Negative stereotyping breeds negative behavior. And a lot of stereotypes about little boys are negative.
Boys. Little boys get bad press. They’re noisy, physical, aggressive and constantly covered in mud. If it doesn’t have wings or wheels or shoot stuff boys don’t want to play with it and they can turn anything into a pretend gun or sword. Boys are raucous. Boys are academically inferior to girls. Boys can’t express their emotions. Boys can’t listen as well as girls.
The stereotypes about boys don’t mention the words sensitive, caring, affectionate or nurturing. Most stereotypes about little boys are negative but thankfully we mothers of boys know that they are so much more than their stereotypes.
As a society we’re getting wise to the fact that the messages we’re giving our girls are detrimental but we also need to realize how much we damage our boys with our negative stereotypes of little males. Negative stereotyping breeds negative behavior.
I have three sons. No daughters. Three beautiful little boys. When I was pregnant the second time, most comments centered on gender. I heard, “I bet you’re hoping for a little girl this time” more times than I care to talk about.
During my third pregnancy I was inundated with talk about how this baby would be a girl. And once he was born, I had comments like, “Ah, another boy is also okay”, as if it wasn’t. And, “Will you try now for a girl?” as if we’d somehow failed again. It took all my will power not to smack well-meaning strangers around the head with my son’s Spiderman action figure.
The truth is I couldn’t be happier with my lot. Boys are wonderful. My sons give me the chance to smash the stereotype heaped upon them into smithereens. Negative stereotypes give me a platform to work on, they provide a challenge, an anti-model for raising boys if you like. Boys, just like girls, are all different and as a society we need to stop forcing standard male behavior rules on them.
I accept wholeheartedly the battle to fend off the stereotypes about boys. I want my sons to understand that they have choices, if they are willing to go against the tide, that clash with expectations people will have of them. These days it takes a strong male to dare to be himself.
I am teaching my children to pursue what truly interests them, their passions; not to have hobbies they feel they should have because other boys in their class are shouting loudly about it. Because they are the things that boys do.
I want them to search for what drives them. I will not let raising boys be about wearing the right or wrong color, or playing with the wrong or right toys. Raising them is not about an image they are expected to project as boys, nor about meeting the expectations of those around us. My parenting goal is to encourage my sons be themselves, to ensure they follow their own path, and not a route that is an easier and more peaceful path to take because it is one that males are expected to take.
I want male stereotypes to leave them unscathed. I want stereotypes to play no role in our home now or in their future home. I know first hand that stereotype male roles in life, be it in the workplace or in the home, are learned.
Fifteen years ago, not long after I first arrived in the Netherlands, I remember sitting in my mother-in-law’s front room rather bemused watching her iron my husband-to-be’s police uniform. We were randomly chatting about nothing in particular in our best stilted Dutch and English when she suddenly looked up and smiled over at me.
“This will be your job soon, when you move into your own home together,” she remarked.
“No, it will be your son’s job soon. Like it should be now,” I answered.
Stereotypes are passed down from generation to generation. Gender attitudes are reinforced by passive acceptation. Boys learn early on in life what they should and shouldn’t like to fit in with their peers. They learn quickly, and often painfully, what is expected of them from their classmates and teachers, from parents and extended family, from the media, from society as a whole.
There’s a lot of pressure out there on boys to be boys, the kind of boys you actually only find in stereotypes. There is pressure to be aggressive, to be naughty, to be noisy, to not stick out academically in school. There’s pressure on boys, just as there is on girls, to fit in, not to go against the grain. So there’s pressure on my husband and me to help our sons define themselves as boys in their own way; to help them understand that they don’t need society’s mold.
I consider our job well done if our sons think for themselves, and stay true to their own beliefs and interests. Our job will be done if our sons stand up for themselves and feel free to be themselves, even if it means standing out from the crowd. Our job will be done if our three boys leave home without the concept that certain jobs are for women, and others are for men. My job will be done when they don’t see their gender as a barrier, or an advantage – when they know that it’s not about women’s or men’s places in the world but about finding their own place in the world.
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