Should I Raise My Son as a Boy or as a Human?

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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 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

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

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38 thoughts on “Should I Raise My Son as a Boy or as a Human?

  1. Allison Caylor

    I love your heart in this post. “I don’t want to squelch a natural part of him because it doesn’t align with my social values.” How refreshing, and needed on any side of the gender/socialization battleground. You’re going to be one heck of a loving mom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bailey Steger

      I was just ranting about this particular point in the shower!! We adults (of any stripe) have all these great theoretical ideas that we want to impart to our children, but we often don’t stop to think how it will affect them personally, as either individuals or as children. So much heartache can be avoided, I think, if we consider the real life impact of our abstract ideas on our poor, unwitting kids.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. maygrrl

    I have a similar background and God gave me 4 sons, no daughters. From one boy mom to another:

    -treat him like an individual with no preconceived notions of who he should be
    -use physical affection liberally and don’t stop when he starts getting hairy. Touch him every day.
    -Read books with strong female characters
    -When he’s old enough to understand, introduce the reality of his male (and white and wealth) privilege and help him understand that it comes with the opportunity to use it on behalf of the less privileged
    – model what it looks like to call out sexism and racism and sit back with a smile when you overhear him tell his male friends that they are being sexist and/or continue to play with his female bff because she’s the funniest person he knows.

    I am glad the world is getting another boy raised by a mom like you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe Schmoe

      Is it quite possible that we could teach children to play nice instead of calling each other racist? And if you wanted a kid not to act on his privilege, why would you tell him he had any in the first place?

      Like

      • Bailey Steger

        It’s quite possible to play nice and point out injustice. I taught my kindergartners to always play nice and always call out bullying when they see it. I don’t think maygrrl is advocating name-calling — “You’re just a racist!!!” — but rather education — “Hey, it’s actually not cool to call someone [blank],” or something along those lines.

        The whole concept of privilege is that you have it whether you act on it or know about it or not. :) In fact, you need to be aware of your privilege in order to act on it in a positive way — i.e., bringing about true equality. Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person; it’s what you do with it that determines the stuff you’re made of.

        Liked by 1 person

      • maygrrl

        I wrote “call out racism and sexism,” not call people racist. There is a pretty big difference. I’ve heard my kids say things like, “Of course [friend] can be the leader of our club. Not letting her just because she is a girl is sexist!” That’s the kind of “calling out” that I am referring to. And I think the world needs more people willing to kindly point out when their friends are acting in sexist and racist ways.

        As far as privilege goes, I think you missed my point again. I DO want my kids to act on their privilege. They are white (relatively) wealthy males. I want them to realize that being white, being male, and being wealthy gives them status and opportunities that others don’t have. And I want them to use that as leverage to help others. I want them to know that with privilege comes a responsibility to steward it well. Pretending like they don’t have it isn’t going to help anyone, least of all them.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. heather

    I’m a female science nerd who dearly wishes that my husband was less emotional and talked less. Gender stereotypes don’t reflect everyone’s whole existence.

    I think conservative evangelical parents I’ve seen are much quicker to push kids into traditional gender roles than other parents. For example, my brother seems to feel very threatened by his son’s behaviors that tend to be more stereotypically feminine. Just let you kid be interested in whatever he likes and don’t worry about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Certainly, but I think almost every parent, regardless of political or religious affiliation, is nervous about letting their boys express a more feminine side. Even though I intellectually think it’s fine, it’s still a bit weird to me; there’s this unconscious fear that femininity somehow ruins boys, makes them gay, whatever…until I see it in practice. I watched some toddler boys play with My Little Ponies yesterday, and it was not at all weird! They were just kids playing with pretty, sparkly horses. ;)

      Like

  4. The Voracious Verbivore

    “…when it came down to allowing an individual to be who they are, it didn’t matter what most boys and girls do.”

    Gah. Yes. This. I’d put the praise hands emoji if I weren’t on my laptop.

    Like

  5. floatinggold

    I’m not clear on the daddy of your boy. Will your child not have his father in his life? I ask, because it seems like you are afraid he will not have a male role model, but then you say you talk to his daddy about emotions.

    It seems to me like you are a reasonable person. You are aware that bringing up a human is not the easiest thing in the world, and the kid’s identity should not be clouded by your specific views. You do your research, you try to prepare yourself. Although, you can never prepare yourself for everything, I do believe this is grounds for you being a great mother.

