Boys Will Be Boys

I had a conversation at church that caused me to think again about childhood gender roles and what we seem to believe is acceptable (or not).

When I picked my son up at Sunday school, I noticed that all the boys had turned their cross craft project into airplanes.  The girls were all coloring pictures.  Chatting with some of the other parents, I commented on it.  I mentioned that it seemed like a pretty typical thing for boys to do.  I said that I love boys, but I’m glad to have a daughter too, as I relate to her better.  One of the other adults (who has grown children) told me that her daughter was always “more like a boy.”

There is nothing wrong with our chat or anything anyone said that morning.  But afterward, I realized something.  When a girl is “more like a boy,” parents take a certain amount of pride in it.  There are assumptions made–that she will be strong, athletic, and spunky; that she will be able to hold her own against the boys; that she will be a leader.  Most people find a girl who prefers pants, climbs trees, and likes mud to be endearing.  But on the flip side, parents are usually ashamed when their sons display more feminine traits.  At least, they are encouraged to feel shame.  The number of times people have suggested that my son, if he wants to dance, should do it competitively, serves as an example.

Realizing those two things about boys and girls, three other things occurred to me.  First, the default position for gender identity seems to be male.  Girls can be tomboys, but boys must be what we consider masculine, too.  This has actually been true in other areas of life as well.  For example, in medical research, most studies used to be conducted using men as the subjects (though this has dramatically changed in more recent years).  “Unisex” clothes are designed with the male body in mind.  Stories intended for general audiences usually have a male (or at least a tomboy) lead character and more male characters than female.

Second, the cute tomboy thing only lasts so long.  Once a girl reaches puberty, she is expected to lay aside such childish things.  She should learn how to be a proper woman.  That doesn’t mean she has to give up sports; she just has to be sexy when participating.  It doesn’t mean she has to wear dresses, just that she should be what we consider very feminine while wearing her jeans or sweats.  A mature young woman can still be tough, athletic, strong, and hold her own against the boys–as long as she isn’t too masculine while doing it.

Third, boys who are considered more feminine, unlike their tomboy counterparts, are not expected to outgrow it.  In fact, people seem to believe that feminine boys are doomed to be sissies for a lifetime.  Too many boys have turned away from pursuit of the arts, especially classical music and dance, because they are led to believe that participation will somehow limit their ability to become “real” men.  (Side note: This is a very contemporary thing.  As little as 60 years ago, the vast majority of professional orchestral musicians were men.)

What I find even more disturbing is that many conservative Christians buy into the idea of “appropriate” gender roles as though this is something that can be found in the Bible.  Trust me, it’s not in there.  There is no commandment for men to be “real” men or women to be “real” women.  Nothing, not even in the writings of Paul, indicates that men should not enjoy the arts or that women should not be construction workers.  I am not suggesting that we can’t have societal norms, or that I want a completely gender-neutral society; I think that would be pretty dull.  But I do believe that people, especially children, should not live in fear that they will be ostracized or shamed for being true to themselves.


3 thoughts on “Boys Will Be Boys

  1. Here is some more to chew on. Perhaps the reason why children are encouraged in more masculine competitive behavior is because in our society it is still men who by and large command the respect and hold the power. Women are still woefully under paid compared with their male counterparts. Perhaps parents are unconsciously trying to help their children gain the upper hand or at least have a competitive edge.

    As far as girls being pushed to cast aside their boyish looks, it has been proven over and over again that the pretty/sexy girls have more influence and power than girls who aren’t. There is also another whole discussion for age related preferences that only heightens the differences between men and women.

    Our society doesn’t leave its unwanted female babies out in the snow, but preference for males does exist. I think the sexual revolution of the sixties has done women a great disservice. In the effort to grasp equality with men, in many ways, women lowered themselves and have left themselves more vulnerable than before.

    And on a side note: guard against your preference for your relationship with your daughter because it is easier, I guarantee that your son knows and senses it. Another pressure we put on our sons is to deny their feelings. In even more studies it was shown that boy babies actually looked to their mothers more than girls, but were not acknowledged as much as a means of negative reinforcement. Do not let Dad take the son and Mom take the daughter all the time because it is easier. The better route is not always the easier.

    • I agree about the sexual revolution. It didn’t really put women on equal footing with men, and it allowed men to continue to exploit women in some ways.

      Good advice about being the kids’ mom. I only meant that I relate to my daughter better, not that I emphasize our relationship. I absolutely love spending time with my son. I sometimes worry that I may be putting pressure on her to be more like him–he takes learning very seriously and loves to read, much like I do. She is very different in that way, except for math–which I don’t relate to at all! On the other hand, he’s so active and loves sports, which she and I do not. I also understand her relational nature better. There are lots of things I love and enjoy about both kids. I hope that they are learning that both their parents care about them and want to spend time with them.

      I am glad that their dad was never denied the chance to express his feelings. When our son finished dance for the season, he cried for days on and off. We both helped him through it, reassuring him that it’s ok to be sad and to cry. Even his sister got in on the action, telling him that’s how she deals with things when she’s sad. I hope that when he’s a dad himself, he is then able to help his sons (should he have any) in those times. I have a childhood friend who was labeled as a “cry baby” in school because he could express emotion when most boys couldn’t/wouldn’t. He is now a dad himself and a great guy. My former classmates missed the mark on that one.

  2. Pingback: What to do with feminine guys and masculine gals? « The surfing butterfly

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