I could hear the question clearly, coming from my 4-year-old son’s room. And even though I was in the kitchen, far from eyeshot, I knew exactly what his slightly older friend was referring to; it was the vintage Polly Pocket collection. (They were actually mine as a kid — back when Polly was a perfectly sized choking hazard.)
In all fairness, his friend could have been holding a little play figurine in his hand when he asked the question — maybe he picked up Flora, or Ariel, or Princess Tiana. Maybe his friend uncovered my son’s collection of fairy wands, which he faithfully carried everywhere as a toddler. But no — I remembered seeing the row of Polly Pockets lined up on his bed like shiny plastic clamshells, each containing a tiny girl in a dress. Had to be Polly.
I tensed up when I heard the question, as any parent would when a child’s feelings are on the line. And it wasn’t the first time it’s happened. I’ve had to ignore giggles and eye rolls from family members, critical assessments from strangers, and even an old-school Italian man who was genuinely concerned about my son playing with a pink dollhouse. (“Boys don’t play with pink,” he firmly told my boy — with two widened, confused eyes looking back at him.)
When he turned 3 years old, a flip switched. He came home from preschool loving Spiderman because apparently all the boys loved superheroes, and this new phase spread around the playground like a game of telephone. Them (girls) vs. Us (boys) began. He also started noticing things around him, like “boys don’t like purple because only girls wear purple,” and hearing things like, “Man up,” and “Ew! That’s for giiiiirls.”
Three years old.
I thought having a boy would be easier, ya know. Young and pregnant — convinced I was wildly unprepared for motherhood — I wished a million wishes for a boy. I saw black eyes and competing egos in my future, sure, but it was nothing compared to the psychological warfare on girls. The body image issues, princess culture, rape culture, inherent inequity in society — I wasn’t ready for all that. I was still licking my own wounds from girlhood; how could I raise a confident, self-assured woman?
I was given a white male. A genetic golden ticket! Pressure’s off.
Except I’m now seeing a different kind of pressure weighing on my tiny bud of a man. I’m seeing that men can be just as stereotyped and limited — maybe not professionally or sexually, but emotionally. A girl who climbs trees and runs with the boys is celebrated for her strength, but what about a boy who loves My Little Ponies and would rather play quietly in the corner than jump into a rowdy circle of aggressive play? Why was there an audible sigh of relief (from adults!) once he joined the superhero clan? Oh he’s a normal boy, now! Phew!
He saw it. He heard it. He felt it.
And now I’m seeing the challenges to raising a good man. Instead of teaching women to dodge and jump over roadblocks, shouldn’t we be teaching men to help move those roadblocks out of the way? Shouldn’t kindness, empathy, and sensitivity be some of the most important attributes to teach a boy before manhood — not signs of weakness? We’re not living in a world of hunting and gathering; we’re living in a world where rape and sexism still exists.
I’m all for teaching girls to be empowered — to lean in/stand tall/rock on— but where’s the conversation on allowing boys to be unapologetically caring and loving, without it being a statement of his sexual orientation? Empathy, kindness, LOVE — these are human attributes, not feminine ones. And both girls and boys should be encouraged to break out of the boxes we draw around impressionable 3 year olds — drawn by adults, and filled with stereotypes and archaic expectations. What kind of message are we sending to boys who want to break out of those designated areas, only to be ridiculed and emasculated?
And considering boys did get handed a genetic golden ticket of sorts, isn’t there more responsibility in raising a good man? As Spiderman would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
We were sitting in the dentist office last week and a little boy — 5 years old, at most — was whining and pouting in the seat across from us.
“Are you gonna cry like a little girl?” his mother loudly mocked. “Are you a little girl?”
The boy sucked in his bottom lip and shook his head, “manning up.”
And I visibly cringed, wanting to erase that moment from my son’s psyche. My son cries, all boys cry. All boys cry. (And what’s wrong with being a little girl?)
“There’s no such thing as boy toys and girl toys,” I heard my son respond to his slightly older friend, in his bedroom, out of my eyeshot. “Boys and girls can play with whatever they want.”
Here’s to raising a good man.