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Oh, Boy

The well-intentioned mother grapples with gender bias and boyhood

August 17, 2015
Three boys wearing baseball caps

It started with the generalizations. The girls in his class were silly. They were always telling on the boys, but most of the time they were lying. They were always trying to get the teacher to like them. 

That was bad enough. But when my second grader told me that girls weren’t good at sports, I panicked.

Am I raising a sexist? I couldn’t be. I went to Wellesley College, for heaven’s sake. I talk about equality and fairness and kindness, about the uniqueness of each person, about treating everyone the way you want to be treated.

And yet my boy was spouting the language of a bro.

Where does this stuff come from? My favorite bogeyman is “the older brother” — a shadowy figure I’ve conjured to explain how sweet little boys suddenly begin talking like fraternity pledges. My theory is that some boys are exposed to the rougher influences of their older brothers, and these precocious coolsters bring an age-inappropriate set of words (and movie references, and fashion choices) into the innocent grounds of the elementary school.

But there’s more than mimicry at play. There is the desire, felt by people across the gender spectrum, to figure out where they fit, and to find a supportive crew wherever that fit may be. My husband assures me that it’s natural for boys to go through an anti-girl phase, just as I certainly went through a “boys are gross” phase (or decade). It’s part of how we test out our roles.

I wonder, though: Where is the line between road-testing one’s identity and degrading someone else’s? As I read the sobering new report on gender bias in teens from HGSE’s Making Caring Common (MCC), I realized anew that ways of thinking form early. As questions about otherness — and the intrinsic worth of others — continue to roil our society, I’m viewing my son’s schoolyard posing through a wide-angle lens. It feels important to get on the right side of this, now.

Then again, I see something more personal at work. My son is struggling to get to know himself in lots of ways. Is he the funny guy in class? Is he a jock? Does he like to read — and does he want to be known as someone who likes to read? Answering these questions is more important to him now than it used to be. He’s figured out that people — his peers — are watching. It takes courage to define yourself, and more courage to define yourself in opposition to something that everybody else is doing.

I don’t want to have unrealistic standards for my son. He wants to fit, and that’s natural — even if I think he’s so preciously unique that my "just be yourself" mantra should cover it. As he finds and defines his identity, I want to be there with him, reminding him of who he is to me, supporting him as he becomes who he is to himself.

But too many adults are passive in the face of role-limiting insults directed at girls, the MCC report says — and the silence can fester. So let's start productively countering those stereotypes early. I’m going to be the mom who lets him know that the sweeping generalizations won’t work around here. As with everything else in this parenting game, it’s about finding and striking the balance between a kid’s normal spreading-of-wings, a peer group’s increasing influence, and a family’s values — the values that I hope will become an inherent part of who my son is and how he makes his choices.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but bias loves one and thrives in it. In the absence of strong countervailing messages, the norms that have guided this country and our species for, well, forever, will carry on doing their normative thing. Since I read MCC’s report, I’ve made a point of talking more often — casually, to prevent his lecture-deflect response from kicking in — about girls and women who are doing cool things, powerful things, to make their mark on the world. He may sigh his exaggerated 8-year-old sighs as I do it, but I’ll always be there to remind my son that yes, girls are good at sports, and yes, lots of boys don’t like sports, and yes, we have to be kind and respectful to everyone. Even girls.


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Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh is the senior editor of Usable Knowledge.
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