Jennifer Moss want her children, either boy or girl, to know that there’s no prescribed mold they need to fit.
“Time to clean up your toys and come downstairs to say our goodbyes.” I yell upstairs as two sweet boys come sliding down the stairs, giggling—still covered in markers and delight.
“Give your friend a great big hug and a kiss and tell him we’ll see him soon,”
“Mom, I can’t kiss him.”
“Why not?” I ask with a smile, imagining some funny, as-only-kids-will-say statement. Sadly, my smile withdrew as I heard the following response come out of my child’s mouth.
“Because Sam’s mom said that boys aren’t allowed to kiss each other.”
Fear. It creeps in like a villain who, even after dying one thousand times over by the hands of the comic book hero, manages to live on.
This incident left me befuddled. It felt similar to a time when my son showed a love of dance that was so intense it only made sense to enroll him in lessons. At three years old, he was the only boy in a class of all girls. Comments from other parents were surprising. My husband was particularly frustrated when one mother said, “Wow—that’s great of you. I just don’t think I can enroll her brother in dance. My husband would kill me.”
As a mother of a boy in a post-feminist society, I stopped a sole focus on career aspirations and cracking that ever-present glass ceiling and instead, altered my sightline. Raising a boy is one feat, and requires presence of mind and reaction timing surpassing that of an NFL quarterback. To raise a man, however, requires forethought and an open mind. It made perfect sense that Tom Matlack started Good Men Project—what struck me in my desire to better parent a boy, is how little support and information there is out there to do just that.
In the UK, clinical psychologist Martin Seager has strongly vocalized the need to promote the study of male gender issues. Seager states, on Psychminded, that male and female genders have clearly evolved together in inter-relationships. He also comments to the following statistics, stating that these figures alone should put stress on the scientific community to invest more effort in understanding the new male gender dynamic.
- Suicide rates for men are higher than that for women
- National statistics show that men die significantly younger than women
- Men are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than women
- Men make up the vast majority of single homeless persons
- Nearly all prisoners in the UK are male and the majority of these prisoners have mental health issues
- Girls are vastly outperforming boys in school
Seager believes a focused British Psychology Society (BPS) section on “The Psychology of the Male Gender” would not only help to raise awareness of the gender-specific pressures affecting the overall well-being of men and boys in our society, but it will help us to understand the impact of fathering (and my hope: mothering) on our society and to address factors that may influence and develop better parents.
I couldn’t agree more with Seager and yet feel that we need to take it one step further and focus on parenting boys AND girls, not as individual genders but rather, integrated relationships. We need to think about gender as a plural, not a singular focus and respond as parents more systematically and more conscientiously when we address and think about gender issues.
I was hit with the realization that we do little to hold society accountable for closing the gender gap while watching (funnily enough) a preview for Madagascar 3 with my son. Less than a minute in, the Penguins are yelling at each other, “You pillow fight like a bunch of little girls.” Normally, I try not to take these comments too seriously, but lately I’ve come to think not only about how this impacts my little girl, to have her gender tossed out as an insult, but I also wonder how much this affects my son. How does it impact his view of sister, of his mother, of his one-day wife?
I know there are equal parts derogation and slander of men in pop culture and with a new understanding that our children’s frontal cortex won’t fully develop until much later in life, I wonder why we hammer these ideas so deep into their tiny psyche that it may become almost impossible to extract? Why do we let fear creep in under the guise of funny cartoon penguins to emphasize that boys should feel badly about acting like girls?
So, back to my conundrum: should I encourage my son to be publicly affectionate? According to Eric Anderson, an American sociologist, who co-authored ‘It’s Just Not Acceptable Any More’: The Erosion of Homophobia and the Softening of Masculinity, I wouldn’t be alone. Anderson claims that hugging and kissing are part of a larger trend among male teens and young adults. The results of this survey counter a pre-existing belief that men (particularly boys) are discouraged from showing their affection. Although studies like these demonstrate the small steps we’ve made to end homophobia and gender stereotyping, it still feels like we’re a long way off from ending the conversation for good. Case in point: my son’s lesson in farewell etiquette gone awry.
After all this pondering, I continue to ask myself, what can I do to guide my kids in the right direction? How do I teach my son and daughter that grey isn’t an easy place to exist in an oftentimes black-and-white world? I came to many conclusions, but here are a few principles I hope my children adopt:
- There is no prescribed mold
- Fitting in does not equal feeling good
- Calling someone a girl is one of the nicest compliments you can give
- Embrace your core gifts regardless of pink or blue status
- Real strength is showing how you feel, and not to fear your feelings
I make no claim that these ideologies are parental law. For me, parenting feels like a series of preparations to improve one’s ability to react. Tiny humans are variables so if I can teach my son to own his decisions, regardless of whether I’m in his ear or not, then I’ll be satisfied. Maybe next time he’ll be able to turn to his friend, arms open wide and say, “How about a hug ‘cause boys kiss boys in my house.”
—Photo Tammra McCauley/Flickr