff looks on at the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today's inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Alex Wong / Getty Images

Model the behavior you want to see

Both Groner and Klein agreed that it is essential to upend gender roles at home. When possible, divide housework so that both parents shop, clean and care for the kids because children will mirror the behavior they observe.

In the toddler childhood center that Klein oversees, she has noticed the biggest difference in the play kitchen area—years ago, only girls used to gravitate to that area, but now both boys and girls cook.

Klein said, “The pandemic is an ideal time to show kids that parents are sharing home responsibilities” because kids will be there to see when mom fixes the toilet and dad makes dinner. “If you’re buying into stereotypes, they’re buying into stereotypes.”

Lean into the “and”

Klein cautioned that we don’t have to choose between being the partner in the spotlight or the being partner in the support role—we can be both.

Because Emhoff is a lawyer, “he’s a successful career person in his own right,” said Klein. “You can be successful and be a support to your partner. In the same, way boys can grow up to be strong at work and a nurturing father. That’s an and—not an or.”

“I see myself in a very equal partnership with my husband,” said Davies. As the owner of a consultancy that tackles project management and operations for small businesses, she has often been working from noon on a Saturday until after the boys’ bedtime.

“They know that dad is there, and he doesn’t complain and doesn’t say, ‘This is a mom job.’ There’s no question that sometimes he’s working and I’m with the kids, and sometimes I’m working and he’s with the kids,” Davis said. “I hope that them seeing their dad supporting their mom in her career shows them more than we could tell them.”