Parenting is not easy, and even the best parents can get it wrong, especially when they're trying to help their kids navigate a world full of bullsh*t gender roles. I consciously work to raise my girls to be strong, confident and independent. However, sometimes I forget about how our culture hurts boys, and how there are times when you don't realize you're shaming your son.
In our culture, boys and men are expected and conditioned to be masculine – strong, aggressive, ruthless, rational, emotionally inexpressive, destructive, even sexually promiscuous, and especially violent. Arguably even worse, boys and men are often given a pass for harmful behaviors, because that’s all our society expects of them. "Boys will be boys," and all men engage in "locker room talk," and we shouldn't ruin this poor young man's future because of a "youthful discretion," (another name for rape and sexual assault and domestic violence, apparently).
Men and boys find themselves in a reality where not being masculine enough or not conforming to social norms around "what it means to be male," results in shame and even physical harm. However, the alternative is being a bully, or engaging in harmful behavior. This puts our sons at risk because, well, they're essentially damned if they do and damned if they don't. If our sons are openly gay or unapologetically feminine or gender nonconforming? Well, they can feel a seemingly endless amount of shame for simply choosing to be themselves, which is nothing if not toxic.
So, just like I'm focused on raising strong, confident and independent girls, I'm focused on avoiding the following so I can raise empathetic, confident, and independent sons, too.
When You Say "Be A Man"
What does "be a man" even mean? Violent? Non-emotive? Rational? Tough? When we can't even answer that question, how do we expect children to understand what we want from them when we say the aforementioned?
Same goes for saying things like, "Real men do..." or, "Real men are..." or, "Be a good boy and...." Who are we to decide what a real man or a good boy is? A real man is someone who identifies as a man. All children, male and female, are good children.
When You Tell Him Not To Cry
Considerable research has been done regarding children’s emotional development and the differences for girls and boys. I was surprised to learn that male infants are actually more emotionally reactive and expressive than females. From age two onward, boys become less emotionally aware, expressive and empathic. Every time we tell them, "Boys don't cry," or rush to the aid of a crying girl, while telling a boy to walk it off, we condition them to not feel or express emotion. That makes me want to cry.
When You Expect Him To Be Just Like His Dad (Or Another Male Family Member)
It's really easy to view your children as mini-versions of you and your partner. However, it's not necessarily a great thing to do, especially when those shoes are hard to fill or those expectations don't align with who our sons are or want to be.
When You Expect Him To Be Athletic
Not all boys are good at sports, or even particularly like sports. Can we please let this stereotype die? See also, growing up to be "big and strong," liking cars, wanting to serve in the military or be a police officer or firefighter, looking like a superhero or really every stereotype about gender, ever.
When You Say, "Boys Will Be Boys"
Saying "boys will be boys" is not only harmful to women and girls, it shames boys, too. We shouldn't expect less of our sons because they identify as boys. We shouldn't contribute to rape culture by giving people who do harmful things a pass or worse, teaching our sons that it's OK or expected of them to treat women and girls poorly. We should expect more from our sons.
When You Tell Him What He Should Like
Boys. Can. Like. Pink. There is no such thing as a "girl color" or a "boy color." Same goes for princesses, nail polish, long hair, tiaras, and dolls. No, it won't make him gay. (But, then again, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being gay so if it did, who cares?)
When You Only Buy Him Balls And Cars
When you only buy your son stereotypical "boys toys," you teach him that these are the things he should like. When you also buy him dolls and My Little Ponies, you give him the opportunity to develop his own interests, likes, and dislikes. He deserves the right to become himself and not feel limited by a tiny box that says, "boy."
When You Don't Teach Him To Cook And Clean
Just as we shouldn't make assumptions about likes and dislikes, we also shouldn't reinforce stereotypes about who needs to learn to do what has been traditionally considered "woman's work."
Teach your sons to cook, clean, and *gasp* how to change diapers. Let them see their dads, grandpas, uncles, and other adults do these things. Smash the patriarchy one little feminist at a time because, really, all you're teaching your son to be, is a freakin' adult.
When You Assume He Likes Girls
You have absolutely no way of knowing what sexual orientation your son will identify with so, yes, your son could be gay. Wrap your head around that and hold it in your heart. You may want to (no, actually, you should) stop referring to his future partners as girls or women. Don't assume he'll marry a woman (or that he'll get married at all) and that you'll have a daughter-in-law some day. Don't assume that he likes or will like girls. Please, please, don't tease him about having a girlfriend or liking the girl next door. Stop.
When You Assume He Identifies As A Boy
We shouldn't assume that our kids even identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, or even on the gender binary. It's our job to gently guide our children towards adulthood, and they rely on us to support them. If your child is transgender or gender-nonconforming, they are going to need your support. Don't inadvertently shame your sons by assuming you know who they are. Wait for them to tell you.
When You Don't Show Him Affection
If we want our sons to grow into emotionally mature, sensitive feminists, we need to show them love, and that it's more than OK to be affectionate. Go ahead and give hugs, kiss their bumps and bruises, and snuggle with your boys. Love on them at least as much as you love on your daughters. Show them that it's OK to feel emotions other than anger, to express those emotions, and to ask for a hug when they need one.
Boys need hugs and kisses, too.