18 Aug 2019

How has feminism changed the way we raise boys?

From Contemporary Feminism, 4:06 pm on 18 August 2019

From the discussion…

Was it nature or nurture which caused a group of boys to dismantle an exhibition of sculpture in a controlled experiment to see how they would behave when unsupervised and given permission to do whatever they liked in an art gallery?

Annette Henderson: I think it’s a combination of both. If anyone tries to tell you right now it’s all about nature or about nurture, they’re not listening to the whole story. We know right from birth that we treat boys and girls very differently. There are many studies out there that show that as soon as you label that baby as a boy or a girl, people talk about them completely differently. And they could be exactly the same baby. By doing that, we’re shaping how we respond to the baby. And how the baby will respond to us. Early differences in brain function between girls and boys could still be a result of how we treat them.

Emily Writes: Before he could speak, my son was finding things and saying “I want to wear this,” and making his own clothes out of tea towels. It doesn’t come from me as I’ve only worn black for the last decade! But when he was getting ready for school he had a pile of tutus and sequins and all of his beautiful clothes, so much of it handmade, in a big pile. And he said, “Here, mummy. I can’t wear this any more.” And then he had a pile of grey and blue, because that’s what boys wear. He knew he was starting school and this is what had to happen.

Salvatore Gargiulo, Emily Writes, Kath Akuhata-Brown, Annette Henderson.

Salvatore Gargiulo, Emily Writes, Kath Akuhata-Brown, Annette Henderson. Photo: Mark Tantrum

Salvatore Gargiulo: I think it’s essential to find a good role model for boys growing up. If there’s not a male in there somewhere, that boy is at enormous risk. It could be an uncle, it could be a rugby coach, it could be a teacher, but somewhere along the line, the mother’s got to find somewhere that that male can have that connection.

Emily Writes: This thing I hear so often about mothers “Oh, you’re having problems with your son? Does he have a male role model?” My response is “Yeah, I went to the male role model shop but they were all busy.” I guess I’m just a bit cynical about it. You would think if this was this real key to [preventing] our boys struggling was that they don’t have men in their lives, that you would have all men getting together and going “How do we save these boys and look after these boys." Is this happening? Maybe it is and I’m just going to the wrong bars.

Salvatore Gargiulo: I think one of the biggest issues in education is the lack of males in early childhood education.

Emily Writes: My husband is a teacher aide, a role which is usually gendered, and there are two answers to why there aren’t more men working as teacher aides in early childhood education. You can ask Sean Plunket and he’ll say it’s a feminist conspiracy, and men-haters think all men are paedophiles. Or you can ask men who actually work in early childhood and they’ll say “Because it’s paid $17.70 an hour and I can’t support my family on that.”

Annette Henderson: Isn’t it actually about diversity of early childhood educators? It’s not about male or female educators. It’s about Māori educators, Pacific Island educators. You go into childcare centres and it is very difficult to find diversity in many of the places throughout Auckland.

Kath Akuhata-Brown: When I was carrying my first child, I went looking for literature for her. I didn’t like any of them so I wrote my own. The main characters were actually male, but not human, and they went travelling around the world, and all the indigenous mythological creatures they met were women.

L-R Susie Ferguson, Emily Writes, Salvatore Gargiulo, Kath Akuhata-Brown and Annette Henderson.

L-R Susie Ferguson, Emily Writes, Salvatore Gargiulo, Kath Akuhata-Brown and Annette Henderson. Photo: Mark Tantrum



Emily Writes is a writer, editor of The Spinoff Parents and mother of two. She is the author of two books, Rants in the Dark, which has been turned into a popular stage play, and Is it Bedtime Yet?, an anthology on parenting.


Gargiulo worked in secondary schools for forty years. While principal at Nelson College, he worked closely with Celia Lashlie on the Good Man Project, part of her research for her book He’ll Be Ok: Growing Gorgeous Boys Into Good Men. Gargiulo is an advocate for boys' education and worked to address the gender performance gap in New Zealand education by developing strategies for teachers and parents.


Henderson is a psychologist researching social, cognitive, and language development in early childhood. She is a Senior Lecturer, Rutherford Discovery Fellow, and Director of the Early Learning Lab at the University of Auckland.


Akuhata-Brown is a screenwriter, director and poet. Her formative years occurred during the rise of the Maori Rasta Movement. She has worked as a journalist for the Gisborne Herald and TVNZ, and for the last 30 years, her work has focused on the place of Maori in the world. She has been a consistent and constant voice in the New Zealand screen landscape as an advocate of Indigenous voices

In association with City Gallery Wellington’s exhibition Eva Rothschild: Kosmos​