boys to men

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Here is the immediate context in a long-term process: right before Christmas, a school shooting, killing children who were the age of my twin boys, sitting diligently in their classrooms like mine do every day. My quiet tears at the simplest moments in the following weeks, self-censored, because they do not know, don’t need to know, and feel responsible for their mother’s emotional health. Next, a letter to Santa, written in 7-year-old, erratic hand, “nerf gun and bullets” at the top of the list.  Then, a New York Times piece, hypothesizing, with some flaws, that as we usher in “The End of Men,” we will see an increase in white, young, male-inflicted violence as those creatures, previously at the top of the chain, bluster around without a way to be.

Finally, the Eureka! moment at the ice-skating rink: skating slowly and steadily with my toddler girl, around the outside of the rink as she balances on the tiniest skates I’ve ever laced. In the center, elementary girls practice spinning and leaping on the ice. Between us, mother after mother (I counted three) losing her temper as her young boy barrels full speed and slams into her, all smiles with new grown-up teeth too big for his mouth.

“Seriously?!?!” one mom says, holding onto the boy’s younger sibling.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” another exclaims.

“What’s wrong with you? What are you thinking?” says the latest.

The boys, their grins wiped clean, look down, shrug. “Sorry,” they mumble, if they say anything at all.

*

About the time my own boys’ love affair with Thomas Trains was waning, a friend came over with her toddler. I was hoping to entertain him: “We have lots of great toys for boys!” I said.

My friend corrected me: “You mean you have lots of great toys for kids.”

My cheeks burned and I stuttered, as her son crashed the trains into one another with delight. Right. Obviously. Of course I meant “kids.”  I have a graduate degree in humanities from a liberal university. I am a feminist. I am progressive.

But, no. I meant “boys.” The only train my daughter has shown interest in is “Rosie,” who’s purple, and even then was abandoned because she just has so many…wheels.

In our push to see women as equals, do we sometimes mistake “equal” for meaning “the same,” to the advantage of our daughters and with contempt for our sons?  Some girls are more masculine. Some boys are more feminine. I get this. I love this.

I may love it too much. Because when my daughter wants to break out of “girl” and play stormtroopers or construction workers with her brothers, I cheer. When her brothers want to break out of “boy” and tap dance or paint their nails, I cheer. But when my boys just—heaven forbid—want be boys and slam, tackle, bang, boom….I don’t often cheer. I’m quiet. Sometimes, like the mothers at the ice-rink, I admonish.

And they are left feeling misunderstood and confused and left without a way to be.

*

I remember reading about the high rate of domestic abuse cases among college and professional athletes. It’s despicable, disgusting, unacceptable, we all say. But I had uncles, brothers, boyfriends, who were athletes. Don’t we encourage them to be aggressive, tough, intimidating, on the court or the field? Don’t we cheer for them and pay millions of dollars to see them let loose with their testosterone-fueled, masculine tendencies? And then we shame them for indulging those traits when the arena is dark and the stadium is empty?

Do they need an outlet? Or a lesson in repression? Don’t we need to choose?

I’m speaking to a certain demographic, I know. Not everyone will identify. Some will judge. But others will relate and, I hope, share their own confusion and inconsistencies and we will find a way to let our boys be the many, sometimes predictable and stereotypical, ways to be.

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192 thoughts on “boys to men

  1. Wow, Mers! 1,871 miles away (per Mapquest, via I-80) :) we were on the same wavelength today. I hosted a playdate for 3 other moms this morning. Between us we have 6 girls and 3 boys. At some point the talk naturally turned to stereotypes, boys vs. girls. The moms said that their boys sometimes wear dresses, they like to have their fingernails painted. But when they go to choose their toys, they pick the cars and trains and ram them into things, while the girls play “doctor” to the stuffed animals and enjoy the toy kitchen. According to these stay-at-home moms, these differences were inherent and showed up long before their sons went off to preschool and were influenced by their peers. I LOVE your question, “…do we sometimes mistake ‘equal’ for meaning ‘the same’…” So insightful! While one is not better than the other, I they are often different. And rather than attempting to eliminate those differences, we should cherish them as part of what makes our children who they are: individuals.

    • I play this percentage game with a friend of mine who doesn’t have kids. When we intermittently see each other, we offer our current guesses at what percentage of our personalities is nature vs. nurture. Before kids, I guessed more than 50% was nurture. Now I go the other way around. :)

  2. Wow… i just stumbled upon your post, and this amazing blog. Your words spoke to me so poignantly as I am quickly getting exposure to the vroom-vroom gene with our little guy. I have two girls and though they are as different as can be, there is something about gender that is… well, unique. And I too find myself confounded (is that a word?), confused and at times totally elated to see it, experience it, live it. Before I had a boy everyone told me how ‘different’ it is… and i wondered, as we all do before we ‘live it’… perhaps it’s the socialization? Like you, i cheer at the integration; but I can no longer hide from the distinct features… and i too wonder, where is the space to celebrate it, without ‘glorifying’ it? how do we look at our kids and engage them with a little more awareness? how do we find that safe place to let each be an individual? the confusion and inconsistencies speak to your amazing insight… and i feel like i learned something from you today. thank you.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I like the “vroom-vroom gene.” Well said. Making space must be key for any experience. (This is what my therapist tells me.) I’m always thrilled to hear that someone else can relate.

