When the ultrasound technician said, “It’s a boy!”, my heart dropped.
I don’t know anything about raising boys.
I carry baggage, both from my Christian patriarchal socialization and the secular patriarchy at work in modern culture. The heaviest baggage for me is this: boys and girls are so different from each other that it takes a man to raise a real boy. A mama can do what she can, but she’s got to be careful that her love, care, and femininity don’t impinge on his masculine nature. Nobody likes a mama’s boy.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a stereotypical girl. I’m emotionally intelligent, feminine, others-directed, and a bookworm. He’s going to grow up with a mama who wears peach skinny jeans, watches chick flicks, and sits Daddy down for long chats about the state of her emotions. My inclinations are to snuggle the heck out of this boy and talk about his emotions too.
I can already see my teen rolling his eyes under his blonde bangs as I drop him off for football practice. Moms. What do they know?
On top of that, I am a feminist. I think deeply about gender and its effects on both men and women, boys and girls in the real world. I advocate for change. I talk about the harm of gender stereotypes.
But I don’t want to turn my son into a social experiment. I don’t want to raise him opposite the cultural definition of masculinity to correct a larger social imbalance. I don’t want to dress him in pink, hand him dolls, and ban toy guns from the Steger household just to make a point that not all boys are the aggressive, emotionless creatures we think they are. I don’t want him isolated from his peers or his gender questioned because Mama told him it was okay to like braiding hair and purple.
I don’t want to squelch a natural part of him because it doesn’t align with my social values.
This is my child. I want to raise him well, to be the best that he can be, to be a whole, healthy, happy child who can both fit in with society and stand up for himself when fitting in isn’t warranted.
To my mothering mind, my perceived limitations as a feminist woman sound more like a recipe for ruin than a recipe for a well-rounded, normal son.
Of course, when I worry, I read. You better believe I’ve got a thick stack of parenting books on my nightstand right now!
As I’ve been reading about the influence and importance of mothers in their children’s lives, about how children develop, about what’s really central to raising happy, whole children, I’m beginning to see that these fears are nothing more than internalized patriarchy. As a mom, I am a key player in my child’s well-being — not a threat to his maleness.
That’s primarily because my son and I have more in common as humans than we don’t have in common as male and female.
No Boy or Girl Always Does Anything
Boys and girls are innately more similar than dissimilar.
It’s true. Even when there’s a statistical difference between boys and girls, that difference gives us little information about how any one particular child will behave. 78% of gender differences are so small (we’re talking an effect size near zero or between 0.11-0.20) that you’d be better off flipping a coin than using gender to predict a child’s behavior or preferences.*
Even as a feminist, the statistics shocked me. I’d always taken the stance that gender stereotypes often arose from innate differences, but when it came down to allowing an individual to be who they are, it didn’t matter what most boys and girls do.
Turns out those significant gender stereotypes come up empty in real life. Falling under the 78% of minuscule statistical effect sizes are the gender differences I took for granted — boys are better at math and science; girls are more verbal than boys; boys are more active; girls are more emotional. None of those gender stereotypes noticeably express themselves in real life in a statistically significant way.
The differences are even smaller the younger a child is (a 0.21 effect size for differences between male and female infants).
This essentially means that my son is just as likely to be different from other boys than from other girls. This essentially means that I as a parent can glean little information on what my son’s innate characteristics will be like based on his gender.
But All the Boys I Know….
Where, then, do gender stereotypes arise if not from innate differences?
I could swear that gender stereotypes hold water with my anecdotal evidence.
My brothers all seemed to prefer math and science, whereas I struggled to finish physical science, failed my College Algebra CLEP test, and would have got a perfect ACT score if it didn’t have a math and science section.
My brothers all played sports throughout their school years; my mom had to nag us girls to get off the couch and go to gym day with the homeschool group.
Those are real, expressed gender differences that I saw not only in my family of nine but in the other families around me.
Then I read Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, and it was like I was seeing the world right side up for the first time.
Dr. Christia Spear Brown doesn’t deny that gender stereotypes exist, or even that adult men and women seem radically different than each other. But these differences arise not from innate difference but from the human tendency to categorize people into in groups and out groups.
Once kids realize that they are the gender they are, they start identifying themselves with their gender group, finding their group superior, and recoiling from associating with the “out group.”
A great example: In studies, boys refused to play with a toy that was labelled a “girl toy.” When the researchers told a group of girls that the toy was a “boy toy,” the girls also declined to play with the exact same toy the boys refused. Of course, when different groups of boys and girls were told the toy was acceptable to their particular gender, each group had a blast playing with it.
Maintaining the purity of one’s in group is of utmost importance to kids.
