I was caught off guard a few weeks ago when my four year old son came home from preschool saying things like, “Mommy, I don’t want to hear that story. It’s a girl story,” and “I don’t play with girls,” and “That’s a girl toy!” He emphasized the words “girl” and “girls” in a way that made me cringe…its a particular kind of sneer that I became familiar with back when I was, well, just a girl. Today, I’m not just a girl. I’m a wife, mother, writer, educator, daughter…but above all, a woman. And the kind of woman that I’ve become is the kind of woman who is concerned with all women…a feminist. Maybe it was the first time I heard some boy on the playground sneer out girl like it was a curse word that I began to glean some vague idea of sexism. I got used to that sneer, even hearing adult men, my peers, chastise one another for their degree of masculinity by using the word “girl” like an epithet: “What? Are you going to be a little girl about it Sean?” and “He’s got the handshake of a girl scout.” But I got a nice, fresh shock when I heard my four year old use the word in such a way. I must admit, it shook me, hurt me, pained me in ways that I’m not even ready to totally confront. I felt like I had been slapped. I was back on the playground in an instant.
Obviously my son didn’t see me as one of these kinds of horrible, stinky, cootie-infested animals because he wouldn’t have said the word “girl” in such a way in front of me. My son loves me. I’m not a “girl” to him. He’s affectionate and loves to kiss his mom, dad and brother just for the heck of it…whenever he’s feeling particularly lovey-dovey, which is pretty often. He’ll come up and say, “Squeeeeeezy hug!”, bear hug you to near death, then plant a slimy kiss right on your smacker. It’s pretty cute. And I love that my husband doesn’t push our son away, make him feel ashamed for kissing his daddy on the lips. My good man bear hugs our boy right back and then offers up his lips for kissing. Our family (I’m the only woman in the family) is affectionate and we like it that way. But over the past few years I’ve occasionally received comments that have a slightly critical and/or puzzled inflection about how my son “is so, um, affectionate and sweet. He’s really sensitive, isn’t he?” It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time a family member, or a new teacher at his preschool might make a comment, and when they do, they look to me, at me, and seem to suggest that I’ve done something to make my son “like that.” My son is normal and healthy. We just allow him to express his full range of emotions…including affection, which is something most American men probably have needed in their lives for a long, long time.
We’ve never intentionally tried to cultivate any particular gender leanings with our boys. While I am a feminist, I guess I just sort of forgot (maybe selectively) how gender socialization would eventually come to claim my sons. Sociological theories of gender identity development posit that “gender is a social construction rather than a biological given” (Bussey & Bandera, 1999, “Social Cognitive Theory of Gender Development and Differentiation“). In other words, biology plays a part in the development of a child’s sense of their gender, but society plays, perhaps, an equal part. We tell our children what behaviors, appearance, toys and media are appropriate to their sex based on the norms of our society. Behaviors and appearance that vary from the norm are considered taboo and to be avoided, and there is a large amount of social pressure to conform to these norms. If, for example, Johnny decides that he wants to watch the Cinderella movie instead of the dinosaur movie, we tend to steer him toward the dinosaur movie, sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in not-so-subtle ways. We might tell Johnny, “Dinosaurs are for boys. Cinderella is a girl’s movie,” or “You don’t want to watch the dinosaur movie? But dinosaurs are cool!” Subtly implying that Cinderella is not “cool,” or that certain stories and movies are off-limits for Johnny if he really wants to be a boy. Our fear is that if Johnny watches Cinderella-type movies too often, he will be confused about his gender identity and act more “like a girl,” a negative outcome for the parents of boys concerned with fitting into the norm.
I think of Simone de Beauvoir famously saying, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” What de Beauvoir says is applicable to men too. When it comes to my feminism, it has been mainly, erroneously, focused on women, not men. Though lately, that’s been changing. But back when our oldest son was about 20 months old, I wasn’t really too worried about sexism affecting him. I went on many a play date where the mothers of toddler boys would say, “There’s just something different about little boys. He just naturally goes for the cars, trucks and robots. It’s biology, I guess.” While I felt skeptical when I heard other mother’s saying such things, I noticed that as soon as my son was finished with his baby toys, he moved very easily, seemingly naturally, into trains and cars and dinosaurs. Then again, we didn’t buy him any dolls, or playthings that were particularly domestic (like a toy vacuum cleaner or kitchen set). I remember, though, entering Toys R Us for the first time in years. I was astonished, perhaps naively, at how gender segregated the toys were. While the girls’ section was amply supplied with pink kitchen sets and mini baby strollers…the boys’ side had no such boy version. There weren’t any blue strollers with daddy-n-baby sets. The girls’ side had very few pink cars, or bulldozers, and not even one policewoman dress-up outfits. Likewise, the boys’ side had no nurse practitioner dress-up outfits, despite the fact that there are plenty of men who are nurse practitioners, and women who are law enforcement officers, and plenty of dads who push strollers, cook dinner and clean-up around the house.