  3. Wow. Wanted to be your third, very sincere Wow. Thanks for articulating things already brewing and for bringing new thoughts to the table as well. I like you, you know.

  4. I’m so glad Paige shared this with me. I wholeheartedly agree. As the Mom of three boys I have learned a lot and changed a lot! As a new Mom I tossed out Mother Goose for Father Gander Nursery Rhymes and said no to any toy that encouraged roughhousing. Slowly I came to my senses and realized that God made each sex to fulfill a different role and like you said to be equal but not the same. We, as a society are not teaching our boys how to be men. I hope to help my boys understand their obligation to lead, protect and provide for their wives and families.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing, Maureen. I used to get defensive when my own mom said stereotypical things about gender–the boy thing, especially– and as a mother of 3 boys, she said, “You’ll see.” Now, I get it, I guess. Only by experience, though. Living the energy, with bruises to show for it!

  5. Love this piece! I have two boys now 17&18, and a girl 12. The boys taught her how to sword fight with sticks and a deep love for Star Wars. They also dance-in all forms, played polly pockets with her. I understood what boys and girls need all the while creating an environment where both can learn camaraderie, respect and safety. Boys are the best teachers in how to push limits, adventure and silly bodily functions. Enjoy being run over while they are little. I miss it, believe it or not.

    • I love your combination of camaraderie, respect, and safety. A safe, familiar environment is a great place to learn these things: if not with siblings, than cousins or the friends-who-are-like-family. I feel lucky to have grown up with brothers, as it’s helped inform my interactions with my sons. Thanks for reading!

  6. I loved this piece you wrote and I think you got it exactly right!
    P.S. I had to say something about this because it’s just too much of a coincidence. But my stepdad is co-writing a book right now intitled “Boys to Men,” talking about the struggles boys go through and he just wrote an article in USA Today addressing the very same things you discuss here :)

    The two of you must be on the same wave length :)

  7. How insightful this is. I am an Early Years teacher and a mother of 3 (1 boy and 2 girls) who thinks and re-thinks what you’ve written every.single.day. I agree with you that there is a difference. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the difference. But why define it? I do appreciate your friends reference to toys. As a person whose son (the oldest) liked pink and dressing up…I spoke about colours and games instead of “boys colors” and “boys games”. I think it really did help HIM find out what he liked instead of thinking that something was wrong with him because he was a boy and should like certain things just because of his chromosomes. I think language does matter and semantics are important.

    I cheer when my son plays spies and Star Wars and I cheer when he knits and hops on the sewing machine to make something. Fostering creative play has less to do with WHAT they are playing and more to do with HOW they are playing. What stories are they telling/acting out? What are they using to bring their stories to life? How do they take their play inquiry further and deeper? What kind of materials (toys etc…) am I providing for their play? Are they open ended and complex?

    There is also a lot to be said about ‘rough play’. There is a lot of research about how this play is necessary for boys (and some girls too). I love it. It isn’t about hurting one another, rather about that full contact play you are talking about at the ice skating rink. At my school we have over an hour of outdoor learning every morning and we have things in the environment that invite rough play. It is what some kids need…we have a duty as mothers and, in my case, early years educators to provide the right kind of provocations for all young children and support this kind of play.

  8. its refreshing to read. i myself was a hyperactive kid with at the extreme end of the scale. Yet as a boy you have your own boy identity and girls likewise. what are we gonna do? build a multi purpose urinal? Boys and girls need to identify with their own toys or nuances, with out it, it would just be mundane and quite frankly absurd.

  9. This is such a great story! And the picture is so sweet I almost bawled my eyes out just looking at it! Congrats on FP! ~ Nerd With Taste

  10. Are there articles being written about “those creatures” which include Casey Anthony or the woman in South Carolina who drove her children into a lake? Before we start to look for solutions which will take care of “those creatures”, and we know who those creatures are, we should look at the reasons we are labeling a major part of society as being, “those creatures”.

  11. Hmmm…I have to assume from your tone (that I can’t actually hear) that you misunderstand my own tone regarding this phrase. “These creatures” is meant to be ironic and poignant, which should be fairly obvious considering I have two young boys of my own. I’m not sure what you’re implying regarding the other cases, but I can tell you that, with most issues, I don’t see things as wrong-and-write, black-and-white and am one of the last people to assign or easily digest labels. Thanks for reading.

