I remember when we announced our second child was going to be a "boy," or rather, be assigned that gender due to the presence of a penis on the sonogram. People immediately started saying things like, "Congratulations on getting your boy," as if families with only girls are incomplete, and "Watch out, boys are a handful," as if the presence of a penis and a Y chromosome guarantees a certain type of child. Surprisingly, my son and stepson have taught me so many lessons about what it means to "be a man," that have little to do with cultural stereotypes or traditional gender roles.
Things like boys (and men) are not necessarily loud and obnoxious, and they can be sweet, sensitive, and show emotion. Expectations about your children based on cultural stereotypes of the "right" way to be a man or a boy are not only often wrong, but they can be harmful.
My sons are unique. My 4-year-old son is a gentle soul, who gives love and shows affection easily. He is demonstrative, caring, and nurturing. I actually have to try to show negative emotions around him, because he takes hurting my feelings so personally. My heart aches when he cries, because his older siblings left him out of a game. He loves his stuffed animals just as much as his superhero toys and is so sweet and snuggly.
My stepson is sensitive, too, crying at imagined bumps and bruises and seeking privacy and time apart from our loud house to sooth his inner introvert. It's hard to get him to come out of his shell, but once you find a topic of interest to him you get to hear all about it (whether you want to or not). Pokémon is his current thing.
Our youngest son is a newborn, and while people made the same comments we know to take them with a grain of salt. The only thing for certain is that he, like our other children, will be totally and entirely himself. After all, there's no right way to "be a man," and the ways our society defines masculinity are changing every day.
There's No One "Right Way" To Be A Man
It's hard to live in a small town in a red state, with a family that doesn't really fit the mold. Our kids don't always like the things their friends like and that's OK. Sometimes, they get teased or hurt.
"Long hair is for girls."
"Don't be a sissy."
"Let's hit each other with sticks."
But when they repeat these things at home, we have an opportunity to not just teach them, but to learn more about who they are as individuals. The only thing that makes you a "real man" is identifying as one. Period.
Gender Roles Are For The Birds
Because conformity is not a value that either my husband or I hold dear, we expect and hope that our kids will do their own thing. However, we've learned from our sons that peer pressure is real when it comes to gender roles. So, we find ways to support our kids in being individuals, tell them they don't have to like things because the other boys do, and occasionally curb harmful behaviors. We think it's awesome that they have kitty slippers versus dinosaur slippers and love to play with both "girl" and "boy" toys.
Men Can Be Gentle
Our culture teaches boys that men are like Batman — strong, aggressive, ruthless, and stoic. However, what happens when your sons are none of those things? Does it mean they aren't masculine? I don't think so.
My sons have taught me how gentle boys can be. If more boys were taught they can be gentle, maybe masculinity would be less "toxic" and harmful. Fostering gentleness in our sons can not only support them in being who they are, but it can have real impact on how they view their relationships and families in the future.
Men Can (And Do, And Should) Cry
As ours sons grow-up in a culture that tells them "boys don't cry." However, they show me, nearly every day, how important it is to give children of all gender identities space to feel and express emotion. Kids, like adults, do better when we validate their emotions. It's OK to feel sad, and it's OK to cry. We know from child development research, that male infants show more emotions than female infants, until they reach an awareness of social roles and are conditioned to tuck it deep inside. This is not OK.
Men Can Do "Women's Work"
Our culture is evolving with more couples sharing parenting responsibilities and work responsibilities across stereotypical gender lines. We expect all of our children learn about how to help out around the house, no matter what families looked like in the past or what our neighbors do. Our sons help out with household chores equally and deserve to learn how to cook, clean, do laundry, and care for their younger siblings.
It's Not An Insult To Be Mistaken For A Girl
My son came home from preschool the other day crying because someone called him a girl. I was about to go full-on mama bear, when I realized that he wasn't being teased; someone honestly mistook him for a girl. I have learned to say, "What's wrong with being a girl? Mommy is a girl." It hurts people of all genders when we associate being female with being weak or bad. Girl is not an insult.
There's Not One Way To Look Like A Man
It's OK for my son to have long hair and Frozen boots. It's also OK to have short hair and Batman shoes. He gets to choose. There's not one right way to look and certainly not one based on gender.
The Pressure To Fit In Is Intense
I can't fix it all. My sons will come home in tears (or fighting tears), will ask for haircuts, will want to go out for football (ugh), will feel intense pressure to be like other "boys," and may even engage in harmful behavior (huge sigh). We can, however, keep repeating our values on gender roles, validate their emotions and individuality, and model healthy relationships for them.
Gender Is A Fluid Social Construct
Our boys teach us every day how they are and are not "typical" when it comes to gender identity and expression. Maybe it's because no one really is, really, it's just that most people are taught to hide those parts of themselves that are not socially acceptable or appreciated. That's so completely sad.
My kids deserve to be supported in being themselves, no matter what society may say and to not have to hide the parts that don't meet societal expectations. I am going to do my best to teach them that.
There's No Such Thing As Being "All Boy"
My boys are not very stereotypical "boys" at all. My daughter is our child most likely to get into a fist fight or fall out of a tree. My stepdaughter is a self-described "tom boy," who is great at video games and plays the trombone. Our kids constantly challenge our expectations of parenting.
We Are Ultimately Responsible For Teaching Our Sons Values Regarding Gender And Gender Roles
As much as my boys have taught me about gender and "being a man," I have also learned that it's up to us to undo the damage our society has had on who they are and how they feel about it. And, perhaps even more importantly, to ensure that they feel loved, accepted, and supported, no matter how they choose to "be men" (or if they identify as men at all).