    While reading this post, I felt like I was in your head, and you were just sitting in a room by yourself, bouncing ideas, arguments and counterarguments against the wall – playing squash with yourself. Kind of funny.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, yes! He will have a wonderfully involved father. I was working out things about my identity and influence as a mother, but I won’t be the sole influence on our son. :)

      Haha! That’s exactly how it feels in my head. My intellect and research and gut say one thing, my socially charged fears say another. Back and forth. Back and forth.

      Like

  6. S. Vyasa V.

    a feminist raising a boy. you already got a girlchild and just dont know it. might as well accept it :( feminism hurts women look it up. and im an equality believer too. i cook the food, she does the cleaning. thats what we both chose automatically. so you have no recourse to call me a misogynist. gl

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, thank you!!! I am SO glad you took the time to respond to my thoughtful, heartfelt post with your dismissive, prejudiced words of wisdom. They have completely changed my mind. /sarcasm ;)

      But seriously, how rude. If you’re interested in a real conversation, I’m interested in having it. If you just want to make judgmental statements, please move on. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Joe Schmoe

    So you’re right to be skeptical of “society’s” ideas of masculinity, as if society had a a coherent idea about it! But if society is wrong now, was it always wrong in the past? Perhaps these stereotypes you complain about are not the real gender roles, but mere scraps and tatters of some lost civilization’s more robust understanding of manhood and womanhood? And if children are indeed so eager to identify toys and objects and roles as either masculine or feminine, perhaps it’s because they desperately want BE the fullest expression of their respective genders? I really doubt I could raise a child to be a good human, if I didn’t know anything about men and women! Those are the only humans to choose from!

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I think I understand what you’re saying, but unless you’d like to propose a specific lost civilization’s conception of masculinity and femininity, there’s not much more to discuss except a theoretical “what if.”

      I agree that there’s a strong desire for boys and girls, men and women to want to be the fullest expression of their male/female selves. We place a lot of stock in alleged male/female differences and identities. But my point is that regardless of whether that desire is good or not, it’s not based in objective reality — obviously there are some physical differences (important ones, at that!), but psychologically, men and women are roughly the same.

      What happens, then, since we all really do care about being a man or a woman, is we either subconsciously or consciously twist ourselves to fit gender stereotypes, or we “claim” certain gender neutral things as our own gender’s in order to make them acceptable to us. That’s not becoming the best we can be, but that *is* becoming the best man/woman we can be. We as humans gladly trade who we really are for who we think we should be.

      I grew up with a very distinct and limited idea of what it meant to be a woman. I sacrificed a lot for my deep desire to fully be a woman as it was described to me. But in the end, “being a woman” in that sense crippled my humanity. Now I feel that my womanhood is best fulfilled in being human — that is, being myself, being virtuous, being happy, etc. — as my womanhood is a part of my humanity.

      As to male and female being the only two kinds of humans…well, kind of, in a biological sense, but not really! There are plenty of competing ideas of what it means to be masculine or feminine, many different personalities and interests and experiences that shape us all into the unique people we are. I look to women to know how to live, yes, but I also look to men and find their lives equally applicable to mine, depending on the situation.

      Like

  8. Lea

    Little Boys need all the hugs and love that little girls do. When they get old enough, they might start making funny faces, but they still need it. You go ahead and love well and I think the rest will take care of itself. Just the fact that you’re thinking about it means he’s ahead of the game.

    Like

  9. Chaplapreneur

    I like your statement about raising a child as a human. I think in our flesh we make this too complicated. We have a need to rebel against the grain and the pendulum swings completely in the other direction. For example even the term “feminist.” When I hear that term (I know we all have different definitions in our head,) but I don’t hear anything helpful. Feminist seems to be used most often as a term that says now women need to get theirs. It is our turn to be superior. I don’t sense that in how you write or in many other Christian people referring to themselves as feminists, but the term is damaged at best, because it suppresses the other gender, which if the conversation only seeks to suppress the empowered gender it never answers the question, or even points in the right direction. But, for a lot of feminist who are trying to raise a boy to be empowered to influence the world for Jesus and be an awesome contributor to society this could create a conflict. I am not saying it does for you, but I can’t help but see how that would be difficult.

    So when God says, He made them both male and female in His likeness it seems that both genders compliment the nature of God in their own fallen way. There is something about marriage that makes it a reflection of Christ and His church, like Paul explains in Ephesians 5.

    I am married to a career driven type A woman who gets things done. One time my daughter saw a woman cutting the grass, and said I didn’t know girls can cut grass, and my wife said, “You can do anything you want!” We laughed it off and said yeah she is only 4 (at the time) and just needed to understand. She just never saw that before.

    I am also a big advocate for women pastors and Christian speakers and writers, but I would never get to the word feminist for describing myself because it just covers one sin with another.