  12. Great piece of writing. As a mom of 2 boys, and no girls, I get it. My spouse and I have endless conversations about how much we should rein them in, and how much we should encourage that competitiveness, that aggression, that desire. It’s a fine line, for sure, and we don’t always know where to draw it. As a woman, as a mother, my instinct is to want everyone to get along, to play fair, to share, to respect, to love and to basically sing Kumbayah around a fire while toasting marshmallows. That’s not the real world though and I want my boys to be respectful and kind and loving members of society. But I also want them to be who they are. Thanks for this.

  13. I really like your post. Gender is a tricky beast, isn’t it?

    My mother raised me on her own, my father was out of the picture so early that I never had a bond with him. I also never had any real consistent male role model around either.

    I got all kinds of notions from all sorts of sources about what “male” was and what I should be doing as a matter of course because I was a boy. TV, school, overheard conversations adults had on such matters…. I was largely left picking and choosing and muddling through to manhood.

    When I was little, I saw my mom doing all kinds of stuff around the house that typically men would do. Usually she’d only call on the help of one of our male friends when it was a matter of physical strength that she did not possess. Basically, I had a ring side seat to what a woman could do when necessary and that has stayed with me to today.

    Consequently, while I have no problem helping a woman out with task that requires an extra bit of strength or height and I’ve no problem helping to clean the house; it does get under my skin a good deal when a woman asks me to do something that clearly is not beyond her capacities to do.

    I know not every woman out there is going to be like my mother; but I’ve met a lot of women who use their gender either directly or indirectly to get a guy to do for them something they are perfectly capable of doing and it makes me cringe to see that here in the 21st century. However, I do notice that popular media does in subtle and not so subtle ways still tell women that men like women to be a great deal more dependent on them than is actually healthy for a relationship.

    Maybe some will see that view as unmanly of me; but, like I said, I had to figure out manhood largely for myself, Not an easy task I can assure you.

    I think the “nature vs. nurture” debate generally neglects the aspect of experience. Life confronts all of us differently and we are all the products of our experiences.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. That’s exactly the kind of experience that I’m afraid we think of as “outside” the norm, when, really, it’s probably more common than whatever stereotype we think is “normal.”

      I think popular culture plays a HUGE role of influence, especially for the people who, like yourself, are searching for guides and perhaps are more formidable exactly BECAUSE they are searching for guides.

      Good luck to you in your search. The more difficult way can sometimes (usually?) make you stronger and, most importantly, more empathetic.

  14. Wow! This got pressed?!!? I love this, because it’s true and brilliantly written. I see so many posts to the contrary get freshly pressed, and I didn’t think that something this logical would ever make it. Excellent post, and I’m glad to see it get noticed.

    • Thank you so much! To be honest, when I see what catches on with the masses, I often think I don’t have a chance… I never intend to be divisive, shocking, or exploitative, yet this is the kind of stuff that makes the rounds. I was thrilled WP recognized this style of writing. You will like Katie’s stuff too….

  15. Too often we equate “equal” for “the same!” This has actually been my chief complain with both the feminist movement and the gender neutralization of our children. Just because I am a stay-at-home mom and enjoy cooking doesn’t mean that I am dismissing the efforts of the women that came before me; in fact, I appreciate having the choice to stay home instead of being forced to do so. Likewise, just because a little boy occasionally dons a dress or paints his nails doesn’t mean that he is ignoring the innate masculinity running through his veins … and he shouldn’t have to suppress that part of himself.

    I get it: boys are tough. I don’t have any, but I see them every day at my daughter’s co-op. Boys like to push each other, run around, shoot Nerf guns, pretend to die, wrestle, and any other number of things that make mothers cringe. But they’re BOYS. Boys who are eventually going to become men and need masculine outlets. Without appropriate outlets, men will turn to the darker side of their masculinity–it’s hard-wired into our brains.

    Lovely post!

    • Lynn: I suppose you put into words for me the Eureka! moment at the ice rink: “Without appropriate outlets, men will turn to the darker side of their masculinity.” It was weeks of connecting the dots for me, in a much bigger process of understanding my boys and my role as such an influential woman in their lives.

      As with many social changes, I’m sure we need to topple to extremes with these gender issues before we hold more steady to a middle. I’m still working through the feminist-stay-at-home-mom-thing….a future post, for sure!

  16. I fell like all has been said… but I just wanted to tell you anyway how much I loved this article, and your blog as well :)

  17. Terrific post. Thank you for speaking your mind on this topic. As a soon to be parent I’ve already started worrying about if I’ll be admonished myself for letting my girl be a girl or my boy be a boy (we are going to be surprised). There is definitely a difference between “equal” and “same.”

