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Does my son really need a haircut? Raising a boy in a gender-anxious world

“Does Alexander have enough male friends?” I asked my wife last week.

I’d just returned from walking our son to school. When the weather’s pleasant, the first graders line up on the asphalt playground before they enter the building at 8:20. On this day, as usual, the backpacked boys clumped beside a fence of black wrought iron: Billy, blondish, taller than the rest; up-to-no-good Noah, slyly smiling; Evan with his glasses and his Pok’mon cards. Alex hurried past them. Toward the girls. In a moment, he’d been engulfed by an amoeba tinted Barbie-pink.

“I’ve wondered about that, too,” my wife replied.

In the years prior to Alex’s birth, Kira and I had been struck by what seemed like signs of intense gender anxiety among the new parents we saw on the street, on the train, and on TV: The newborns wearing that headgarter thingy so no one will ask “Boy or girl?” Babies wearing earrings in pierced lobes – earrings! Once, visiting one of the grooviest couples we know (Dad is a sommelier from France, while Mom blogs on books and food), we were shocked by the sight of their three-year-old son sans most of his trademark mop-top. Like most boys his age, he’d been barbered like some junior Mad Man, complete with mini-sideburns and electric-razored neck. We went home feeling puzzled – bummed, rather.

Most demoralizing of all, I find, is Americans’ reliance on sports as an index of maleness: caps and jerseys on poor passive toddlers, transforming them into li’l Yankees or Celtics. Onesies, even, on infant boys, proclaiming to the world the team pride of the parents and (more to the point, it seems to me) the sex of the onesie wearer. Look: I track the Mets and the New York Giants in my peripheral vision and focus on both as their seasons wind down each year. But c’mon, people. Is there no other way to celebrate your young son’s boyness than professional athletics by proxy?

And what’s with all the slapping five? Well before our baby son could walk, local merchants were proffering their hands for fiving of both the high and low varieties. Family friends. Pediatricians! (Especially pediatricians.) “Gimme five, Al.” I smiled wanly each time and wondered, Is all this : hitting really necessary? I didn’t want my son to hit anyone, for any reason. When praising Alex for one achievement or another, I mainly gave him hugs.

Before Alex was born, my pregnant wife and I had done up our son-to-be’s nursery in yellow and green, pointedly eschewing baby (boy) blue. When his hair grew in, we let it grow out until it covered Alexander’s ears and pretty much all of his neck. As a toddler, Alex played with a baby doll, changing its clothes and putting it to bed, and trundling the doll up and down the Brooklyn sidewalks in a stroller called, for reasons no one can remember now, his “Baby Doo-Wop.” Well, why not? As a Dad, I changed Alex and tucked him in and pushed him around in my “Maclaren,” didn’t I?

At the same time, and quite independently, Alex developed passionate attachments to objects and activities conventionally considered male: big trucks in action (to cite the title of one of his board books). The cars of Cars. Any kind of train, especially New York City subway trains. Last Halloween he dressed up as a T. rex. And he’s quite the little headbanger; Kira and I are constantly nagging him to turn down “We Will Rock You” and the Ramones. He’s athletic too, a graceful runner (in my unbiased estimation) who learned how to ride a bike two years younger than I did.

And so our son developed what seemed to me like the perfect balance of interests. He seemed a sensitive male in the making, on his way to becoming Hemingway in that poster where he cradles a baby bird, or Bruce Springsteen during his Tunnel of Love phase.

Of late, however, Alex has gravitated toward the girls in his life pretty much exclusively: toward Grace, his best friend from kindergarten, and Ava, who plays that role now. With Grace he plays at being pterodactyls, or with her Zhu Zhu Pets, or they draw. Ava’s like his Siamese twin at school, which was cute – until it became problematic. Ms. Polverino had to separate them, as did the gym and art teachers. I’m not sure what Alex and Ava do together, exactly, other than whisper and laugh and eventually fly out of control. For the time being, Billy and Noah and Evan are more or less history.

Does Alex’s preference for girls at age seven mean something? I’m not sure. I wouldn’t have worried a year ago, and ten years from now I’ll probably be tickled by my young ladies’ man. Now, though, I fret some. Is it normal? Is it : significant?

Last weekend I gently lobbed a ball Alex’s way, and he swung at it – even hit it! – with an extra-chubby bat. We have booted a soccer ball around a muddy field at the local park, and that has gone especially well, other than the time I badly twisted my ankle showing off for my wife.

The other day, though, Alex beat me at some board game: checkers or Trouble. Candyland, maybe. Monopoly Junior? Not sure why I was doing what I did, I served up a palm.

“Gimme five,” I said.

My son looked suspicious.

“C’mon,” I told him, smiling.

He smiled himself, then slapped my hand.

“That felt like a wet fish!” I told him. We laughed. “Harder.”

He wound up this time and hit me again. It stung, a bit.

“Harder,” I said. And again. “Harder.”

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