Even though we haven’t met, I think I can safely guess a few things about you. You’re doing the best you can. You love your boy within an inch of his life. You’d do anything to help and support him, nurture and encourage him.
That’s why, at risk of seriously pissing you off, I’m going to take a leap and ask you to consider something: making a change that might seem small and insignificant at first but which could have far-reaching consequences for your son, for the girls in his life and for you.
The change is this: deleting a single phrase from your vocabulary. Banishing it, ostracizing it, kicking it permanently to the curb.
“He’s such a boy.”
Sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? Sweet, even. And, you might argue – correctly – simply accurate. After all, your son is a boy, and what could possibly be wrong with pointing it out?
It’s true, the phrase itself is innocent. Unfortunately, the kind of behavior that often prompts the phrase is not. For small boys: pushing, yelling, kicking, throwing sand in other kids’ faces. For bigger ones: a penchant for head-locks, tossing dirty dishes in the sink, snarling at adults clueless enough to interrupt a video game with a friendly, “Hi, how’s it going?”
These aren’t inherently boyish actions, but they are inherently insensitive and rude. Each time we moms comment on them – and the way in which we comment on them – plants a seed about what we consider acceptable, both for boys and for girls.
Sometimes “He’s such a boy” is code for “I’ve tried, I really have, but what you see here? Totally the fault of the XY chromosome.”
“They’re such boys,” a mom friend sighed at a birthday party, watching her sons pelt pebbles at other kids, snatch balls out of small hands and grab every last pretzel set out for the group to share. “I suppose I should be thankful. Their dad never could have handled sissy sons.”
Sometimes “He’s such a boy” is code for “He’s so much more adventurous and fearless than girls are.”
“He’s such a boy,” another mom laughed as her son launched himself over and over again off of our lawn furniture, occasionally doing a tuck-and-roll when he missed landing on his feet. “His sister never would have done that.” Her daughter was within earshot, playing with our girls. They chased each other around and around the yard, sometimes falling hard, sprawling on the ground and springing right back up again.
Dads are just as responsible for progressive parenting as the rest of us, but I’ve yet to hear a father say “He’s such a boy.” Come to think of it, I’ve never heard any parent of either sex say “She’s such a girl.” Imagine if we said it while watching our daughters clear their plates, paint their nails or hug a friend. Society can debate the nature versus nurture question about girls and boys until the cows come home, but who wants to be the parent reinforcing the idea that biology is destiny?
If it sounds like I’m writing from on top of some smug, perfect-mother mountain where everything I say to my daughters has the ring of equality and righteousness, well, I only wish that were the truth. I struggle daily to remember that my words carry just as much weight as my actions do.
Last week our family sat down to watch Women’s World Cup soccer. After an especially good save, the camera zoomed in on America’s goalie, Hope Solo. My husband and I had the exact same thought – “Wow, she’s pretty” – but we both bit our tongues before speaking it aloud. It would have been an offhand, spontaneous compliment, but what would the ultimate message be to our girls: that after years of dedicated, exhausting, rigorous training as a professional athlete, the most impressive thing about Hope Solo is her face?
It’s good that we caught ourselves, but there have been more times than I care to remember when I haven’t been so circumspect: commenting on the good looks of a female entrepreneur or politician or TV journalist when it was their efforts that deserved the attention.
You see, I’m also attempting to do my best, and I’m trying hard to practice what I preach. I don’t always manage it, but hope to keep improving, bit by conscious bit.
“He’s such a boy.”
Well, yes, but as you know – better than anyone – with all his quirks and passions and funny, hidden sides, he’s more than that. He’s so much more.