    • OK, to add to the unsolicited advice all parents-to-be must muddle through: one of the things someone told me that took some pressure off was that my child will suffer through teething, potty-training, and adolescence….BUT NOT ALL AT ONCE! Try not to get too overwhelmed thinking about it all. Already you sound like a thoughtful person. This is a great start for a parent. (We were surprised too, about the sex. I’ll admit I cried with joy when my husband told me our 3rd was a girl.)

      • Hah! :-D I think we are all hoping for a girl, extended family included, so just to mess with us all it will probably be a boy. :-P Just have to remember the challenges come one at time – that’s some great advice, thank you!

  18. Your post is music to my ears. I don’t need to say any more because you said what I feel so eloquently. Thankyou. Apropos the school shooting – it left me wounded too – …… Tony

  19. Nice article and very insightful…. your point makes perfect sense and even applies to Indian parents when it comes to treating boys even in India – in a way it is a universal problem. I liked your point on differentiating “equal” from “same”.
    Congratulations on FP…

    • Thanks, Jay. I’ve been following gender violence issues in India, lately. Devastating problems, but as my favorite columnist, Nicholas Kristof, points out, we can’t point fingers from this country until we become better examples.

  20. This was so lovely and I, myself have 9 year old twin boys. I felt such a selfish relief every time I could hug my children after the shootings; your insight to raising boys was fantastic!

    • I’ve never met a mother of twin boys that I didn’t like. ;) I have been relieved that mine are at an age where they don’t need to know where the extra hugs are coming from. Soon, this stage will be over, I’m afraid.

  21. I have raised two boys, they are fathers now. I taught them to respect all people and taught them to expect the same in return. The rest I left to nature. I have two granddaughters and two grandsons at different ages and stages. The boys like to flip an imaginary cape back and vroom through the house like the heroes they are. The girls, when they were younger, could sit at the table for hours and draw and paint or play with their toys. Vive le difference, I say.
    So glad you haven’t let yourself be bogged down by political correctness. But now that you have sons, you’re going to be forever fighting it. Great post.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I remember once when my friend with two young girls said she could go the coffee shop for a drink while her little ones sat and colored. I was so confused. I’m still a little bitter about it. :)

  22. My wife and I are in the process of taking foster care classes, and we have had many productive talks about how to raise children. This blog will add to our conversation. Thanks for this!!

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  24. I love the question about equality and ‘sameness’. Its important to let boys be boys and to even encourage them to be daring and reckless and aggressive. This however must be tempered with disciplne and guidance from the father on what makes a man be a ‘man’. I feel like men and women are lime yin and yang not yang and yang. They are different yet complimentary. We need to teach (and by teach I mean show) our children how this works and what it looks like. They will imitate. We need to be worthy of imitation.

    • I love your last line. Imitate, they will. However, not everyone has a father (or, sometimes, mother) there as a model, which is where more social and/or familial guidance comes in. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  25. Great post!

    I have one child, a son. He is interested in cars, monster trucks, books and playing outside. He is 2 and a half with a lot of energy. Sometimes I have to pull him aside, take a toy away when he has thrown it at the wall or put him in timeout. What I believe is keep him active. I believe activity, especially outside activities, has been a forgotten priorities because parents are so busy. I take my son outside even when it’s cold. We walk on trails. My son remembered the path to a bridge in ruins on our river trail yesterday. We have a little membership so he can go swimming.

    All children need room to run around and experience childhood.

    In relation to the woman’s comment, “great toys for kids,” it is another example – to me – of too much political correctness.

    Thank you for your post!

  26. Sure, ‘equal’ does not mean the ‘same’.
    When it comes to violence against women, the issue is one of respect or the lack of it.
    Today’s society needs to teach children to respect each other and maybe boys need a stronger dose of this lesson?!

  27. I have a 14-yr old son & a soon to be 12-yr old daughter. He is a football player player who just took a cooking class with 5 of his buddies outside of school. They made roasted chicken & apple crisp. The instructor showed them how to make gravy and wash pots. My girl is on a co-ed basketball team and wears dresses with her basketball sneakers because she loves them both. When I let them them…they know who they are and what they want to be. I’m the only one who is confused at times and your post is spot on.

  28. Really insightful indeed. Your words speaks the truth and I agree with “share their own confusion and inconsistencies and we will find a way to let our boys be the many, sometimes predictable and stereotypical, ways to be”

  29. Thought-provoking, and true. As everyone else has said. How does the way we treat young boys translate into real adult life? I personally find it disgusting that professional athletes are paid as much as they are… But that’s another topic entirely. Thanks for sharing. :)

  30. As a father of a boy and a girl I think it is important to set boundaries that allow them to grow and to learn but also to respect other people. The mothers chastising the boys for running into them were right in my opinion. As a boy learning to be a man I found that I needed a lot of correction for my proverbial bumping into others. My mother was wise however and allowed me to have opportunities to expend huge amounts of energy in activities where I could also be aggressive and not be chastised for it. Keep up the hard work, it sounds like you will do what’s best for your boys.

