Category Archives: Parenting
“But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
Anne Lamott, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day”
In honor of my child, Micah, and with a nod to Anne Lamott
Not sure who started it, but “luv you, buv you” caught right on in our family. We say it a lot. We say it in our king size bed when the three of us lie down, all cozy, and talk our 7 year old son to sleep. Some nights lately, Micah says “luv you, buv you” or just “luv you” to us a dozen times, and each time, we say it back, until it is tempting to ask him to stop. It finally occurred to me, that there must be a reason he keeps repeating this. He’s not quite getting his love needs met. Our languid “luv you buv you, too”s weren’t doing it.
One day recently, he walked into the little room where I exercise to DVDs, and said, “Mom must be turning 79 on your next birthday in July,” and then “You don’t love me as much you used to.” Somehow, death was linked with the loss of love in this seeming non-sequitur. I had felt gloomy and was withdrawn that day, even though I thought it wasn’t showing much.
Micah picks up on these things. It doesn’t take shouting, harsh reprimands, irrational punishments or crazy consequences for him to know when he is not being loved. He’s always been that way. When he was 3, we read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and thought, “This is our kid.” By the time he was 5, we were hearing painful echoes of “Asperger’s,” “Autistic Spectrum Disorder,” and “Sensory Processing Disorder,” from people like our pediatrician, the preschool teacher, and even strangers.
It took a long time to come to the conclusion, with a psychologist, that he is on “the spectrum,” if on the high functioning end. One of the reasons it was hard to accept this diagnosis is he so exquisitely sensitive to us, to God, to animals, to plants, and to anything created. When he was 3, we often watched home repair videos on the computer because he enjoyed them. When a commercial for a mouse trap was advertised, Micah’s eyes welled up with tears. We have introduced the idea of the food chain very slowly to him even though he is 7 now. He has finally accepted that fleas must die in our house.
Rondalyn Varney Whitney, author of Nonverbal Learning Disorder: Understanding and Coping with NLD and Asperger’s—What Parents and Teachers Need to Know, says this of Spectrum kids, “The message these kids bring is, ‘If you tell me exactly what you mean, if you are honest with me and kind to me, I’ll be the most amazing kid you’ve ever met. And if you’re not, I’ll be your worst nightmare. Not because I’m trying to punish you, but because I don’t know how else to be. So you can use me as measure of your clarity, your honesty, and your kindness. Here I am.’” And she is right. There is no fooling our child (or any child) with conditional love.
Sometimes, when Micah can’t get a bad memory out of his head, something that I have done, he says, “I love you…but sometimes you make mistakes.” And we talk about the memory. Lately it is a memory of a time when Micah and I drove to the pet store in town—two years ago. He enjoyed watching a worker install a water filter in a fish tank, and peppered him with questions. Until the guy stopped talking, entirely. Embarrassed, I tried to get Micah to leave with me, but he wouldn’t. Finally, I pulled him out of the store.
For many children, this is one of many every-day scenes where parents take control physically, or deliver consequences as though the child actually had bad intentions. Too many moments like that to remember, and maybe kids get used to it, or change their behavior, or harden their hearts. But our son won’t let us get away with the parenting we ourselves were raised with.
From reading Alfie Kohn (Unconditional Parenting), to Naomi Aldort (Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves), I have had to look at my parental underbelly and see what was there. I realized that I learned, somewhere along the way, to live in my head, and to keep my emotions well in check. Not because I don’t feel them; just the opposite. But I have learned a self-protective way of being in the world. That emotional style impacts how I parent Micah.
The last year, Micah has been intensely, loudly sad and scared over many things—monster play at preschool, our two cats getting out of the house and disappearing for a day, moving from a house he loved, and seeing a deer carcass in the forest near the new house—to name but a few. My son has expressed deep and terrifying emotions—guttural cries, copious tears and much anxiety in the aftermath.
Around the time all these crises began, I read The Whole Brain Child, by Siegel and Bryson, which helped me see how I needed to change my response to Micah’s emotional storms. I realized that I retreat to my rational left brain when overwhelmed. I needed to re-engage the right brain, where my emotions are formed, in order to truly connect with and calm my son when he was distressed. My too-calm voice when he was upset did not match the measure of my love and commitment to Micah’s well-being.
