For the first few months of being a mum, I have to admit that I spent a fair amount of time feeling grateful that I had a boy. “Raising a boy is much simpler!”, I thought to myself, “There are so many sexist things that I don’t need to trouble my head with!”.
I didn’t need to worry about the colour and imagery of girl’s clothing, or the sexualisation of women in pop culture and how young girls emulate this. My child would never be told he couldn’t do something just because he happened to have a particular set of genitals and I wouldn’t be forced into having a house full of pink sparkly things.
New-parent me was an idiot. A smug, clueless, complacent idiot. Of course I have to deal with all these things, and many more. Of course gender stereotyping affects my boy just as much as his female friends. How could I not have seen this?
Before I became a mother, I considered myself to be a feminist, but motherhood has been the awakening of my understanding of what feminism truly is, and of the work there is still to be done. It has given me the wake up call that I needed because it has given me the impetus to, quite frankly, pull my head out of my own backside and see how the world looks from somebody else’s perspective.
Now my answer to the question “why do we need feminism?” is (amongst a million other reasons) “because I would do anything for my son, and patriarchy is damaging him too”.
My boy has just turned 3, and although 3 years is enough time to gain a PhD, I definitely still have so much to learn. I feel I’m at the very edges of awareness when it comes to my own growth as a feminist. I learn new things every day; I make mistakes, I change and I grow. As with all other elements of parenthood, I suspect I will still be trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing at the point where he leaves home. I’m just muddling along, and, by writing about it, attempting to put my thoughts in order and examine them a bit more closely.
On the whole, all parents have the same goal for their children: be happy. There are many things I want for my boy, but ultimately it all boils down to him being able to be who he wants to be. We’ve always raised him to follow his own interests, and this has led to an eclectic bundle of tastes. He loves buses, dinosaurs, music, dancing, diggers and trains. He goes swimming once a week and also does a ballet class. He has Frozen wellies and a tiara, and got a dolls’ house for Christmas. His favourite colour is pink. He really likes helping with baking, and cleaning the house and if he can do these things whilst dressed as Batman, he’s in heaven.
In short, he’s a typical toddler. His choices are guided by a simple process – he imitates what he sees around him, gets excited about things he loves and ignores the things that don’t interest him.
And yet already I can see threats to this creeping in; threats in the shape of societal expectations, that are telling him who he should be and how he should act even as a toddler.
A couple of months ago, he started pointing at certain toys in shops (dolls, kitchens, anything pink) and saying “that’s for girls”, or “when I’m a girl, I want that”. This second phrase in particular would break my heart a little more each time. My gorgeous, bright boy clearly really liked a particular toy and yet somewhere he had picked up the message that there are toys for boys and toys for girls. He was trying desperately to fit in with this imposed expectation, yet couldn’t quite suppress his own desires.
That’s a lot of complexities for a very small boy to be dealing with. And when you look ahead and consider that, in a couple of years’ time, he will be even more aware of what others expect of his behaviours – so he may still want a doll, but might never dare actually say it out loud – you can see how this becomes increasingly problematic.
How depressing that, from so early on, we are teaching our children to conform and fall in line. Why must our boys only play with vehicles and dinosaurs, and our girls with dolls and tea sets? What is the disaster that could apparently befall us if boys go to ballet? Why are we still describing toys (or, in fact, anything at all) as “girly” or “for boys”? And this is only what he is up against when it comes to toys. Expectation of behaviour is an entirely different level in the great game of gender stereotyping.
“Boys will be boys” is one of my most hated phrases of all time. Have four words ever simultaneously excused and smothered children’s behaviour as effectively as these? It’s dismissive, it’s reductive, it’s downright offensive. It gives girls the message that there is no point in questioning or challenging a boy’s behaviour (he can’t help it, after all), and tells boys that they are expected to be wild and rough.
We are telling them that it is inevitable that others will get hurt in their wildness, for their physicality cannot be contained. Oh yes, sorry, I must have completely forgotten that having a penis makes you genetically incapable of empathy, remorse or consideration. Go ahead, do what you like, don’t worry about it! But don’t expect anyone to worry if it’s you that gets hurt, because you’re a boy. I’m sure you’ll man up and take it on the chin without crying.
If my son hurts somebody, we talk about it. We talk about what happened, why he did it, why it was wrong and what he should do next time. By dismissing these incidents with “boys will be boys”, we suppress the emotions surrounding the issue and deny our boys a space to explore and discuss their feelings and consider alternative coping strategies. Why can’t we understand how harmful this?
Just over three out of four suicides are by men, and suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under 35. As a society, we have raised generations of men who believe that talking about their feelings is weak, that examining emotions is not something that men do – and they are paying the price for it.
This is not what I want for my son. It is not what any of us want for our children. We owe them a better future.
So what is the solution? At home, we encourage our boy to be the best that he can be, to view everybody equally and understand that we’re not all the same, and to play with whatever the hell he wants (and ask nicely first if it belongs to someone else), but we can’t raise children in hermetically-sealed bubbles – nor would I want to; the benefits of going to nursery, meeting other people and hearing different viewpoints far outweigh the negatives. So how do we get past these patriarchal messages that are damaging for our children?
The honest answer is we can’t and we don’t. What we can do is teach coping mechanisms – raise our children to have strong beliefs and a sense of faith in themselves; to be open to others’ viewpoints and to be unafraid to question what they are being told if they can see injustice in it. We can keep raising them as gender-neutral and allow them to make their own choices in life.
Personally, I know I can think more about my own reactions to things and the stereotypes that I unwittingly enforce, even when I’m trying not to. I can commit to reading more, listening more, learning more, and trying my hardest to be a strong role model for my son. I can raise him as a feminist. I can remember that, although toddlers learning through imitation means that they can easily absorb negative stereotypes, it’s also the best tool we have in teaching them that the world doesn’t have to be this way.
If we model compassionate, open behaviours, the children around us will follow suit. And all those pink toys? I’m proud to say that my boy now points at every one he sees and happily proclaims “that toy is for girls AND boys!”.
Mel Carter lives in Newcastle upon Tyne. She works in the arts and culture sector, raises a small child in the best way she can manage, and writes in quiet corners in cafes.