    • Thanks so much for your comments. I’m sure I would have gotten onto my boys if they were the ones running into me. It was strange for me to be the observer, b/c they usually force me into the action…but it was also good for me to see the other boys’ reactions. It was like their hearts took a bit of chipping. I want to do a little less chipping and a little more building. I hope to get the balance right.

  31. I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head. Boys and girls; men and women. Equal, but different. Different strengths, different weaknesses. But I do it, too. I find myself squashing my son’s boy-like behavior for the sake of…our mixed-up culture, I guess. And when I’m fully present and I remember that I BELIEVE in letting boys be boys (not in a Lord-of-the-Flies way…more of a snaps-and-snails-and-puppy-dog-tails kind of way), I feel the eyes on me. The whole thing’s gotten mixed up, and I applaud you for bringing it to light so eloquently. Great post.

    • Thanks, June. I’ve referenced Lord of the Flies MANY times at our home! I have noticed that I’m more self-conscious about this stuff in public. Definitely a social issue. I think often that I’m a better mother in private than I am in public. Thoughts for a future post, perhaps…

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  33. I think the point is, once we accept that equal does not be the same, we need to find a place in our society for those “aggressive, tough, intimidating” instincts” we need to acknowledge them. We also need to acknowledge they have a time and a place. Is that all men are? does their testosterone filled selves not only lead them to be protectors and maintainers? Is the way to use their aggression in intimidating their own families, or by protecting them? From a young age we need to show our men what this means. This role as protectors and maintainers needs to be valued by society, the same way that the role of nurturer should be valued. As it is neither role is valued, the only value people have seems to be defined in terms of monetary worth, earning capacity.

    And this in no way takes away from women’s abilities to work, to fight, to be aggressive, to earn. That is the other thing, many men are too traditional, they need to realise that having their wives earn or work does not take anything away from them. That their wives are separate people from them.

  34. Great post. Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts. I always need to be reminded of this, as a mother of a 5-year-old boy. Back atcha: If you haven’t already, please check out the book called, The Wonder of Boys. I have not finished reading it but have appreciated what I’ve read so far. In essence, yes, boys and girls are different. And if we don’t find ways to celebrate and channel a boy’s energy, physicality and aggression, it will find its own outlet. The book advocates for finding a mentor (or ten) for our sons– an adult man we admire and trust. Boys need a community, a tribe. Boys need to learn from everyone around them, not just their moms. (Hard as that is to hear for us moms, right?) And to borrow from another parenting book (though I wouldn’t necessarily call The Wonder of Boys a “parenting book,” as it’s really larger than that), honor the impulse. Boys want to throw things: show them what they can throw and where they can throw it. Boys want to destroy things: show them what and where. Etc. A pot with a lid on it will eventually boil over.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation! I can’t wait to look into it. Yes, I’m learning how to harness and transfer some of that energy, those needs, for my boys. I’m grateful (almost) every day that I have a male partner in my husband who I trust to direct all of us in this matter.

  35. Beautiful post. When I was growing up my brothers and I fought all the time, but it was more of a playing manner. I mean maybe people this day and age don’t go outside and play with their imagination, they don’t fight it out and we have become disconnected from the emotions that go along with pain. One time I was playing with my brother and I gave him several stitches in his head. Now, I am not saying that you need to experience this when you are young, but it taught me that it was not okay that he was in pain. You give a child a stick and he hits another child with this stick you see an emotional response, you give a child a controller and he senselessly slaughter another player from around the world and that emotional response is reward through the game and they don’t see the tears and the result of their actions. As A child I got many scars, I played outside and often fought other kids and I turned into a well adjusted adult, one with amazing morals. That being said I think we should let kids make their mistakes, stop bubble wrapping. I learned more on the playground then I ever did in a classroom.

  36. “In our push to see women as equals, do we sometimes mistake “equal” for meaning “the same,” to the advantage of our daughters and with contempt for our sons? ” We definitely do not have to be same to be equal. It is necessary that we are not, I believe. In the realm of sports I see a huge difference in the “why” girls play as compared to guys.
    Wonderful post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Not sure if you will consider this of positive value, but I actually thought you were the dad writing this.

  37. Great post. I agree, we have forgotten in our efforts to make everyone THE SAME that boys and girls, are different. Boys need to roughouse and be boys. Yes, we can help them contain it in the appropriate environment but they need that outlet and we need to appreciate that they are different.

  38. Great post, and very insightful. After having three boys in three and a third years, I gave birth to a daughter. The house was full of Brio trains, balls, Legos and trucks when she arrived. Her formative years were spent sitting on bleachers, watching her brothers play football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse. She watched the same TV shows and videos, attended the same schools and went on the same vacations. Even so, my daughter has never willingly picked up a ball, looked at a car magazine or tried to understand football. She claimed the color pink early on, and spends her spare time dancing and singing (neither or which I particularly encourage). After my experience with the little princess, I would have to say 75 percent nature, 25 percent nurture.