My son has a slightly older cousin who he idolizes. If cousin liked dinosaurs, our son liked dinosaurs. If cousin liked Transformers, our son liked Transformers. I didn’t see any problem with this. It seemed natural enough for our son to look up to his older, cool cousin. I didn’t think about the toys themselves…only that our son wanted to be like his cousin. We just sort of went with the flow…he had Thomas the Tank Engine toys, mini soccer balls, Star Wars action figures, Pokemon, every Matchbox race car you could possibly imagine, cowboy hats and play cap guns, puzzles, robots of every kind…his closet was full of boy stuff, and I say that without a sneer. He had all kinds of boyish movies in his collection; his favorites being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Cars, Shrek, Toy Story (I and II) and Transformers Animated. We signed him up for soccer class through the city recreational program. He wrestled extensively with his dad. We paired him up with other little boys to make friends with. We dressed him in very boy-oriented clothing…shirts with guitars, baseball bats and skateboards, pants and long shorts, race car shoes, baseball caps…a wardrobe mainly made up of four colors: blue, green, black and red. My son has never been deprived of stereotypical models of American manhood. And he’s got active male role models in his life: a guitar-playing, WWII trivia-loving, teacher dad, two grandpas (both who served in the military during wars), and my husband’s band mates (one married, one not).
But then our son went to preschool and began to make friends with a group of boys in his class. Being slightly on the anti-social side in middle and high school myself, I suppose a part of me really wanted my son to fit in with the kids at preschool. I encouraged him to make friends and play with the other boys in the class, and I saw preschool as an opportunity for my son to learn about sharing, community, leadership, empathy, discipline…and other relatively benign virtues. It became clear, very quickly, that there was one little alpha-pup that boy-o-mine latched onto immediately. Alpha Pup was the leader of a mini-gang of preschool boys who went around the playground imitating the Power Rangers, making potty jokes and generally proclaiming that certain things were for “girls” (with a sneer). I have to admit, I was taken aback by how early and immediate this kind of socialization begins. At first I sort of went with the flow, trying to convince myself that it was all just a “normal” part of his process of becoming a boy, but then I started noticing that Alpha Pup got in trouble more often than the other boys, and on a regular basis. I felt guilty for encouraging my son to befriend someone who seemed to get him in trouble so often. Alpha Pup hit, swore, taught boy-o-mine to give us the bird! All at the ripe age of FOUR.
When I went to friends and family about this issue, many just brushed it off as “boyhood.” But I couldn’t shake the image of my kid flipping me the middle finger. In fact, it’s not just my friends and family who dismiss my concerns about the social environment that we’re raising our boys in. There’s a new breed of scientists who increasingly believe that the differences between boys and girls are more biological than social. Over the past few years there have been a rash of books that attempt to address the “problem” of the “boy brain.” Says Peg Tyre, in her 2006 Newsweek article “The Trouble with Boys,” “Thirty years ago feminists argued that classic ‘boy’ behaviors were a result of socialization, but these days scientists believe they are an expression of male brain chemistry.” It’s that old nature vs. nuture argument all over again. What frustrates me is that researchers, parents and scientists seem to want a definitive answer to that old battle…and there isn’t one. It seems obvious to me that boys are driven both biologically and socially. Isn’t that obvious? It seems obvious to me that girls are driven both biologically and socially. To underplay the role of socialization in the process of a child’s development is to be ignorant…no matter how many PhDs or children you have. For example, while human beings across the planet share a particular biological design, we seem to all behave in different ways, with different social norms that pertain to sexual norms. Diffrent cultures set down a wide array of different social norms for members of social groups, despite the fact that a great majority of us were born with two arms, two legs, a brain and a vagina or a penis. I have to ask, why tell my son to watch the dinosaur movie instead of Cinderella if it’s all biology?
Answer: because it isn’t all biology. And if that is the case, then socialization is very important to the shaping of a child. I have to wonder, ask, explore this (and many other) questions because my own child’s selfhood is at stake. I’ve gotten some pretty intense reactions to some of my questions. The idea that a feminist would try to actively shape her child’s (particularly a boy’s) worldview as feminist brings about the following responses: scoffing, throat-clearing, eye-rolling, laughing, the statement “You are sick,” and one face slap. Yes, a face slap. Yet, rightwing Evangelicals fight with tooth and nail to raise their children the way they see fit, and seem to believe pretty firmly that socialization has a very important influence on the development of the child. I am about to write something that I hope I never write again; I couldn’t agree with the Evangelicals any more. They are right. I understand why very religious parents want to control and shape the kinds of things that their children are exposed to. It is a parent’s job to show children the correct (right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, fair or unfair) way to behave in relation to other people. For me, it’s not the Christian ideology that forms the basis of my moral compass…it’s feminism. It’s an extremely subjective call to say that feminist principles and mothers have “hurt” children, or even devleopmentally disabled them. I suppose I could say the same about Evangelical principles and mothers who selectively eliminate aspects of a curricula (Darwin’s theory of evolution, certain parts of history, the Big Bang theory) to fit the Christian ideology. But I wouldn’t do that, because I respect a parent’s right to raise their children the way he or she sees fit, even if the principles that parent uses to guide him or her are different from my own. This is America, isn’t it?