A few weeks ago, after a pretty major snowstorm, I was walking my son to pre-K. There were still giant snowdrifts everywhere, and my son was basically throwing himself into every inch of snow that we walked past. As we approached the school, another parent glanced at my son, then covered head-to-toe in snow, as he catapulted himself off of the mini-mountain of snow next to the entrance.
“Boys will be boys, huh?” the parent said.
“Um…yeah,” I laughed, pulling my son up to stand, brushing him off, and heading into school.
I laughed, but inside I was cringing. You see, I hate, hate, hate, hate the expression “Boys will be boys,” and I hate it even more when it’s directed at my sons.
Now, I know this parent meant no harm, not in the least. He saw my son acting wild, boyish, totally unhinged, and if anything, he thought what my son was doing was adorable. In fact, by saying, “Boys will be boys,” he was commenting on how totally appropriate and normal it is for my son be enjoying an untamed frolic in the snow.
And it is totally appropriate. That part I agree with. The problem is that it has nothing to do with him being a boy.
I’m sure that this parent didn’t think about the gender bias inherent in the expression “Boys will be boys” — the way that it totally stereotypes boys, making the assumption that there are certain activities and behaviors reserved for boys, and boys only. I’m sure this parent wasn’t thinking about how the expression is so often used to excuse misogynistic and violent behavior of boys and men.
I thought about all those things, which is part of why I cringed. But, see, I can handle that kind talk — patriarchal language is part and parcel of our culture, unfortunately, and I am able to see it from an analytic point of view, and not as something to internalize or fret over.
No, I wasn’t worried about myself. I was worried about my son.
You see, for the first four years of his life, I tried to shield him from all the gender stereotypes out there as best I could. I knew he would be exposed to it all eventually, but I wanted him to get at least a few years to experience life for himself, to find his voice and passions as a human, not as someone made to fit into a gendered box.
So I never taught him that there were certain things meant for boys only or girls only. When he admired a princess tiara at the shoe store, I bought it for him and let him wear it all he wanted. I let him amass a whole collection of pink princess toothbrushes, and when he found a Barbie at his cousin’s house that he just had to borrow, I let him take it home, no questions asked.
I would say that most of his interests were what most consider to be classically boyish—trucks, trains, superheroes, etc. — but I tried my damndest to make sure his interests were determined by him, and no one else.
I’m no fool: I knew the day would come that he would learn that most of the world thinks pretty differently about these things. In fact, a few months into pre-K, as we were reading the princess book he’d picked out from the library, he said to me, “Mommy, did you know that princesses were for girls?”
“Well,” I said, “many people think that’s true, but that’s just something people made up. The truth is, you can like princesses whether you’re a boy or a girl.”
And he bought that.
But then a few week later, as we were coloring, my son suddenly told me that I should put all the pink markers in the garbage.
“Why?” I asked.
“Pink is only for girls,” he told me.
I took a deep breath and explained to him that, yes, people think that, but that it isn’t true and pink is just a color — a color meant for anyone to enjoy. I tried to keep my explanation simple, and he seemed to absorb it, but I could tell he was more skeptical than he’d been before.
That’s part of the reason I was none too pleased that he had to overhear that parent say, “Boys will be boys,” about his behavior in the snow that morning. I know that it’s just an expression — it’s just words — but the thing is, my son listens. All our kids do. They hear everything, and they absorb it all.
There is no way we can shield our kids from the fact that gender stereotypes run so deep in our culture and in our psyches. Even the most liberated families will fail to some extent. But I believe we all need to do our part. We need to choose our words carefully and think about what kind of world we want to present to our children — what kinds of messages we want them to internalize.
As the mom of two boys, I believe it is my duty to teach my sons that boys can be wild, but they can also be soft. I need to teach them that boys can be powerful and get shit done, but they can also talk about their feelings and cry when they need to. I need them to know that their being male is never an excuse to be hurtful or overpowering to anyone, ever.
I need to raise men who will respect women, each other, and anyone else they meet. But I can’t do it alone — I need the help of everyone around me.
So please think before you say something like “Boys will be boys,” “Man up,” or any of the expressions out there that are so hurtful to boys, men, girls, and women. Please help me send the message to my sons, to our sons, that they are more than the sex they were born into, that they can grow up to be anyone or anything they want to be.