    • Funny! I assumed we wouldn’t have to buy anything new for our daughter…she’d just get into what we had left over from her brothers….HA!

      I will say, we’ve gotten our money’s worth from the wooden blocks. Everybody loves those…

  39. Wonderful post and congratulations on being FP! I can relate to this, I have 3 boys, 19, 17 and 5. The volumes I have learned in those years from child 1 to child 3 has changed the way I parent child 3. I was always embarrassed that my 19 year old was the child who had to get attention by being naughty, he had to create havoc wherever we went. Other mothers would look and judge and I felt compelled to admonish him. He was not acting correctly, he was not doing what was expected by society, that he keep his natural inclination to be himself in check, lest others be offended by a noisy, cheeky, active boy. It took me a long time and lots of tears to realise my son’s unique and individual way of existing in the world was a gift, not a curse. He is who he is and who are others to stifle that because they feel that boys should act a certain way. Celebrating the beauty of my son’s individuality is the best thing I ever did and when he turned 19 yesterday I couldn’t have been prouder of who he has become. I am ashamed that for a long time in his younger years that I tried to change him to fit a social mould that would make others happy.

    • Thanks for your hoest response. I’m glad you found your way through the journey. I’m definitely most self-conscious as a mother when others are around, watching and (I tell myself) judging. When I think of regrets I have parenting, or things I wish I could change, I remind myself I’ve always doing the best I can with what I have…I hope you have peace regarding the ways you’ve changed through the years.

  40. Fantastically said and so true. As the mother of a boy and little sister of two boys, I oved this post!! We are doing our boys a disservice by not nourishing them. I think that somewhere in the feminist soup we lost our right to support our boys and help them become wonderful men!

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  42. Letting people be, without a constant need to reprimand them is definately necessary, especially for children. Fostering intelligent and emotive play is also important, however these things should not be confused with the fact that we do cultivate certain behaviours – and the behaviours that are violent – especially against specific genders do need to be curbed and alternate ways of being need to be cultivated. It is short sighted to suggest that boys are naturally a particular way when they are being shaped into boys from before they exit the womb. The home environment is central in shaping the gendered understanding of self that children have – especially before they enter the school environment.

  43. Nice job, poignant post.
    As I see it, healthy societies, communities, do a good job of harnessing the psycho-spiritual energies of its members towards serving the ever ongoing Life of the group. The Shaman/Priest/Artist/Poet is fully aware of this, and plays a paramount role in evoking and channelling said energies. When that breaks down, when the old ways that worked in the past no longer abide, when the SPAP flounders, the energies are unbound, free to pursue their own ends. Woe to the group, to women and children, when that occurs!
    We, as a society, are there. Reading down your many and well-deserved comments that is what I see. Women empathize, and look down lovingly on their kids who need one day navigate the difficult tract to adulthood, and men relate their own self-directed journey. The problem is not all men, left to themselves, will successfully achieve the goal, in fact many will fail or only go part of the way, and maybe learn to outwardly mimic the office (and we probably all know a few of these.)
    If I were to point to a film that best captures the poetic heart of what I’m aiming at, it would be the New Zealand made ‘Once Were Warriors’, a portrait of a Maori culture in tatters, of the male energy unbound and self-destructive (to group as well as self), and of the older male shaman mentor figure striving to touch and guide the young.
    Ok, that’s enough. Well done and blessings on the voyage,

  44. I, too, have struggled with these ideas. As the mother of 6 girls and 3 boys, I’ve seen the similarities and differences.

    Everyone needs to be free to use their gifts. It seems that part of the solution lies in realizing there is a difference expressing yourself in a physical, athletic way and using your physical, athletic abilities in a violent way.

  45. Boy, do I get this. I have a very hard time encouraging, or even supporting “violent” play between my son and his friends. My son has wooden swords and daggers, magic wands, etc, and the rule I have always given is that these toys are to be used co-operatively, not competitively. These toys are “only to fight imaginary bad guys, not each other.” This has always seemed like a reasonable guideline and rule, but …. sometimes, boys (and sometimes girls) just want to pound the hell out of each other. Allowing that kind of competitive aggressive play is very hard to stomach while living in the society we do. I don’t know where the sweet spot is and it scares the hell out of me.

    • Thanks for being so honest. It is scary. I was in tears once when my boys, as toddlers, wanted to play with a restaurant-video-game that had toy guns as props. I have changed a lot in the years since, as far as trying to understand the meaning of the play from their perspectives, rather than the baggage I bring to the table. We’ll see…

    • I struggle with this, too. But, in some ways, I think the fact that we struggle means we’re teaching our kids something valuable.