    So, what does it all mean? Maybe we are all just humans who should be pointing to God and complimenting each other as best we can.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I hear you. I really do. It’s the same reason why Black Lives Matter activists have to explain that they’re not insisting black lives matter more than other lives or that, say, white lives matter less, but that black lives matter just as much as other lives. The nuanced explanation of the moniker is less offensive, but it can be really confusing and hurtful if people aren’t all on the same page about privilege, oppression, etc. I can see how “feminist” would have the same effect — it’s meant to just state that men and women are equal, with the understanding that women have been underprivileged in a patriarchal system, but without nuance and context, it can sound more like “let’s step on men to elevate women because women are the best.” And I’ve certainly seen feminist rhetoric used as a clobber to devalue and disparage men, which only reinforces that natural misunderstanding of what feminism means.

      I call myself a feminist because I do believe in systemic patriarchy and that’s just the historical label applied to that belief. But I hope it’s clear from my blog that I am, at heart, one who desires the best life for all people, one who can see the unique struggles of both men and women and seek to alleviate the injustice they experience. I don’t believe that women are better than men, as I’ve been saddened to hear some prominent Christian feminists (even men) proclaim. That, I agree with you, is fixing one sin with another.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Chaplapreneur

        Great explanation. My point simply is, every discussion board, conversation and sound bite isn’t seen as being layered in nuance and context, at least not correctly. When you say you are Egalitarian that makes sense to me, based on words I have seen you write. When you say you are a feminist that seems inconsistent with most of your writings because of what I hear when someone says feminist. The problem could be I don’t understand the word. But in evangelism it is the same reason I stay clear of labeling myself, born-again, evangelical ,or non-denominational in certain conversations. The understanding of the meaning of those words are varied and sometimes have even political connotations attached that are barriers.
        You give a great explanation though and I still enjoy your blog.

        Like

      • Bailey Steger

        Very true. I just think there’s a huge breakdown in conversation these days, to the point where our labels often have no meaning except to inflame those who don’t identify with them. “Egalitarian,” “feminist,” and “liberal” have all be thrown at me as an insult, so it’s important to me to reclaim them as positive identities. While I too will sometimes describe myself with different labels in order not to scare off other people, I’m also interested in having serious, nuanced conversations that really dig into, “Well, what do you mean by feminist? What do you mean by liberal? What do you mean by [blank]?” I think terms have meaning and it’s helpful to know the full context of the terms.

        By the way, I’m not trying to convince you to describe yourself as a feminist. I’m just chatting because you brought up an extremely interesting point. :)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bailey Steger

        I don’t know! “Liberal” has EXTREMELY negative connotations to me and most of the people I know, so I hate using the term. It was the worst insult you could possibly throw at somebody — the equivalent to “godless,” “stupid,” and “whiny.” Same with “progressive.” Politically, I’m more of a moderate. Theologically, I have more in common with liberals than with conservatives, but I arrived at my conclusions via Eastern Orthodoxy, not modern liberalism, which makes me an odd ball out on occasion. I haven’t done much research into what liberal or progressive technically means, so I don’t call myself those terms. Other people have been happy to label me as such, however. ;)

        Liked by 1 person

  10. divasusie

    I enjoyed reading your post because I had the some of the same questions when raising my son. He is completely different than my daughter in the way he thinks, the things that he does, interests, and what he enjoyed during. My focus was on him having a strong foundation as well I wanted him to be happy and healthy. He will be sterotype because he is an African American but I want him to have to ability to be a human with a healthy attitude toward life. Thank you for your post

    Like

  11. marymtf

    You’re right, Bailey, you know nothing about raising boys,, except that you 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 (particularly) stand up for himself when fitting in isn’t warranted. ‘

    Like

  12. thebucket12

    maybe this is archaic nowadays but since he will have a father in his life it is my opinion that this is the role of his dad to teach him how to be a man. the bounderies and so for forth. though the mother should also be a role model as a human being, morality, ethical behavior etc

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Okay, but what does it mean to “be a man”? We might actually agree. Yes, my husband has experienced certain man things related to anatomy, male privilege, the pressure to normalize out-of-control sexual desire, etc., and can relate those things more accurately to another male than I could as a more outside observer (just as a dad can definitely talk to his daughter about periods and body image, but only mom is going to “get it” in the same way!). Otherwise, when it comes to everything else in life, I feel like both parents are capable of raising whole, decent human beings. If God forbid something were to happen to either of us, I think we could raise an amazing child of our opposite sex.

      Like

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