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Why Don't We Encourage Boys To Do "Girl Stuff"?

scene from "Billy Elliot"

When my son William was five years old, he developed a penchant for Hannah Montana. Though I’m not a huge fan of cutesy teen programming in general, I found my small son’s obsession with girly-girl culture charming. I also didn’t want him to get the idea that he “should” be watching other shows or listening to other music just because he’s a boy. So I let it ride.

The phase, as it turned out, didn’t last long. A week after William started kindergarten, he came home looking crushed. “The boys in my class said Hannah Montana is for girls, and if I like her they won’t be my friend,” he confessed, tears welling up in his eyes.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry at a group of children. But as loudly as I protested and tried to encourage my son to watch and listen to and like whatever he darn well liked, his mind was made up. Hannah was a sacrifice, but one he was willing to make to get along.

Last week on Jezebel.com, writer and father Mike Adamick asked the question: is it possible to raise a well-rounded boy? At a production of Billy Elliot – a show about a boy who becomes a ballet dancer – Adamick started reflecting on how much easier it is to expose girls to traditionally “male” hobbies and activities like, say, kickboxing, than it is to imagine encouraging your son to do something considered “girly” like ballet. From the piece:

“I started to think about all the useful things I’ve taught my daughter over the years — from how to throw an arm bar to how to fix a toilet. Sitting there, seeing the boy who plays Billy dance so incredibly well, I began to wonder what it might have been like had I had a boy instead.

Would I have let him enroll in ballet if he wanted? I like to think so. I hope so.”

I know exactly the double standard Adamick is referring to. I know dads who gleefully buy their daughters dump trucks, but balk at the idea of a little boy playing with a doll, for example. But for me the question isn’t “would I let him” or “would I not.” I have four boys, and let me tell you now, if one of them wanted to sign up for ballet or tap dance lessons I’d be all over it. (Football, on the other hand…) My husband might feel a bit more conflicted inwardly, but I know he’d not only allow but embrace any activity our sons wanted to take part in.

But as I’ve seen with William, little boys are conditioned early to know what is considered “masculine” and what’s not. You don’t see parents lined up around the block to sign their boys up for dance classes (in fact, I’m not even sure ballet is open to boys at our local dance schools) but you also don’t hear little boys clamoring to take them or bragging about their mad time-step skills. In his heart of hearts, Will might be dying to dance. But that doesn’t mean he’d be willing to show up at a ballet class.

Perhaps it would be different if we lived in a place where differences are more embraced, but in our small, fairly conservative town a boy would have to have an unusual sense of “who cares what other people think” to dance, or knit, or paint his toenails pink, or be a cheerleader, or design clothes.

William’s seven now, and I hope he develops that attitude over time. In the meanwhile, whenever we go on a road trip, at some point I pop in the Hannah Montana CD (I’ve convinced a suspicious William that it’s actually one of my favorites.) If I’m very stealthy and don’t give myself away, I can lean my head against the passenger-side window and watch Will in the rear-view mirror, quietly singing his guts out in the far back seat.

It kind of breaks my heart.

Do your boys do any traditional “girl” activities? Do you encourage it?

What’s the real difference in raising girls and boys?

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