That’s where Calvin and Hobbes’ Get Rid of Slimy Girls (G.R.O.S.S.) club began — not from innate gender differences but from the innate inclination to categorize people into us vs. them.
Our tendency to categorize is accompanied by a tendency to filter information according to how we already view the world. We conveniently forget exceptions to the rule, even if the exceptions are right in front of us. “Boys don’t have eyelashes,” Dr. Brown’s daughter told her one day. Of course they do — and her own daddy had lusciously long eye locks, to boot!
“Girls are more nurturing and gentle,” is another one I formerly swore by — even though I had to teach two girls how to gently rock their babies instead of throw them on the floor, hold back another from repeatedly smashing a boy’s sand turtle, and unclaw a female child from my head.
“Boys are much harder to control” — I believed that one until it became obviously clear that the two most out-of-control children in my class were girls.
My worldview was so filtered through gender stereotypes that I often forgot about real life examples right in front of me. I even missed core aspects of who I was as a child because of gender blinders.
For instance, it’s true that my brothers played sports during their school years and I never did. But when I stop to think about it, I was an incredibly active child. I prided myself on running faster than the other children (even the boys); I played street hockey with the neighborhood kids; and I was good at catching a baseball in our long games of Jackpot. Thinking back, if I would have expressed an interest in joining a baseball league, I’m sure I would not only have loved it but would have likely continued in sports throughout my school years.
It didn’t occur to me to seriously ask my parents, and it didn’t occur to my parents to ask me — all because sports was more of a guy thing. Not being a one-dimensional human, I devoted myself to my other “girl” interests…and became a permanent couch potato.
It’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t play sports as a child.
Or another example — it’s true that if you polled my siblings, the girls would more likely express interest in humanities over STEM and vice versa. And if you asked me, I would say that boys were better at those sorts of things because they’re boys.
But in reality, I got just as good grades or better in math and science as my brothers. I enjoyed math a great deal; I was fascinated with marine biology, astronomy, and quantum physics; and chemistry came easy to me. But it never occurred to either me or my parents to push me in math and science, and so I graduated high school without taking a real physics course or even pre-calc — because gender stereotypes.
That’s another one of my biggest regrets.
Combine the natural tendency to categorize with the subtle but heavy-handed gender stereotypes we feel today, and children get swept into what Dr. Brown calls “Boy World” and “Girl World.” Society and peer pressure create ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable for a girl or boy to like or be, and being social, categorical creatures, children associate with their “in group,” regardless of their own natural preferences and innate flexibility to appreciate a wide variety of interests across the gender spectrum.
Bringing It All Back
In other words, to address my initial fears, boys and girls are so similar in their needs and interests that it makes little sense to parent them according to their gender. If I raise my son “as a boy” rather than “as a kid” — that is, according to the gender stereotype rather than the innate needs and interests almost all children have — I risk believing things about my son that are simply not true.
Further, if boys and girls are so similar, and if I feel confident that my womanhood will not harm a daughter, then I should feel just a confident that my womanhood will not harm my son. There is no possible way that my womanhood can threaten, harm, or weaken my son.
What society deems feminine is just as human to a boy as what society deems masculine. What I bring to the parenting table as a mother and as a woman is just as valuable and necessary to my son as it would be to a daughter.
He is a human first, as am I, and that shared humanity makes up for any differences of experiences, interests, or personalities. I am going to raise him as a human, exposing him to the wide range of human things he can do, be, or like, regardless of where they fall on the artificial masculine/feminine spectrum.
Having shared that stirring vision of equality, my son is also an individual, a male individual. His maleness will affect his experience, as will his other unique characteristics that differ from mine. He will experience Boy World far more than I ever did or will, even if he is exposed to a world beyond gender stereotypes. As he is socialized in Boy World, his challenges might be different than any future daughter’s of mine.
As the majority of (adult) men are more violent, aggressive, likely to rape or abuse, prone to porn, less emotionally intelligent, etc., we might have to have more explicit conversations on those topics. We’ll obviously have gender-specific conversations about puberty, sex, and fatherhood (and it wouldn’t bother me at all if he felt more comfortable talking about those things with his dad or another man than with me).
That is to say, I am preparing to address different things with my son that might not have shown up all too often in my Girl World experiences. I am cognizant that gender stereotypes will still shape him. I am aware that his physical male body brings unique issues that a female body does not. I am not gender-blind — either of his maleness or of how society views his maleness.
But I still plan on raising him primarily as a human, with his maleness subsumed as an important part of his individuality, rather than as primarily a boy, distinct in every way from me except for some occasional human traits.
From what I understand of boys, both from my research and my personal observations, that’s the way to raise them as happy, healthy, and whole.
Look out for part two soon in which I discuss whether boys should play with baby dolls!
*Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, by Christia Spear Brown, PhD., pg. 77-78