As parents, do we believe that there is a difference between raising boys and raising girls, if so, where does this notion come from? Is it possible that the gender-specific parenting we had growing up, dictated that boys should ‘toughen up’ and not be a ‘cry baby’ this was backed up by societal stereotyping that permeated the way we ‘thought’ without us even realising.
The acute sensitivity and tenderness of a baby is something we all love to feel; we nurture this as we take care of this precious bundle in our arms. Yet, do we succumb to a gendered way of parenting that crushes those qualities as the child grows up?
Could we then say that the ideals most boys grow up with are somewhat harsher than for girls, with little attention paid to their innate sensitivity and tenderness? Do we expect or have an expectation that boys are to be tougher and then do we create an environment that supports the view that boys are different to girls in terms of their sensitivity? When we see children as their gender first, rather than children first, this influences our choices when buying clothing, toys, the kind of games we think they should play, what fun and games they have and even going as far as accepting different behaviours and language from boys that would not be accepted from girls.
Fast forward from baby to toddler.
In one family, the toddler’s favourite toys were a pushchair and a doll. He pushed this everywhere and rarely wanted to share his pushchair and doll with his friends when they visited, even though they all wanted to have a go pushing the doll around the house. The little boys who went to play loved this game more than any other toys or games in the house when they had a chance to play. The toddler was very careful, tender and gentle with the doll. This is not an activity that is ‘traditional’ for boys and yet the toddler loved it.
The community around any boy who shows their sensitivity in this way, even as a young toddler, can feel uncomfortable because they know this sensitivity doesn’t sit easily in a harsh world. Family and friends might be afraid that the child could be bullied, called names and labelled ‘gay’. So, what kind of impact does this fear have on a growing boy as he starts to relate with his community and the world, and feels the imposition of these unspoken gendered ‘rules’ from such a young age?
We learn from what we see modelled around us, which is then cemented into our foundations with what we hear. Even though we may not tell boys explicitly, through our actions, they learn what is acceptable and what is not.
Fast forward again and our baby is now a teen who, like most teens is trying to find his feet in relationships. He thinks he has to ‘man up’, be the ‘tough guy,’ show ‘he knows what he’s doing’, and ‘nothing upsets him’. He can become overwhelmed by the bravado he puts on, potentially leading him to crack under this pressure, now expressed as anger, frustration, erratic behaviour, or even depression. There is little to no sign of the sensitive, tender toddler. Instead, we experience a cross, angry and reactive young man who is struggling to express himself.
This is such a dis-service not only to young men but to all our communities.
We can continue to nurture children as they grow into young adults without shutting down or imposing on their innate sensitivity. Rather, allowing them to freely express the truth of who they are, free of gendered imposition.
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