When schools reopened in February, I bought a range of kid-sized masks. The light pink, cotton 4-pack seemed promising. My 9-year-old daughter thought they were cute, but they were too small for her. My 6-year-old son liked them, and they fit him perfectly, but he said he didn’t want to wear them to school. I didn’t have to ask why – I understood.
Then last Friday morning, he changed his mind. Owen told me he wanted to try the new pink masks. The last few minutes before leaving the house are chaotic enough when we’re desperately trying to get everyone in the car on time. I did not stop to question his decision or talk it through. I handed him a baggie full of pink masks and hurried everyone outside.
I had forgotten about the pink masks by the time I got back from drop-off. I dove into work, but was jarred back to reality later that morning when I saw an email from Owen’s teacher. She wrote to tell me how two girls teased my son for wearing “a girl mask” while they were lining up for recess. Owen’s teacher took advantage of the moment, explaining to the whole class that there are no boy colors or girl colors. She apologized to me for the trouble and let me know she also wrote to the parents of the little girls.
I very much credit Owen’s teacher for stepping in and finding a way to turn the incident into a teachable moment. I thought she handled it very well, and thanked her right away. Luckily Owen had shaken off the incident by the time he came home from school. I asked a few follow-up questions. He insisted he was no longer sad, and felt confident to wear his pink masks again next week. We reviewed the fact that there are no girl colors or boy colors (or jobs, clothes, music, toys, books, etc.) and moved on.
Well, Owen moved on, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Honestly, I was ready for the other boys to tease him. But the girls? That was unexpected. As a country, we are starting to talk to boys about their own vulnerability, and about the importance of men supporting women. But I believe we need to go one step further and talk to girls about accepting the vulnerability of boys.
My son exhibited vulnerability when he wore that pink mask to school. All boys do when they go against established norms – deviating from “appropriate” young masculinity (trucks, dinosaurs, sports) to choose something “inappropriate” (unicorns, ballet, anything pink.) That kind of vulnerability comes with risk. It can go well, validating his choice and making a young boy feel more confident in his own skin. Or it can go poorly, opening a boy up to ridicule and shame.
Thankfully, this Friday experience went well for our family. Because of Owen’s teacher, his risk paid off and he has, for now, embraced his pink masks. But last Friday could have gone poorly. I can picture that little pink mask wadded up into an angry ball, shoved deep inside his backpack. Owen might have learned that his true preference was unacceptable to the girls in his class; that they wanted something different from him. And that might have changed his behavior in the future. Yes, I know this was just one small incident. But as a gender expert, I know that the cumulation of seemingly trivial moments over time manifests into very real adult behaviors.
You’ve probably seen some of the bleak statistics; for example, 80% of people who left the workforce during the pandemic to care for others were women. Knowing that these statistics told the story of the majority, but did not represent a universal truth, I was curious what the flip side could tell us. Who were the men out there working hard at home to help their partners stay employed? How were they doing it? Why were they doing it when so many others weren’t? I interviewed 45 married men actively trying to take on 50% of the daily domestic load, including physical tasks and emotional labor.
All of these men talked to me about their ability to exhibit vulnerability to others, and how important it was for others to accept them as their authentic selves: their partner, their kids, and their friends. None of these men feel the need to role-model a take-charge breadwinner. These men felt comfortable being a caregiver, nurturer, cleaner, cook and teacher. They changed their working hours so they could be more present for their partners and their families. A few of them even turned down a promotion in 2020; they knew that their families needed their time more than more their money during this rough year.
The puzzle pieces fell into place, and I realized why I couldn’t stop thinking about Owen’s mask experience. From a young age, boys need to be accepted for who they are so they develop the courage to reimagine masculinity and live their own authentic lives. This might start with simple things like wearing a pink mask. But in the future, it could be as serious as having the confidence to take on his fair share of household work in order to support a partner.
This is an important message to all us parents. Yes, we need to be aware of how hard it is for boys to display vulnerability when most of their peers do not. And we need to talk to our boys (over and over) about how important it is for them to express their true feelings. But as parents, we also need to push ourselves a bit further and also discuss this topic with our girls.
As a result of our own family incident, my husband and I talked to our daughter about Owen’s experience. Much like her Zoomer friends, our daughter is well-schooled on female empowerment issues and doesn’t put restrictions on girls. But she had never stopped to consider whether she ever puts restrictions on boys. We used this opportunity to ask her questions about the boys in her class: had she ever seen her friends deviating from traditional forms of masculinity? How did she react? We encouraged her to support those boys who are brave enough to try something different. Because as she grows up, she will certainly learn that accepting boys’ vulnerability is good for her, too. Boys who are confident enough to exhibit authenticity make great brothers, friends, classmates, coaches, neighbors, colleagues, partners and fathers.