So I have gone to work on my brain in those moments that frighten us. I have looked carefully at Micah’s tear-stained face and tried to remember feeling that tenor of sadness, fear and vulnerability that only a child can feel. I have felt that upset, too; we all have. And somehow that memory trace from my own childhood has been just enough to kick-start true feelings of empathy that Micah can lean on in his most scary moments. When I empathize with my words, my feelings match now.
The other day, I read this cool verse from the Bible, and thought of Micah not being quite satisfied with our responses to his love at night: “He will exult over you with singing, as on the day of a festival” (Zeph. 3). God will karaoke and have a party over you. Just as Micah needs my true empathy, so he needs that kind of delight, exultation, rejoicing over who he is.
In my “I love you”s and “luv you buv you”s, he wants to hear in my voice tone the height and depth of my emotions. What Micah demands is divine love. That’s what he knows he deserves. And as I tap into both divine rejoicing and my right brain, he will know for sure that he is loved.
Three years ago, I wrote an essay called “Raising an Egalitarian Son” (published in Mutuality Magazine). Our process for doing that was straightforward: don’t use sexist language; don’t push gender-based activities; and don’t watch TV. When one day my then 3 year old son announced, “God is a woman. You can see mama, but you can’t see God,” I knew we’d done something right.
Since then, life has gotten more complicated. My now 7 year old son’s landing process from angel to concrete has been painful. We still don’t watch TV, so being around media-saturated boys has jarred him. When Micah was in preschool, one boy was obsessed with playing monster, while other boys brought heinous-looking action figures to school for show and tell. One 5 year old kid often wore a shirt with a man with a sneer and a huge fist coming out toward the rest of us. Preschool teachers acted like this was normal.
The summer after preschool, Micah avoided boys, assuming they were all this way. And so far, we have found that many are. Our egalitarian son, who has no need to prove himself as “all boy,” has found there are few like him. Why? Is it that most boys are genetically programmed to be aggressive and attracted to violence, while most girls are not? Is our son just an anomaly, while the media feeds other little boys with what they really want?
Lise Eliot, neuroscientist and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, writes that though there are indeed some small sex-based differences, “overall, boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike. Just as boys’ and girls’ bodies start out more androgynous than they end up in adulthood, their brains appear to be less sexually differentiated than adult men’s and women’s” (5). The brain has plasticity, and so to a large degree “your brain is what you do with it.” Elliot believes that boys’ and girls’ brains become distinctly male and female adult brains after experiencing a boy set of social expectations and a girl set of social expectations.
This isn’t sexy, as Eliot points out. What’s sexy is the idea of hard-wired, innate sex differences. Sex differences sell. And so research has been reported irresponsibly, which has contributed to the stereotypical yet well-loved idea that “boys will be boys.” (See the books Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, and Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, for more). We then continue to raise boys differently than girls, and the “typical boy” behaviors are reinforced as inevitable while we turn on the TV or stand in line for another Power Rangers toy.
Because I have been aware of the gender difference research since 2005 (in professional journals rather than the popular media), the year my son was born, I know that even in adults there are few things one can even try to predict based only on sex (http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/02/05/men-and-women-may-not-be-so-different-after-all/51222.html). So, I have tried to avoid treating Micah differently based on the fact he is male. Have I done it anyway? Probably. I believe I have been less empathetic toward him overall than I would have been had he been a girl. When I have pictured myself relating to a distressed girl, I’ve heard a softer tone of voice and seen more expression in my face.
When I became aware of that, I began to try hard to change. The other day we had a conversation in the car about each family member’s strengths and skills. My husband Mark said that he thought I was skilled at empathy. Micah said, “That’s an understatement!” So I must have made some progress. But I know I still have archetypes of “real maleness” in my head that I will be confronting the rest of Micah’s growing up years. The best I can do is stay aware.
