On Raising A Boy To Be Himself (Emotions Included)

Recently, Maggie and I were driving and she asked a question out of the blue from the backseat:

“Mom, what do you think is the worst part about being a girl?”

I paused. She quickly added, “I’ll go first. Tangles in your hair.”

It was a sweet, funny moment (although she was 100% serious about majorly disliking tangles! 😉), but when it was my turn to reply here’s what I found myself saying (and it’s absolutely true):

“You know, I actually really like almost everything about being a girl. I love that girls can love dance and soccer, purple and blue, have painted nails or not, wear their hair long or short, and the world pretty much thinks any of that is just fine. For boys, it makes me sad that lots of people don’t think it’s okay for them to have as many options.”

I remember being very cognizant of this from a young age. It was clear that, as a girl, I could be into sports or the arts or dolls or Disney movies or race cars or ninjas and ANY of that would be fine. It was also acceptable for me to publicly feel and show a huge variety of emotions. No one would bat an eye or question my femininity as a result.

But boys? It wasn’t the same for boys. That was clear, too. And that always made me sad for them.

Of COURSE there are things that are different and harder for girls and women. There’s still discrimination, there are safety issues unique to us, we’re held to different physical standards, there’s mom guilt, and there are tons of cultural expectations around what it means to be a woman.

But despite all that, I have never wished I was a boy instead. I’ve never thought that would be an easier road to walk.

We’ve collectively made huge strides in the acceptance and celebration of girls’ abilities (think of that powerful Always “Like A Girl” campaign, as one of many examples!), but the same advancements haven’t been made yet for boys.

And now, as the mother of a boy, I feel even more tuned into what the world might look like through his eyes, and how people might judge him, consciously or not, for what he chooses to do or wear or talk about or enjoy. I feel fiercely protective when I think about keeping my son’s personality as intact as possible, and I want to minimize it being diluted or changed based on what culture tells him (either blatantly or subtly) is okay “for a boy.”

I try to think about what my childhood would have looked like if I’d had an interest that I quickly realized wasn’t okay with the world at large. What would that teach me about my ability to trust my instincts and internal voice? About confidence? About self esteem? It would dampen all those things.

And yet we do that to boys all the time.

I’m not saying there aren’t differences between boys and girls. I AM saying that the things culture often tries to minimize in boys — resulting in less connection with their emotions and with their inner voice — is doing major damage. That’s not the intent — of course it’s not! For the most part, I think we’re all trying to protect our children from the hard things in life…and we anticipate being into ballet when you’re a boy, for example, to come with hardship attached. But the problem is, “fitting in” and the push into a conventionally “masculine” mold comes at a cost. I think it’s worth zooming out and considering the long-term results of those often small messages we’re sending that start to add up over time.

When our children are little, “we” (the collective “we”) are more tolerant of girls’ tears than boys’ tears. It’s heartbreaking to truly consider the messages we’re sending.

I listened to a podcast several months back (and can’t for the life of me remember which one, which is driving me crazy!) that talked about boys and emotions. They shared a sobering statistic: That starting as early as age 6 or 7, boys start to get the clear message that only two emotions are okay to show outwardly: HAPPINESS and ANGER.

Think about that for a moment, especially if you’re a woman reading this.

Can you imagine that being your reality?

And what about the side effects of such a reality? Suppressed emotions can result in substance abuse, depression and anxiety, increased suicide rates, and so much more — not to mention things like an inability to fully connect within relationships AND a likelihood to perpetuate this emotional disconnection within subsequent generations.

I remember seeing a funny meme that made me laugh, and then pretty quickly made me very sad — especially on the heels of that reality of boys/men and emotion:

I look at my almost-2-year-old son, Vance, and see him expressing such a full range of emotions: sadness and joy and fear and trust and surprise and disgust and frustration. I feel so, so sad when I think of those being reduced to two. Can you imagine how isolating — not to mention confusing — that would feel?

I’m well aware, too, that this whole thing is very ingrained in how our culture works, meaning just because we want something different for our son doesn’t mean the world around us is going to make that an easy task. Though we never use terms like “girl toys” vs. “boy toys” or talk about how “only girls have long hair,” Maggie has already voiced those things. When she does, though, we’ve had conversations about how that’s so silly. There’s no such thing as a toy or a movie or music for a boy or for a girl! There are just toys and movies and music — and everyone gets to choose which of those things they like. (I mean, it’s truly ridiculous to think about assigning toy to a specific gender, right?!?)

But it’s reinforcing the fact that just because we’re having those conversations at home doesn’t mean our kids won’t be exposed to that thinking — because that’s the world we live in.

And I’m certainly not blameless, either. Because our oldest child is a girl, we inevitably have lots of baby dolls at our house — and Vance LOVES THEM. I often wonder if we’d have any baby dolls for him to play with if he’d been our first child. We have matching bento box lunchboxes for the kids: one is pink and purple and the other is blue and green. I make a point to always send Maggie to school with the pink and purple one…but why? They’re identical minus the colors. I know I’m feeding into the whole thing in very subconscious ways, and I’m sure I use language differences and have differing expectations I’m not aware of, either.

There are many studies that show the differences in ways parents treat and speak to their sons versus their daughters, and those differences happen to varying degrees in ALL families — even ones (like ours) — trying hard to close that gap.

So I know I’m doing those more subtle things to perpetuate the whole thing, but I’m also constantly working to minimize those and instead to send the message that this whole double standard between boys and girls needs to stop — because don’t we want emotionally mature and communicative boys and men in our world? Ones who feel they can be true to THEMSELVES?

I desperately want that reality for BOTH of my children.

I’m fortunate to have a husband who is extremely in tune with his emotions, and who I credit with a lot of my own emotional development. As a result, he’s someone who’s able to communicate and connect really well, so we’ve had tons of conversations about this topic. We have a shared end goal for our children, but getting to that end goal is going to require lots of work, focus, internal examination, and taking in lots of research and expert opinions along the way.

One thing that leaves me feeling encouraged is knowing many other families are on board with this as well. We have to stick together! It’s important to remind others how ridiculous things like this sound:

If your son asks for a doll for Christmas, it’s problematic. If you daughter asks for a toy monster truck for Christmas, it’s no big deal.

If your son wants to grow his hair out, that’s not okay. If your daughter wants to cut hers short, you’re fine with it.

If your son wants to be a sparkly unicorn for Halloween, you hesitate. If your daughter wants to be a fire-breathing dragon, it’s a-okay.

If your son would prefer to spend his time creating art instead of playing baseball, you worry. If you daughter would rather play soccer than take ballet, there’s no issue.

We might be trying to protect our boys from ridicule, but what are they — and what are we, and what is the world — missing out on as a result?

There is a HUGE double standard when it comes to boys and girls — but we can play a role in shifting that reality. We can start making the world a more inviting place for boys and men to be their true, whole selves — to show up fully and to FEEL fully.

Won’t you join me in this important endeavor?

2 thoughts on “On Raising A Boy To Be Himself (Emotions Included)

  1. I co-sign your endeavor. I stop and take a deep breath when doctors and nurses offer my son a superhero sticker and my daughter a princess sticker. This happened yesterday. I never know what to say that is succinct but explains “ungendering” things without making the person feel ashamed or anything. I just said, “She doesn’t know princesses. Maybe you have one with an animal?” It’s a start, I guess.

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