I’ve been thinking about boys lately.
I am one of those progressive, feminist women who have given a LOT of thought to the biases that we show toward our female kids. A little more than two years ago, I became the daycare provider for my first grandchild, Ellie.
My daughter and I talked a lot about how we wanted to talk to her. We were very conscious of using words like “pretty” and “sweet” and “good girl”. We wanted Ellie to see herself as strong, capable, independent.
Two and a half years into her life, it’s very clear that we have succeeded. Ellie is smart, opinionated and confident. She is loving and kind, but doesn’t worry about being “pretty’. Yay, us. We have helped to set a young woman on a positive path.
But what about her brother?
Johnny is 10 months old. He is big (only three pounds less than his sister who is 20 months older than he is.) He is active, and curious and energetic.
When I put Johnny down on the floor to play, he is immediately drawn to every outlet, every electrical cord, every electronic device. He climbs on everything. He opens every cabinet he can find and pulls out all of the contents.
Johnny goes to the top of the stairs in our living room and grabs the baby gate. He shakes it as hard as he can. When I take him away, he howls his outrage and throws himself to the floor. Sometimes he even bangs his head on the floor.
And I have found myself reacting to him as a hyperactive little wild child. I have heard myself calling him, “Butter ball” and “chunky monkey”. I have noticed that I refer to him as “wild” and “hyper.”
But the other day I looked through a bunch of old photos. I noticed the ones where ten month old Ellie was pulling herself up on the very same baby gate. My caption read: “She is so strong!”
I found pictures of Ellie pulling things out of the very same kitchen cabinets, and I saw that I had written, “My little kitchen helper.”
I was shocked. Shocked at my so called progressive old self.
What was I doing?
Johnny is active and physical, as so many babies are. He is strong and he is sturdy. He is enormously curious.
My job is not to label him or criticize or shake my head and tell my friends, “He is exhausting!”
My job is to say, “John, you are so strong.” and “You are such a good explorer!”
My job is to let this boy know that his energy is his strength. That his curiosity is intelligence. And when he begins to react to his emotions physically rather than verbally, my job will be to show him that he can be both physical and loving.
I have noticed myself and other progressive, liberal, gender neutral adults reacting to our little boys differently than we react to our little girls.
One example: last summer I hosted a second birthday party for our Ellie. The kids were playing with bubbles and balls and sidewalk chalk. One of the bubble wands broke when a little girl was playing with it. The adults around her scooped her up to comfort her when it broke. They said things like, “Oh, honey! I’m so sorry that it broke!”
Ten minutes later, a little boy had his bubble wand break in his hand. He responded by saying, “I’m sorry. I broke it.” The adults around him, all loving and wonderful parents, said, “What did you do?”
It was just such an eye opener for me.
And I am using that memory to guide my reactions to Johnny as he pulls himself up to yank things off of my coffee table. He isn’t being “wild” or “hyper” or “bad”. He is using his strength and his problem solving skills to figure out the world around him.
He is doing exactly what nature has set him up to do.
He is no more active than his sister was. He isn’t particularly more physical or more active than she was.
The only difference, really, is how his grandmother and the rest of the world sees his development.
Johnny is a boy. An active, sweet, loving, musical, funny, physical little boy. He is exactly what he is supposed to be.