At some point, as boys—including me—grow and mature, we begin to get very worried about how we are measuring up as men. It’s the point in time:
- When we started hiding our tears;
- When we kept pushing even though we were in pain;
- When we told our friends or parents that, “I’m fine” even though we were angry/scared/lonely/rejected.
That moment sucks.
As adults, we shame boys in seemingly small ways to start this process. They’re so small that when we call attention to them we’re often told we’re “too sensitive” (another thing boys and men aren’t supposed to be.)
I’ve written about “genderizing” kids before, but I wanted to look at why we’re often doing it, not for our kids, but to manage our own anxiety regarding gender.
The Controversy of the Toy Stove
I don’t have a strong memory of this, but I’m told that when I was very young, four or five maybe, one of my mother’s friends (one of the feminist, progressive friends that she had) bought me—the firstborn son in an Italian American household—a stove.
Not a real one.
A play one. I remember it because I loved that you could turn a dial and the stove top that was black would become bright yellow and then orange when it was “on”. Nothing like the toys of today and it was a far cry from the Easy Bake Oven I would never have, but I liked it. I pretended to cook and bake and I liked to carry it around.
I wasn’t conscious of the controversy of this stove, but I’m told it had many people…uncomfortable. It was a Great Aunt (who loved me, I’m sure) who saw the stove and it was in the next few days that I was gifted my first (of many) toy guns.
I guess she thought that would balance things out. Ensure my being straight and a boy by giving me a weapon to get me out of the kitchen, as it were.
I liked playing with toy guns when I was younger. Laser tag was one of my favorites. (Sadly, it took until my late twenties (nah, early thirties) to really learn to cook.)
Who Are We Really “Protecting”?
These messages we give are so often about us and not about our kids. My Great Aunt was uncomfortable, so she gave me a gun. Did she really think that my toys would influence my sexuality? There are so many messages that are being given by adults to kids all the time.
- What and who is acceptable
- What behavior is ok
- What to wear
- What to play with
- Who to be around
Is it that surprising that we grow up suffering or spending years in therapy having to unlearn everything? What’s the solution? Should we raise our kids in empty rooms, or provide the least specific toys possible to allow their imaginations to create anything?
Many parents I know refuse to give their children toy guns. That’s great. But children learn about guns anyway and have the uncanny ability to turn anything—a cell phone, Legos, a book—into a gun and shoot someone (usually a parent or a younger sibling).
So should we say “No” to the imagination? What are the limits? And what do we think we’re going to stop? The most we do is provide more areas for shame.
Take a Look At Yourself
Are you trying to control the child’s behavior in order to manage your anxiety? If that’s the case, then you’re asking the child to manage your anxiety. That’s not ok.
So first, consider if you’re teaching a life lesson of some kind or if you’re just managing your own anxiety by managing your child’s behavior. What is your full rationale for setting this limit?
Second, consider the implications of a limit or what message your child will receive by what you’re doing. Are you trying to influence their thought process? Are you helping them to become more of who they are or are you trying to distract them from who you think they might become? Neither is “bad”, per se, but know what you’re doing.
Third, children need some structure and need to be protected from danger. They, at the same time, need repeated messages of positive reinforcement that they are absolutely OK just as they are and who they are becoming. Do you believe that? It’s a real stumbling block in therapy sessions with the dads I work with. Sometimes, they hesitate—they’re not fully sure. If they accept that their child is perfect as they are, it means they may have to let go of their own shame and accept themselves as they are. That’s really scary.
Fourth, and final, are you taking care of yourself? Are you growing in an understanding of yourself so you know what’s about you and what’s about them?
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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