That’s what I hope to do with this post—create awareness of the ways we mold and shape our children’s brains to fit into stereotypes. When children are babies, boys tend to be needier than girls due to developmental differences (likely due to a less mature hypothalamic-endocrine system at birth, says Eliot ). Yet you will see people peer into strollers talking to the “Little Man” dressed in blue, as though he were already on his way out the door and into the army. Talking to a “Little Woman” infant would seem bizzare, like we’d put breasts on her already. We start early with our expectations of boys.
The path is not as narrow with girls, surprisingly. In the 21st century, girls actually have more choices than boys in what they can dream about becoming. Hence, studies show that girls in mid-preschool begin to have a wide range of toy preferences, including toy vehicles and sports games (Elliot, 110). Boys of this age tend to become more and more rigid, however, and must avoid anything remotely related to girlhood.
Eliot believes this reflects the narrow set of roles for men in our culture. While women can more freely cross into most male-dominated job markets now, men are still ridiculed for taking on jobs like nursing, stay at home parent, or preschool teacher. Society questions their masculinity, virility or sexual orientation, whereas a woman police officer or pilot is still assumed to be heterosexual—if she looks the part, anyway.
I had never thought of boys or men as oppressed, until the experience of raising one. Having a boy has given me the opportunity to see the ways that boys are restricted, the ways that fear and shame diminish them from the earliest age. The fear is that of being seen as girl-like, the shame is that of not meeting up to the standards of the “real boy.” William Pollack, Ph.D., calls this “The Boy Code”—a set of “should be’s” about boys. Boys should be the “sturdy oak”—independent, strong; they should “give ‘em hell” a la John Wayne; they should be “the big wheel”—always dominant and powerful; there should be “no sissy stuff” meaning real human feelings (23-25). Except for anger, which we tend to see as the only masculine emotion.
Mark Gerzon, author of A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Face of American Manhood, notes that in the age of the world wars, boys were raised to be hardened so they could become soldiers. He says the nuclear age means we have to stop raising boys to be fighters, or we will, eventually, annihilate ourselves. He writes, “This is true heroism: the courage to explore oneself deeply and to act with self-awareness….As the threats to human survival change, so does masculinity” (6). A man doesn’t have to be Braveheart to “push the button”—just bent on self-destruction.
It is time to let our boys be themselves in all their variety as human beings, rather than walking representatives of Masculinity. Sure, some will tend toward aggressive play. But some others are pushed into it through shame, when they would rather read or play the piano (see Pollack’s Real Boys’ Voices for their stories). At our house, there is no gender education, except for our own unwitting modeling of sex roles (see my blog post, Raising an Egalitarian Boy, Part 1, for more on that). When Micah puts on a pink shirt, so does his dad.
The other day, I read an article about a writer-dad in Germany whose little son likes to wear dresses and skirts. The dad has taken to wearing them, too. (And he looks great! Check him out here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nils-pickert/skirt-dad_b_1911444.html). The dad wants to support his son’s phase of development. Dress-up is a part of kidhood and the dad knows that. He also knows how sacred sex roles are to society and he is not going to let his son out there without a skirted escort.
It is going to take that kind of courage on the part of parents to take down the brick walls of gender stereotypes. Blue and pink are just social ideas after all. Prior to the early 20th century, babies of both genders wore frilly white dresses until age 6. Today, the parents of those dress-wearing boys would be vilified.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can decide to loosen up about pink and blue. Yes, start there, with those colors. Commit to never again color-coding a kid. Culture is malleable, just like the human brain, just like the ideas behind gender, which is by definition, a social construct.
This has been evident in our son’s early preference for pink, orange, magenta, turquoise, purple. Micah has always had a singular drive to be himself: rainbow-hued, fully human, fully child. He loves flowers, and trains. Loves cats, and cars. He cries when he gets hurt, still wants to be picked up sometimes when he is tired at the store, and falls asleep at night with his parents beside him. He gets to be 7 now, and a man only when he is an adult. After all, he is a boy, and boys will be boys.
The following article was published in longer form in the Autumn 2012 edition of Mutuality Magazine. Micah is 7 now, and I will be posting an update on our endeavor in a future post.