  46. Important and generous – thank you for writing about this. The nature–nurture percentages for gender stereotyping changed for me too as a father of three boys and one girl. Before they came along I was trying really hard to make a better world for them by changing what I thought I saw – but our children give us more life than they can know. Can boys learn love, life and generosity from turning censorship into self-limitation? How can they cope with our fears of who they *might* be? They’re richer and more beautiful. The next step: I hope men and women can see each other (baggy/saggy bits and all) with the same best kind of wonder and generosity, and not as absences of our own self-centered expectations or longings. Or is this just me longing in a different way?

    Respect to your husband for his reading tastes. Edward Tufte (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information) is a very fine example of full-bandwidth male creativity and communication. Thanks again!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. Hope to hear more from you in the future! We have several more Tufte books. I thumb through them every once in a while, hoping the knowledge will be gained by osmosis. ;)

  47. I sincerely appreciate your line of thought. We should let boys be boys but above all, we should never forget the place of balance. A failure to instil the balance of discipline is what has led to all the violent insanity that’s breaking hearts across the globe today. God help us all.

  48. I love this. I struggle with lauding my daughter when she’s more masculine. Maybe its because I chose a nontraditional ‘female’ career (engineer) that I secretly want her to consider the options that I chose as best for me……

    • As more than one person has touched on in the comments, we parents have to consider our own struggles with identity and gender on this journey with our children. It brings up some tough introspection. (On a side note, I love the artfulness of your profile pic!) Thanks for sharing.

  49. Wow what a great post! I have a boy and 2 girls. My son is a freshman in college now and I always celebrated boy behavior, as other parents were aghast. And I celebrate my girls girlie behavior. I was raised by a feminist mother who always made me feel ashamed to be “girlie”. So I deliberately became a tomboy. When my 1st daughter was born I felt bewildered, it was because I didn’t particularly like myself. Then I learned it was ok to wear makeup and cleavage shirts and heels. And to do my nails… and to do my daughter’s nails. And I cheered when my son would ring a kid’s bell in hockey… and when he performed in the school musical. It’s all good.

    • I can relate, Madge. I have three older brothers who encouraged more tom-boy in me during my formative years. I thought I would have a hard time encouraging a girlie-girl, if I had one. But, no. My daughter is all pink, tutus, and sparkles, and I’m having a blast with it. I am thankful, however, that she has older brothers who are keeping her tough.

      • Ya’ know I think it’s a balance. Encourage or rather support whatever they are. If you’re boy is a boy or your boy wants to be a girl, just support. However, try to contain over the top obnoxious anti-social behavior in any form. lol

  50. For me, one of the best ways to help our son’s to grow into a good man is by teaching the foundation of moral goodness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Everyone can relate on this. Congratulations for being on FP!

        • Thank you for asking for my thoughts, it means a lot to me. Probably more than you’ll know. It’s a broad subject that isn’t easy to tackle and deserves way more thought than I would be able to afford at this moment. Remember I mentioned a girl? I’ve been spending more time with her and less elsewhere.

          Off the cuff, I think people should treat children as individuals and not try to assign any predetermined gender role, conventional or otherwise, to them. Let them be their own person. And also don’t coddle them. Not everything your child does is earth shattering. Tell them you liked how hard they worked on something and not that it’s great when it isn’t. Give them positive, constructive criticism, not fluff filled praise. We don’t hire people based off their gender, but by their abilities and social skills. My question for parents is: why do we worry about pigeon holing our children in gender roles rather than helping them see how to use their talents and desires to be the best person they can be? (Sorry, I’m off topic a bit and yes, rough, play does help develop useful social skills in my opinion.)

          I don’t know how much my opinions count on the matter. I’ve always said, if I have a boy, I would name him Ashley and if I had a girl, I would name her Georgia (George) just to mess with them a bit. (The idea came from my grandma who is named Quinten.) I didn’t really want to give any of my opinions because it felt like hijacking your success, but thank you for asking.

  51. My sons gave me a family painting workshop for ceramics as a birthday present.
    The mother-meeting at the table behind us: 5 women, 5 girls, 1 boy.
    Ceramic little crowns, horses and a fairy.
    The boy so wanted to paint Darth Vader on his plate he chose to decorate.
    You should have seen the battle of mums, ashamed and in fear, against him doing so.
    Poor boy. Discouraged by 10 people, I reckon he’ll not go to a ceramic painting ever again.

  52. Pingback: an open letter to my son on how i sometimes raised him like a “girl” | [writing] between friends

  53. Terrific post, and so true! I have one of each, 11 and 9, and as my son ages, I realize more and more that he truly needs a whole different set of parenting rules than my daughter, not because of his uniqueness of personality alone, but also because he is, quite simply, a boy becoming a man.

