I’m publishing some thoughts on motherhood and feminism, particularly as they relate to raising boys. The first article addressed whether there are enough differences between boys and girls to warrant raising boys in a majorly different way than girls. This article is a continuation of that question.
It’s one thing to accept a boy who falls outside of gender norms. It’s quite another thing to raise a boy to step outside of those gender norms.
That is, if my boy ends up liking sparkles and pink even though I’ve dressed him in khakis and blue polos all his life, I can accept that — that’s just who he is. Masculinity and femininity are just two ends of the spectrum of human expression, right?
But I’m much more reserved about providing a pink, sparkly onesie as an equal option to khakis and blue polos. Alarm bells start going off: Will I confuse him about his gender or sexual orientation? Will he grow up into some warped creature? Will I doom him to a life of bullying and ostracization?
I can say I support equality for men and women, I can cite the research proving boys are more similar to girls than dissimilar, I can rationalize in my mind that there’s nothing inherently anti-boy about pink or sparkles. But there’s still a fear that femininity twists a boy’s innate nature. As one man (who clarified I could not call him a misogynist) described my future son after Monday’s post, “Sorry to say, you’re going to raise a girl-child.”
Like I’ve pointed out elsewhere, we don’t have this same fear for girls. It’s more or less socially acceptable for girls to travel up and down the masculine/feminine spectrum in their interests, activities, and self-expression. “Tomboy” isn’t an insult like “girl-child.” Feminism has made great bounds in opening up girls’ opportunities in STEM fields and other male-dominated areas. There’s no woman card to lose.
Not so for boys, as my own fears betray.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Is It Wrong to Influence My Son in General?
This is a silly question in light of all I know about child development and parenting work. If I influence my son is not a choice I get to make as a mother — of course I will influence my son. Nurture is a huge part of a child’s development of self.
Children are born with endless capacity. It’s their experiences that begin to limit that endless capacity. As Dr. Christia Spears Brown points out in Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue, babies’ brains create thousands of synaptic connections every day in the womb. This prepares them for the myriad of potential experiences life brings after birth. She gives the example of language: babies are born capable of distinguishing every sound in all languages. After a few months, they begin to lose that infinite capacity, focusing only on their parents’ native tongue. Whatever is used is strengthened; whatever isn’t used is lost — permanently.
The same is true for gender differences. The statistical effect size of differences between male and female infants is 0.21 — that is, negligible. As children grow and encounter peer pressure and gender stereotypes, certain traits can get exercised more in boys than in girls (and vice versa), producing the ubiquitous gender differences we see today.
To use another example from Dr. Brown’s book, the differences observed in how children play at recess — competitive, team-based, active play for boys and more one-on-one, low-energy, relational play for girls — comes from a small gender difference that gets exacerbated through socialization. Girls are slightly more likely to prefer low-energy play to active play. Since children fall prey to in group/out group thinking, even the average high energy girl will quit a game of kickball to play hopscotch or kitchen with her “tribe” on the sidelines — the other girls. And even the lower-energy boys will prefer to join in the game of kickball with the guys just to be with his in group.
The way children play affects how they interact with the world as adults. Since girls often spend much of their time playing low-energy activities in small groups, they’ve got lots of practice with empathy and relational problem-solving. Since boys often spend much of their time playing highly active games in large groups, they’re socialized less in interpersonal behavior.
But these gender differences, while prevalent, aren’t permanent. To complicate this even further, you can turn these gender differences on by priming a person to think of himself or herself as his or her gender, or level the playing field by priming a person to think of himself or herself as a gender-neutral identity (such as a student). Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, cites countless studies that show how men and women possess roughly the same skills in, say, math or empathy when they’re not thinking of their gender. Only when they’re triggered to think of their gender — perhaps by marking their sex at the beginning of a test or even being the sole representative of one’s sex in the classroom — do men outperform women in math and women outperform men in empathy.