“God is a woman,” my son, Micah, announced one day last summer when he was still 3. Then he added, “You can see Mama, but you can’t see God.” My husband had just explained that it was God who made the peas we were shelling in the shade of our tree. Intrigued by Micah’s response, I assumed he associated my love and closeness to the feelings of warmth and care he experiences from God.
How long will his reverence for me and my Super Powers last? I ask myself sometimes, now that Micah is 4 and has had another year to glean information about God and gender from American culture. The other day Micah was stringing an old computer cable down the stairs. When he reached the kitchen, he said to me, “I’m glad a guy did that and not a woman!” Dismayed, I asked him to repeat what he had said. He looked down, sensing he had something I didn’t like, and replied, “I’m glad Mama cuddles me.” I saw a 4-year old boy again and not another sexist man. So I gently reminded him that women can do all the jobs he admires.
You have to understand that this is a feminist household. I have written a book meant to bring healing to women hurt by the church, and my husband teaches feminist philosophy at a Christian university. At just 2, Micah had heard enough of our discussions to shout, “No more feminism!” My husband asked, “Do you want to know what feminism is?” Micah said, “Micah doesn’t want to know!”
But we do want Micah to know a few important things about women and men. So, my husband and I have carefully selected the words we use with our son. One day our little tyke said “he or she…” instead of “he” to represent a person, and we smiled at each other with parental pride. Other words, like “mankind,” and “craftsman” we change to “humankind” and “craftsperson.” We try to avoid giving God a gendered pronoun, although neither of us finds it easy. The wonder to me is that God is (or was, for one bright summer afternoon) a woman in his mind, and not the Man Upstairs.
With regard to other cultural values about gender, we take creative risks. We let him buy pink sweats and wear them when he wants to. His favorite toothbrushes feature the cartoon Hello Kitty. And we have bought him dolls and pink doll houses. He has always loved the houses, but admittedly, not the dolls. But he does loves decorating and gardening. He stands up on a stool to help Dad make breakfast most days, and he enjoys vacuuming the house.
We have done our best to give our son the freedom to develop into who he is, rather than pushing him to develop into a gender role. Knowing this, you would think our family would look less traditional than it does. My husband and I both grew up with Happy Days messages and models of what moms do and what dads do. To our own embarrassment, we default to these learned behaviors. One day last year as I was getting Micah settled in his car seat to go on a Home Depot trip, he said, “Mom will stay home, because someone has to clean the house!” I am a “Stay at Home Mom,’ which does bring that old 50s show Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver to mind. I do clean the house more than my husband does, but not without periodic re-negotiations. I am not particularly handy with a drill or table saw, though I have used both. All of this sends a message: Moms clean the house and nurture the children; dads take you to the hardware store. And this from two feminist parents.
But the fact is that Micah seems to need me intensely right now, and that is why I’m at home with him. I would like to have some clearly non-sexist explanation for Micah’s strong mom-preference. But I guess I should just accept my Super Powers, knowing that someday they will wane and I will return to a humdrum Lois Lane status. I’ll rejoin the respectable “work force” when my son needs me less, and my husband and I will be able to model more equal co-parenting.
If we have made any other mistakes with regard to passing on our egalitarian values, it would be allowing Micah to watch too many DVDs that promote gender stereotypes. If we have made any real gains, it’s because we do not have access to television shows. And yet, I know that avoiding TV won’t make sexism go away. I can steer him, at age 4, away from the images that objectify women and are placed at a child’s eye level in the supermarket check-out lanes. But he will be 14 in just a decade, and by then he will have absorbed many sexist assumptions about girls and women. He will have observed them treated as sex objects, many times, on the cover of magazines, in advertising, on the internet, perhaps from his friends, and of course, when he finds people who will let him watch their television. But I hope that a little boy who intuits the feminine aspects of an omnipotent God and understands the powerful nature of a mother, has the seed within him to become a man who respects women as human beings. With God’s grace, as the seed grows, I trust we too will grow into better models of what it means to be completely human.