  54. Out of the blue, the words “What a wonderful world this would be…” dropped into my head while reading your post. I then found the tune on youtube by Sam Cooke and read the lyrics. Conclusion?

    Perhaps, en masse, we should stop trying to be A students with degrees and spend more time loving each other. The studious students hype of the last couple of decades, whether in Europe or the USA, has not prevented economic crises whatsoever. That’s my point.

    Not uni, but luv! :)

  55. What an awesome and thought provoking post! I have a young boy of my own and as a single mom I try very hard to fill both rolls. I recognize the need for him to wrestle and play army and play fight but I also hate it when guys make fun of him for wearing flip flops or Technicolor socks. I wish we would stop having so many expectations for people in general! I think that is the root cause of so many of these violent outbursts, that society expects people to behave or conform in so many inconsequential ways. We react by regulations, not by accepting differences and until that changes, you can have all the right of passages you want and nothing will change.

  56. And maybe there is a bigger problem of not letting them be, period. I like to think that I am liberal, but I have caught myself not really letting my son explore his “girl” or “boy” tendancies (ie, convincing him that he’d much rather be something else than a mermaid for Halloween or getting frustrated with the bim boom bang of playtime)…and now, after reading this post, am wondering what the implications of that may be.

    For me, it’s SO much easier to help my daughter “be” by encouraging her sense of adventure and self-sufficiency…giving her the confidence to be her own hero. Thank you for this wonderful post because it made me realize that I need to give as much thought to letting my boy be a boy, as I do to embolden my daughter.

  57. I like the thoughtful questions you raise at the end. It’s hard to help boys find balance among the frowns of those who want them to be like girls. I think those who are especially aggressive have the added challenge of developing the strength to manage their impulses. I tell my son that his stubbornness and high energy will serve him well, but that with these gifts come responsibility. Btw, he definitely threw me for a loop, since I grew up as a calm, compliant girl with a calm, compliant sister!

  58. I watched a wonderful documentary about some “crash, bang, boom” WOMEN – stunt women – called Double Dare. We definitely treat boys and girls differently, and they are different. My overriding thought is that every child (of either sex) is an individual and we should treat each child as such.

  59. Great post! With 2 boys of my own, I am amazed by the differences between them. They are both boys, in the same household, with the same father. The eldest, age 6 1/2, seems to understand that their are rules and follows them (most of the time) while my youngest (4 next week) doesn’t acknowledge rules and makes up his own (all the time!).

    Some parents judge me as I try to navigate my way without a parenting manual, but each boy is different and requires different tactics! One talks constantly, the other, only at bed time. One is exceptionally emotional and expressive, the other seldom cries or gets hurt. One likes sports, the other wants to read. One of them loves StarWars and Superheros, the other is into My Little Pony and Barbies.

    I encourage their individuality and remind myself not to worry too much about why and just be satisfied that they’re happy! As long as they aren’t hurting anyone else in the process.

  60. Reblogged this on justmypeanuts and commented:
    “In our push to see women as equals, do we sometimes mistake “equal” for meaning “the same,” to the advantage of our daughters and with contempt for our sons?” ….wow! Such a great topic I just had to share! It is an issue I battle with in my house as well….it is so much easier for me to encourage my daughter to reach outside of her stereotypical roles than it is for me to allow my son to simply be a rowdy boy.

  61. I appreciate you post. It flowed quite nicely and tugged at my emotions. I ponder the same things about our society from time to time.

    I think it’s quite sad what happened in Newtown and my heart goes out for the 28 who lost their lives. I lost a friend in a shooting when I was young and it was quite an unfortunate experience. That came to mind when reading this.

    Thank you for your post and be well.

  62. Your observations are well said and on-point. Boys do need a way to be boys. It is too soon to chuck all we’ve been conditioned to be for the past 20,000 years. The key is to channel it toward effective, constructive purposes. It has become a challenge.

  63. Very good points! Thank you for sharing! I recently heard a youth pastor explain the confusion/anger he caused when he was asked to get some of the youth to help put up tables and he asked the girls to do it. What a nice way to challenge social norms and create discussion.

  64. Simply beautiful – beautiful – beautiful – gorgeous in your face now writing – and your self revelation illuminates the star dust all around you and those lucky enough to witness your generous gift unfold. Thank you, Scott Utley.

  65. I rather enjoyed your stark introduction and intense visualization off the bat. Had me in the story right away. I am a 20 year old boy, and I still love playing with trains, lego, play-mobile, you mention it. I just wanted to let you know I think your “cheering” at all the wrong times is exactly what your boys need. Highschool will surely teach them exactly how “manly” the world expects them to be. Your blessings will open doors and encourage them to do things that society might otherwise deem unacceptable. If of course that is your intention.

  66. Pingback: Brothers – Love and Hate | Momisms – Moments in Motherhood

  67. Pingback: boys to men | skyfaz23

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