All that to say, even though boys and girls aren’t born with significant, innate differences, socialization and experience begin to cull and shape their previously unlimited capacities. I’ve known this as an educator: The child who eats only French fries and chicken nuggets will likely not eat her vegetables as an adult (even though she’s perfectly capable of eating veggies). The child who doesn’t read over the summer loses two months of reading education, culminating in two years of learning loss by the end of grade six (even though she’s perfectly capable of reading over the summer). The child who uses iPads to entertain himself over creative, unplugged play will suffer a loss in imagination and attention span (even though he’s perfectly capable — you get the point).
Experiences can limit, or they can expand. This is childhood development 101.
As a parent, I have the responsibility to limit negative traits, interests, and activities and expand good ones, shaping my child into the best he can be. That’s not controversial. That’s just parenting.
What’s the Harm in Letting Boys Be Boys?
What is controversial is whether there is anything negative in traditional masculinity that I might need to limit or anything positive in traditional femininity that I might need to introduce to my son, if he’s naturally inclined to the stereotypical male model.
Is it really a big deal, I wondered, if boys and girls get socialized into their respective gender stereotypes? Will my son really suffer if I don’t introduce him to some of the great things about Girl World? Again, it’s nice to think my son will turn out more well-rounded than the hyperactive, truck-loving, gun-toting, strong, silent type who goes to college for business on a sports scholarship, but if he starts heading that direction, is it necessary for me to step in?
After all, I fulfill most of my gender’s stereotypes, and I turned out okay! (Until I ask myself again, and realize my life would be far better had I crossed the line on the gender stereotype spectrum and done more math, science, spatial reasoning, and sports as a kid.)
Another way of spinning my question is if gender stereotypes are inherently harmful. My research and gut instinct is pointing to yes. Both femininity and masculinity, as equally human traits, as the fullest expression of both humanity and the image of God, express important characteristics from which all children benefit. A steady diet of boy stereotypes for my son is like letting him read nothing but Pokemon graphic novels — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Pokemon graphic novels, unless they’re the only thing he reads. You’ve got to get some Dante and Dostoevksy in there, or his mind will atrophy.
Since we know that boys and girls are innately more similar than dissimilar, and girls are not at all harmed by their flexible interests, we should expect that intentional exposure to a variety of interests and activities will produce positive results in boys. It will encourage them to be themselves; it will combine the best of the masculine and the feminine; it will make them interesting, well-rounded individuals. How is that a bad thing?
When I look at the masculine stereotype, I think the biggest drawbacks are the lack of emotional awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal skills; and the huge push towards aggression — the lie that men shouldn’t be expected to be nurturing, empathetic, and expressive because they’re primarily made to grunt, punch, and shoot things.
Boys and Baby Dolls
For a while, I felt embarrassed about listing a doll on my BabyList registry. First, everybody says the only way boys play with baby dolls involves some sort of experiment with physics (i.e., smashing or throwing). But mostly, I fretted, people would think I’m intentionally trying to emasculate my son.
This is silly, I know. Angering, even, when I stop to examine it. I think it’s absolutely horrible that many people not only fail to encourage boys to get in touch with their emotions and develop nurturing behavior but actively discourage it. It’s disgusting how the masculine culture celebrates aloofness and a lack of self-awareness. Women, too, for shame — we complain so much about the blank stares our husbands give us when we burst into tears, yet we continue to say, “Boys don’t cry.”
Articles keep popping up in my newsfeed about the lack of platonic touch and affection men receive. Men, predominantly, keep getting exposed as abusers, adulterers, and anger addicts. The majority of school shooters are male. I think this all points to a masculine culture that lacks empathy and emotional intelligence, to an inhumane idea of masculinity that suffocates our boys. (See Michael Kimmel’s research, particularly Angry White Men.) Men just stuff it…and then it resurfaces into something ugly.
Not my son.
I want his emotional needs met — meaning, I want him to be able to identify, express, and meet those needs in healthy ways. Not porn, not anger, not depression. I don’t want to find out that my son shot another kid because he couldn’t verbalize his feelings about being bullied. I don’t want to wake up to find my son dead of suicide because he felt he couldn’t trust anyone with his demons. These are extreme scenarios, but they are sadly far too common.
