I grew up with a younger brother and now, I’m raising a son and a daughter. I’m acutely aware of the different ways people treat kids based on their gender. As my husband and I work hard to instill the values of gender equality in our children, I’m always shocked to hear some of the things people feel fine saying to sons, but not daughters. It's as if these particular people truly believe that all they need to know about a child is the gender they identify with and, from there, can accurately assume that kid’s interests or personality or anything else (as all of the above are sure to align solely with the stereotypes of a specific gender). As a feminist mom, this is infuriating.
Of course, my kids don’t make it easy for us to trample the patriarchy: my daughter does display what is usually defined as “girly-girl” behavior, and my son will choose lightsaber battles over coloring any day of the week. Still, despite these broad stroke assimilations to stereotypically gendered behavior, my kids are complex, multi-layered humans who can’t be boxed into one category. My daughter plays with dolls and is a blue belt. My son loves borrowing his sister’s fancy accessories and wants to grow up to be a firefighter.
Still, not everyone is aware that kids interests can be so varied. There's still this palpable, societal drive to label ourselves (and others), in an attempt to understand one another, I guess. However, this tactic is backfiring for families like ours, where nothing is expected of you based on your gender. So excuse me while I roll my eyes at the things people say to sons, but not daughters:
"Don’t You Want To Be Just Like Dad?"
I have no problem with my son looking up to his father as a role model (I mean, why else would I have procreated with and/or married the guy?), but the idea that our children are carbon copies of the parent of the same gender is anchored in medieval times. I don’t agree with people when they call my daughter my “Mini Me” and I cringe when I’m excluded from any conversation that discusses who my son takes after. My partner and I contributed equally to the creation of our kids, and in some significant ways, my son is actually more like me than my husband. It’s not weird that my daughter displays a lot of similarities in her personality (and distaste for dairy) to her father, so please don’t discount their connection, or the connection I share with my son.
"You Want To Get Big And Strong, Right?"
Male body dysmorphia is on the rise, and we need to stop contributing to that unhealthy and dangerous trend. One way to do so is to toss the sexist notion that boys want and need to be tall and brawny.
Nobody has ever asked my daughter if she wants to get big and strong, as if those traits aren't even remotely desirable to a woman. Unless they’re chasing a career as a lumberjack or defensive lineman, size doesn’t matter (for daughters or sons).
"Let’s Play Catch"
Um, this is a totally valid question to ask my daughter too. Currently, her favorite game is Monkey in the Middle and she is damn good at catching that ball and not getting in the middle. At our bus stop, there’s a fifth grade girl who’s always wearing her baseball cap and tossing a ball until the bus comes. Her younger brother sports nail polish. Fashion and sports are for everyone.
"Show Me Your Muscles"
Last year, my then 7-year-old daughter flexed her biceps and asked, “How do you like my girls?” She was taking pride in her body in ways some people typically expect boys to. Both my son and daughter studied karate, and had the same set of expectations in terms of how many push-ups they were required to do. Boys and girls have muscles. Period.
Anything Having To Do With Superheroes
Hollywood has a lot of work to do when it comes to representational parity in the superhero franchises. Of course my daughter likes Black Widow: she’s pretty much the only character in that universe whom my daughter could possibly identify with or aspire to be. So, I get that people wouldn’t talk to her much about The Avengers. It’s so much easier to chat up my son about The Hulk and Captain America and Iron Man (as it is to gift him with those action figures for his birthday). But please, ask my daughter about superheroes. The more we hear young girls talking about them, the more it will be apparent that there is an audience hungry to watch more women in these kinds of roles. If you never talk to our girls about them, their voices will never be heard.
"I Don’t Want To See You Cry"
The sight of boys crying, even young ones, seems to be offensive to people who think just because you identify as male (or, rather, if others identify you as male at birth), you need to be stoic and devoid of emotion. In ancient times, when everything was a threat to one’s survival, toughness was one’s best defense. However, in the age of vending machines and streaming television, I think we have evolved to a point where being human entitles you to expressing your emotions, tears and all.
I don’t want my son burdened — just because of his anatomy — with the idea that his feelings are not valid and that sadness is something he doesn’t get to express. If our boys don’t show us they’re upset, how can we help them find their way out of their darker moments?
"It's Your Job To Protect Your Mom"
Unless she was a toxic parent, all mothers deserve a child’s respect. Having said that, boys are sometimes given the impression that their mothers are fragile creatures that need the protection of their young, able-bodied sons. This kind of message not only works to perpetuate the stereotype that women are always reliant on men to keep them safe (as if the only threat to a woman was bodily harm), but it also belittles girls in sending the message that physical strength is not something they need to bother themselves with. Not OK.
"What Sports Do You Play?"
My daughter discovered basketball this summer at camp. When she was younger, she would tell me, “I don’t like games with balls.” Now she does. My 6-year-old son really wants to do gymnastics.
All kids need to try different activities in the process of finding something they really enjoy and want to improve at. My husband grew up playing team sports — PeeWee football and Little League — and the experience soured him on the idea of pushing his own children into athletics, as they were more of a chore than a pastime for him. When we only ask our sons about sports, we’re dismissing half the population and not helping the cause for cultivating programs that produce female athletes.
"You Have A Big, Healthy Appetite"
My son can eat. However, I noticed he gets praised by people more than my daughter does when he attacks a meal with gusto. I’m determined not to raise my children with the same body image issues I have, so I’m hyper-vigilant about how I talk to them when it comes to eating and food. I don’t make them clean their plates, and I don’t chastise them for wanting seconds (or thirds) of dinner. It’s often reflective of growth spurts they’re going through when they ask for more. I don’t congratulate them for the amount of food they eat, only for committing to feeding their bodies well (when they polish off their veggies), or at least listening to their bodies to determine when they are finished. Let’s not compliment our boys for being eating machines, especially when we don’t offer that same praise to our girls, who are already at a greater risk of developing eating disorders than their brothers.
Last year, when my 5-year-old son was getting constantly reminded to stay in his seat, his exasperated kindergarten teacher recommended we get him a kind of sensory cushion to keep him on his chair. I immediately polled my online communities: had anyone else used this for their kid, and if so, to what degree of success? Every single parent who responded to me had a son who used it. I knew of no one’s daughter who was having “trouble” staying in her seat. When I had asked his teacher if my son was bothering anyone, she said no. He just couldn’t keep his butt in his chair; he would eventually stand up, or sprawl out as he worked, but it didn’t pose an obstacle to other kids trying to learn.
I have to wonder: why are so many boys being told to sit still? Are they truly moving more than their female peers? Are the parts of their brain that allow them to focus and quiet their bodies not as developed as those in girls’ heads? Are we even being reasonable by asking them to stay seated for more than three minutes at a time at that age?
We used the cushion and my son hated it, mostly because it made him “different.” His teacher didn’t report much of a difference, and we’ve abandoned its use now that he’s started first grade. I know that standing desks are becoming a thing and, honestly, I do my best thinking when I’m running. If we are to tell our children to “stand up for yourselves,” maybe we should recognize that some of them don’t do their best work sitting down.