When I was pregnant, my husband and I chose not to find out the sex of our little one. There are a lot of reasons parents decide not to find out a baby’s sex, but a big one for us was not wanting to put our baby into a gendered corner before birth.
I wasn’t hoping for either sex in particular, and my guess about whether our baby was a boy or girl changed daily. But I think I was more prepared for a girl. I’d spent time thinking about how I’d raise a baby girl to be strong and to not feel forced into the pink, frilly box society might try to put her in. For every princess gift I have given to a little girl, I made sure to also give a science kit or sports equipment or a book about little girls becoming president (here’s my favorite). I’ve used the #LikeaGirl hashtag to celebrate the athletic prowess of women and thought seriously about whether one should #banbossy or reclaim it. And I found myself following A Mighty Girl and excitedly browsing science and math-themed dresses.
Our surprise baby turned out to be a boy baby.
At some point in his first couple months, I don’t remember exactly when it was but he giggled after farting. Without thinking, I said, “you’re such a boy.” Saying it gave me pause. I knew full well baby girls giggled in those moments too. I’ve stopped saying that. You also aren’t likely to hear “boys will be boys” at our house either.
In that moment, I learned one of the many lessons he’s already taught me in his seven short (and passing too quickly) months: Things will only change for our girls, if they change for our boys.
The American Academy of Pediatricians notes on their website healthychildren.org that kids start differentiating boys and girls based on physical differences around the age of two, and by the time they’re three children have started identifying toys as for boys or for girls. It’s by about four, according to the AAP, that most kids have a pretty good idea of their gender.
In addition to picking up what it means to be male or female from watching us even when we think they’re not, toys also reinforce gender roles. Elaine Blakemore, psychology professor and interim dean of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, studies gender development in children. In an interview with the National Association for the Education of Young Children about her research into toys and play, she noted that they “found that girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys’ toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous.”
A 2014 study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick found that society’s expectations for what it means to be a boy or a girl might actually be hurting our kids. Lead research Dr Maria do Mar Pereira had this to say about the study when it was released: “Our ideas of what constitutes a real man or woman are not natural; they are restrictive norms that are harmful to children of both genders. The belief that men have to be dominant over women makes boys feel constantly anxious and under pressure to prove their power – namely by fighting, drinking, sexually harassing, refusing to ask for help, and repressing their emotions. … Trying to live up to these unreal ideas of masculinity and femininity leads to a range of problems; low self-esteem, bullying, physical and verbal violence, health problems and a tragic loss of potential in our young people. Therefore, we must promote ideas about gender which are less rigid, and recognise there are many ways of being a man and a woman.”
While we empower our girls to dream big and to not be confined by society’s boxes, we can’t continue to shape our boys with a one-size fits all mold that rewards aggression and physical violence, and that teaches our boys that showing emotion is bad.
I want to raise a little man who knows that it’s ok to cry; who knows what it means to respect others’ personal space because his is respected; that showing compassion and empathy is a good thing; and that if he’d rather play with Barbie than GI Joe that’s just fine with me.
That’s why after reading a book about “tooting,” we read a book about female superheroes. My little guy has a baby doll waiting for him in his closet, and a train under his bed. As we expose him to sports, we’re also introducing him to music and dance.
It’s why when the tickle monster comes out to play, the moment my son says “STOP!” the tickle monster will go away. We’re reading books showing a full range of emotion (such as Happy Hippo, Angry Duck from Sandra Boynton).
Our boys need to be empowered to break out of the boxes they’re put into. So break out the costumes for the little guys who’d rather be royalty than superheroes, fire fighters or construction workers. And maybe there’s room on bookshelves for books about boys who like to cook, and space on the racks at the store for clothes made for boys that are pink and purple, or have baby animals.
Let’s start telling our boys that it’s okay to cry, teaching them that there’s strength in admitting fear, and making sure they know that being “such a boy” can include sugar and spice and everything nice.