Emotional intelligence is absolutely critical for mental well-being. It shouldn’t be cute, faddish, or feminist to explicitly teach it to our boys. It shouldn’t be the rare man who can understand and express both his and others’ emotions. It should be the norm, the baseline, the first line of attack against the violence, anger, and lack of self-control shrouding Boy World.
And so I will teach him to rock his baby doll.
Boys and Guns
The stigma of boys playing with baby dolls comes from the mistaken idea that men are inherently more aggressive than women — and that since it’s just “boys being boys,” aggression should be allowed and encouraged as the dominant masculine trait. Only sissies and their liberal mommies complain about boys and guns (though we might draw the line at Call of Duty).
In Christianity, male aggression and proclivities toward warfare are celebrated as the essence of what it means to be a man, signs that a man is ready to be the provider and protector of the family.
There’s nothing wrong with providing and protecting others, being physical, or even, I would argue, knowing how to throw a good punch if necessary. Courage, bravery, strategy, innovation, adventure, physicality, and many other virtues associated with combat are, indeed, things I want for my son (and my daughters!).
But Christians go crazy for cocoa puffs over warfare itself. Certain authors go out of their way to redefine and strip any possibly feminine part of men’s identities — like love. The other day I read a quote about courtship from an article called “Wooing as Warfare”:
The young man who pursues marriage enters a foreign land where he wages war. On the hinges of that battle lie happiness or shame.
But though a potential bride may be deeply loved, she’s also at some level the foe. To achieve victory the young man must not only win her, he must defeat her and her family, snatching her from their bosom, converting her to himself, breaking her natural bonds with father and mother, brother and sister, nurse and friend, dog and home. There’s little that’s tender about it.
That’s sick — that in order to excite young men to marriage, you must twist the most intimate, loving, and yes, tender relationship on earth into something violent. That’s toxic masculinity, right there.
It’s common for Christians to “woo” other men to involvement in their family and church with the promise of warfare, to make peace, love, humility, and vulnerability into the image of aggressive masculinity. And I know, I know, I’m just a woman who doesn’t understand the male psyche’s need for war, but I’ll say it anyway: I find Christianity’s marriage between masculinity and violence one-dimensional and unhealthy.
I’ve been thinking how this will translate practically in our household. No cowboys and Indians? No guns? No violent video games? No books on weapons?
I don’t know what it will look like, and I don’t want to be extreme (weapons, after all, are just tools, and my husband’s strategy games all involve killing and capturing magical creatures), but I know this: if my son’s experiences shape his brain and his preferences, I want him to play in ways that form him into a person who can handle real life challenges in a real life way.
Hopefully, he will not grow up during a time of war or conflict where violence is necessary for survival. He will more likely face the evils of bullying, prejudice, and interpersonal conflict than war. You cannot solve school bullying with guns. You can’t fight prejudice with your fists. And since his struggles and conflicts will revolve around these non-combative evils, I want to equip him with non-combative solutions — namely, empathy, understanding, intelligence, courage, vision, etc.
I want my son to be a peacemaker, a builder, a life-giver — dare I say a man like Jesus.
So I will teach him to diffuse a bully’s anger rather than throw the first punch, discern and meet a wife’s emotional needs, and fearlessly speak out for what is right.
And even if that’s a more “feminine” way to handle conflict, there’s nothing sissyish about that.
Photo Credit by Devany at Still Playing School, via 30 Photos of Boys Playing with Dolls That Will Make You Go “Awww”
P.S. The more I work with little boys at my preschool, the more I am amazed at how silly our fears about boys being “feminine” are. The two-year-old boy who knows how to put his friends into wrestling headlocks also loves to play with the sparkly My Little Ponies and turn his tube of diaper rash cream into a cherished baby. Boys are so much more complex and unique than we typically allow them to be.