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.