Posted in Blog, Family life, Life as a mom, Mother, Shawna

Letting boys be kids

I know I’m a little late to join the pig-pile of vitriol over this whole kid with pink fingernails thing, but I’m slogging in anyway. It’s an interesting topic, and one that struck a nerve with me (and 60 million other people). If you’re sick of it already, feel free to ignore me.

As the mother of two young girls (OK, one of them is only a 34-week fetus but I have already been mothering aka worrying about her for what seems like years), I spend a lot of time thinking about the societal minefields my daughters will face in the future. Right now, as babies/toddlers (fetuses), the world is really their oyster. With mommy by her side, Quinn can do anything, explore anything, try anything on. She really has no idea what it means that she is “a girl,” even the obvious anatomy part.

One of the greatest joys of parenting for me has been the bird’s eye view you get of the creative process. You get to see how imagination starts, and where it can go without limits. Even when you try to put up barriers, or even parameters (“What color is the bird?”) they find ways to work around them (“He’s a happy bird, mama!”) It is fun as a parent to try to question my parameters, and work to establish boundaries without stifling this creativity (I mean, seriously, is it REALLY a problem if they walk up the slide rather than the stairs? If there’s no one else trying to use it?).

Later, they’ll start to realize all of the limits there are, most imagined, and most put up by totally uncreative and crappy people who they will (hopefully) eventually learn to ignore and maybe even despise. It seems like girls get hit with an onslaught of limits just before we start needing tampons. I’m probably really naive and out of touch and today’s girls do seem really sexualized really early so maybe the limits are hitting them earlier too, but in my girlhood, I was allowed to be a kid as long as I looked like one. As soon as I looked like a woman (a very, very young woman as I had a C-cup and started my period in the fifth grade), all these woman rules started appearing out of nowhere, and I ate them up like the obliging sow I am.

Lots of the rules were about bodies and sexuality, like how I could never leave the house without a bra, deodorant or unshaved legs anymore. And with that budding sexuality, predators were suddenly everywhere, and I had to be careful. I had to watch out for them. It makes me sick now to think about it but it’s true: Never in my life have I been hit on so much as when I was 12-16. By grown men. All the frigging time. Barf.

There were plenty of other limits that were more like offshoots of sexuality that came about: not wanting to appear too smart, or too bossy, or too tomboyish. Not wanting to be too aggressive or get too angry in public. Needing to be smaller/shorter than all the boys. Never wanting to eat too much or too fast. Never wanting to look like a boy, or god forbid, like a woman who looks like a boy. Wanting a cute voice, a cute laugh, even a cute sneeze (totally manufactured and practiced to sound adorable). Never, ever ever farting again EVER.

It’s pretty horrifying, all the walls that suddenly come down on a young girl. But this topic shouldn’t be new to anyone: it is at the center of much of feminist literature and debate. Parents are aware of it, and the good ones try to push it as much as they can. Good teachers and schools work to fight it as well. Lots of smart girls start to reject it as soon as middle school, and they sometimes find allies and arms in the fight. Lots of women figure out by college just how stifling and pathetic it all is.

But when you are a young girl, suddenly penned in, and you look at the young boys running around you like wild horses, it seems so unfair. They are still able to run and climb and burp and sweat. They yell out answers in class. They hardly shower and they don’t have grown-ups ogling them all the time. Where are the ropes holding them back?

As a grown-up and mom looking at our world, I see that the boundaries are actually put up even earlier for little boys. Some are from birth. They can’t wear pink. They can’t wear nail polish or makeup or clothes like their moms (even though many of them are cared by women and just want to model the only grown-up behavior they see all day). Some people think they shouldn’t have babydolls, or babies, or any cute stuffed animals or lovies. Some people think they shouldn’t cry as much, shouldn’t be held as much. They aren’t as trusted as caretakers of younger siblings, or in helping out in the kitchen or with clean-up.

It’s heartbreaking that boys are expected to act “like men” when they are still babies (I mean, it’s heartbreaking that we ever have these artificial gender constraints at all, but stay with me here). Meanwhile, girl toddlers can play with babydolls and trucks, can wear pink and blue, can paint their fingernails and get their hands dirty. They can try on all of mommy’s clothes. They can try on all of daddy’s clothes. They can wear tutus and combat boots. They can make poop jokes and sing sweet lullabies.

In other words, they can be kids. I know that some people still put constraints on little girls, but in our society as a whole, “gender-bending” behavior is much more accepted in little girls than in little boys. We give them a lot more room when they’re little (more than half of Quinn’s clothes are boy’s clothes; is there a single boy baby I know who could say the converse?) .

It’s almost like we’re confident that girls will toe the line eventually, but we’re scared of ever letting little boys get a taste of freedom. What are we so afraid of?

Yet another reason I’m glad I have daughters. For now. And I’m even gladder those girls have a daddy who was wearing shiny nail polish the first time I saw him. It was silver, but still. . . He looked hot.

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