Raising Boys: Parenting Beyond Male Stereotypes
What role will cultural stereotypes play in parenting your son? Take a look, then decide how they'll affect how you raise him.
The Age Old Question: Nature or Nuture?
It’s a similar scene in any neighborhood park in America. Zooming under monkey bars in an urban east coast playground, jumping hay bales in middle America or flopping on the sand on a west coast beach, boys are pointing their fingers, playing cops and robbers, falling down dramatically and enjoying every minute of it. They’re also laughing, roughhousing, making friends, communicating, negotiating, and honing many skills that are important for developing into well-adjusted teens and adults. But these same robust, young boys are at risk. It is undeniable and probably already happening — they are being influenced by gender stereotypes, often promoting aggression and a lack of emotion and expression. But with the support of responsive parenting, starting in the earliest years, these boys can become emotionally expressive and compassionate young men.
Baby boys and girls are born more alike than different, but there are important basic differences. As early as seven weeks post conception, the testosterone levels in male fetus’s brains rise. In studies, including one performed at Rutgers University, newborn male babies were found to cry more than girl babies. Further research found that mothers unwittingly tend to discourage their newborn sons’ unhappy expressions of emotions and encourage the more happy ones. In essence, even newborn males are expected to “hold in” their emotion.
Within two to three years, baby’s biology and environment will contribute to the formation of his self-concept — one that is largely based on gender identity.
The Boys Movement
The concern for boys has finally reached the spotlight. For years, the focus was on the plight of girls — no matter how high she raised her hand in class, a girl just couldn’t get called on. But then the American Association of University Women in America launched a riveting report on the “shortchanging” of girls, and the attention on girls snowballed. When the snowball stopped, the data became murky and slowly the concern switched to boys.
The hugely popular Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson and Real Boys by psychologist William Pollack have come to the aid of responsive parents, urging them to support their sons’ emotional growth and their expression of feelings. More recently, Christina Hoff Sommers wrote the gripping book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men, in which she differs by asking that boys not to be pathologized and for all of us to accept boys’ masculinity. The message, however, is the same: respect him as a boy, help him develop communication skills, and be there for him.
Academically, girls are striding ahead. According to the U.S. Department of Education, boys are more likely to be suspended, held back or to drop out of school. They are three times more likely to be labeled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Currently kindergarten girls achieve higher proficiency levels in both reading and mathematics.
What’s happening — or not happening — to our boys in the classroom? “It is critical to ensure that boys feel safe within the classroom environment and supported by the curriculum,” says Claire Stephens, a mother of two boys and Head Kindergarten/First Grade Teacher at the Mills College Primary School in Oakland, CA. “I strive to create an environment where boys feel safe to ask questions and show genuine interests, safe to experience non-traditional roles in dramatic play, safe to play and interact with both boys and girls and safe to show emotions.” Claire adds, “When we read books, I am very conscious about stereotypes. I often ask the children for their thoughts and feelings about stereotypes. Do you think that only girls can be stewardesses? Is it okay for boys to cry? Can a boy be a nurse? Do mommies work? Things like that to make them think about flexible roles of men and women.” Dr. Jomary Hilliard, a mother of three boys and a parent educator who facilitates workshops specifically on raising sons today at the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, California, points out, “Safety nets or rather compassionate caregivers are harder for boys to access, unlike girls. Boys need a wider support system than girls. They have more limited opportunities to feel safe and find ways to cope. They may find a limited number of safe people in their environment to open up with their feelings.”
Down Time at Home
How gender is exemplified at home contributes to the image a boy has of himself and of his role in society. In books, on television, in the movies and through toy characters, males are shown as active, physically strong, and capable with their bodies. Numerous studies have found that a majority of children’s picture books are dominated by male characters in roles as fighters, adventurers, rescuers and other characterizations based on physical abilities. Children NOW released results from a national poll finding approximately three-fourths of children ages 10 to 17 describing males on television as violent and more than two-thirds describing them as angry. Surveyed adolescent boys found their most popular television shows were those that have some level of violence.
Commercials are especially prone to amplifying gender stereotypes. Children NOW’s study found that many commercials during sports programs use “traditional masculine images of speed, danger and aggression.” And youngsters are influenced by commercials, many of which they see during early morning or afternoon programming, through the categorization of “boy” and “girl” products. The emphasis in boy commercials focuses on what boys do with their bodies. “Companies that advertise on TV are often confronted by the need to sell mass market and sell many products. This way they have less gray areas of choice in their product offerings and it becomes more restricted to targeting specific groups,” says Dr. Toy, the popular columnist and creator of Dr. Toy’s Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (play quotient) Many toys are marketed even in the earliest years for either boys or girls. “Parents often select based on their own preferences for products. Some companies make products that reflect differences. The choice for example for ‘color’ can be seen early. Fortunately, some companies prefer to use neutral or bold colors so there are good choices available,” explains Dr. Toy.
The solution is not to avoid reading to boys, nor is it to deny yourself the tranquility while your child watches a video. And it is certainly not to ignore your child’s natural interest. But the role of the parent is critical. “My main strategy around the media,” says Julie Duffield, a mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4, in Palo Alto, CA, “is developing a media literacy in my kids. At this young age, it means watching television with them, doing a lot of talking about what they are seeing and injecting feelings and emotions around the story.” She also respects her boys’ natural interests in action-oriented play. With small, pliable action figures, her sons are able to create scenes, building skills in fantasy and symbolic play. She believes that her job is to “talk about how the big macho action figures have feelings and emotions too.” And when her boys feel like wrestling, their mom jumps right in the ring with them. “My husband and I try to model that things don’t have to be one way. I’m the person who roughhouses and plays ball with the boys. My husband is the one who cooks and listens.”
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