Driving to pick up my son from school one day last winter, I was listening to a news program on NPR discussing the Trump administration’s reversal of a law protecting trans-gendered men and women from using the bathroom appropriate to the sex with which they identify. That same day, I came across the photo below, and I thought to myself, ‘How wonderful.’
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen similar photos of girls. It seems to be the norm for our society to encourage girls to be as tough or tougher than any boy on the playground. But I rarely see photos like this one above, encouraging boys to be girlish if they want to be.
As I write the word “girlish,” I recognize, too, our society needs new terms for such behavior. To be openly accepting of those who don’t necessarily fit a typical mold of male or female.
And yet, research tells us that as early as preschool, boys and girls alike need to identify with their sex. Their role as girl or boy is necessary to comprehend their place in the larger scheme of things. If you have ever raised a small child, then you understand well that gender stereotypes do indeed come from somewhere.
I promise I never encouraged my son to love trucks or to go nuts over superheroes. He just did. Those desires were in there, waiting for the moment to manifest. Like he had an internal Jarvis just waiting to detect a picture of Iron Man. Assessing photo…..hero identified……activating love of superheroes……Now! Transformation complete. While mom sat idly by in wonder and awe.
Here we are, however, in the current era of #MeToo, and it’s becoming clearer that our society has a real problem. I am not saying the issue is superheroes, mind you, for research explains a small child’s need for such feelings of power and control. They virtually have none, so the instinct to attach oneself to a symbol of power is natural and necessary – and for whatever reason, often a stronger internal desire for boys.
Yet, as a mother, I grapple with how to raise a son who is everything he is supposed to be – not too rough, not so energetic that he scares away houseguests, not too bold or outspoken, not too this, not too that. He is supposed to be sensitive as well, but not so sensitive that he gets teased by others. And if you don’t have a son, let me tell you that very young boys start hearing the term “cry baby” from their peers. So even if you are doing your best to raise a tender boy, he will learn from others he is supposed to toughen up and be a man.
In some ways, I am on board with the natural process of boys raising boys to be resilient. My son has learned from his peers to stand up for himself and to not be pushed around. He has learned to be dominant when the moment calls, when other boys are on “his territory,” for instance. “This is my house, so I get to make the rules.” “That’s my Nerf gun, so I get to use it.” No one can really argue with these declarations. Even boys twice his age seem to abide by this logic. As a result, some sort of respect is gained each time I see him or his friends standing up to announce they are king of the mountain.
In fact, I am pretty sure my son is helping to protect himself from potential bullies by exerting his own power.
And yet, and yet, and yet, exerting power has limits, as we all understand. In a recent visit with one of Asher’s girl friends, she was not willing to play as rough-and-tumble as he wanted, and so she bit his arm. When we spoke of this event in the aftermath, he was visibly stunned. He had no idea that his behavior wasn’t OK with her, that whatever line he crossed had been drawn between them.
Naturally, this led to a discussion about limits and girls and how we don’t get to treat girls the same way unless we have their consent. Unless we know they are on board. And the whole tangled web of gender differences ensues.
In order to teach boundaries, it seems there must be an understanding of what consent means. And it’s a type of consent that isn’t needed with any of the boys Asher plays with. They speak a physical, unspoken language that they learn from one another, as tangible to them as it is intangible to me, a woman who was once a girl.
Navigating our way through gender stereotyping isn’t as easy as it seems in the photo above, as much as I admire the idealism, as much as I want my boy to feel OK with being sensitive and nurturing. He is both of these things in fact, but he is also very much “a boy” who needs to understand that girls are in fact not the same, that girls don’t speak the same language.
Maybe we can help our children be more aware of the differences and to be OK with them. Maybe this is the key to helping solve the #MeToo crisis of our day.