Saving the Boys: Lessons in Androgyny

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There’s always a lot of talk about girls–what we can do to protect them from Barbies and Bratz, how we can make them assertive and strong, or how we can best talk to them. I see a new article in my newsfeed at least several times a week about raising girls–whether a letter from a dad to his daughter about body image, a story about another method for fighting eating disorders, or a criticism of Photoshopped images (how are we still so surprised at the work of Photoshop!?).

And I get it. Girls have a lot to fight against in this culture and in the Christian subculture. But now that I’m raising a son, I am very concerned about the boys.

I worry that my son might be bullied or might be a bully (and I honestly don’t know which is worse). I worry about the hypersexualization of our culture and the increase in pornography addictions. I worry about boys who seem to find purpose only in video games. I worry that he will be stereotyped depending on his interests and inclinations. I worry about how his male-ness–especially the parts of it that are cultural–will affect his view of the Gospel story and church.

For everyone that over-praises your daughter’s appearance, there’s someone already telling my eight-month-old son what sport he will play.

I worry because of the fact that girls get these issues out there and talk about them and often find support. There are books dealing with every side of women’s issues from stay-at-home moms to working moms, from women who believe they should only support their husband’s ambitions to those who are pastors. But what about the boys?  I’ve read that there are more and more cases similar to postpartum depression for men after the birth of their child. But these are rarely discussed or prepared for or even accepted. Life seems hard for men who are often less open with emotions but carrying the weight of heavy expectations.

As a teacher and youth leader, I have seen glimpses of both sides of this. The girls weren’t surprised when a boy cheated on his girlfriend (“it’s just how boys are”). In one discussion of Taming of the Shrew, the boys all nodded vehemently (though sheepishly at first) at the cultural stereotype of an angry wife throwing her husband’s TV out the window.

But I often worried when I heard comments like this from the boys (all of them paraphrases of actual comments):

“She said almost the same thing to me, but she didn’t get in trouble because she is a girl.”

“I get written up more for uniform infractions because I’m a boy.”

“I have to sit here listening to the girls talk about Channing Tatum’s naked butt, but if I commented about any part of a girl like that, I would be in the principal’s office.”

“Girls are smarter and better at school.”

And I see articles all the time about these superhero guys girls want. One article had so many character traits for a future husband that I was concerned that some negated each other (could he really be confident and bold while also laid-back and introverted!?).

And honestly, as a culture–and perhaps especially as a Christian subculture–we expect a lot of boys and of men. We expect their hair to be above their eyebrows and their shirts tucked in and their belts on. We expect the therapist boyfriend, the handyman, always willing husband, the super student and super athlete. We expect leadership–although don’t take it too far or you’ll step on the toes of the women.

Meanwhile (and perhaps equally alarming) in my experience, girls can get by with a lot. Girls in the education field could dress less professionally (dare I say unprofessionally) and get away with it. Some professors over-encouraged female involvement in discussion and over-praised their contributions. Female teachers could cry in the principal’s office. Girls could get away with discussing shirtless guys during homeroom. Girls could be weepy and emotional and expect their boyfriends to listen to every word.

Is There a Solution? 

In college, we discussed a study in which researchers found that mothers spent more time explaining to curious daughters why a child was crying in the park than they did explaining to curious daughters how a carseat works. The reverse was true for sons. While some might interpret the study to show that we need to be more willing to give girls technical know-how, I am concerned about the fact that we don’t teach boys empathy.

Both Raising Cain and Reviving Ophelia deal with the different struggles faced by adolescent (and younger) boys and girls, respectively. I read the books back to back, and what stuck out to me most is that part of being a healthy girl or boy involves adopting some traits associated with the opposite gender, becoming somewhat androgynous. So when a girl can be a bit more tomboyish and a boy can be a bit more empathetic, those individuals become healthier. When we can transcend the negative cultural expectations of our gender, we are stronger.

In Reviving Ophelia, Pipher says, “[Preadolescent girls] can be androgynous, having the ability to act adaptively in any situation regardless of gender role constraints” (18, emphasis mine).

That adaptivity is something for boys and girls to strive for!

The nature-nurture debate will continue forever, and while a lot of gender may be socialized, pieces of it also seem to be inherent. But in each gender, we have a chance to see God more fully and to embody positive, healthy characteristics of the other gender in a way that makes us stronger.

So I do worry about my son and those boys I taught. I worry about the pressure that is put on them (and I’ve seen how often they turn to drugs and alcohol at young ages). I worry about the boy whose dad taught him how to fight at a young age, causing him to be always on the offense. I worry about the one who always seemed scattered but was so bright. I worry about the one always on ADD medicine who kept trying to get off of it.

I also know that both girls and boys have their own struggles and minefields to navigate in our culture. However we need to be a bit more balanced in our discussion of it and in thinking about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

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3 thoughts on “Saving the Boys: Lessons in Androgyny

  1. Pingback: Men Do Have Feelings - Parenting And Mental Health

  2. Oh, I agree! I have a sweet 4 year old boy who loves to help me cook, dress up in his big sister’s clothes, fix broken things with anyone who will give him a hammer (usually house projects with me, car projects with his father), and run all over the woods getting filthy any time he can (just like his equally adventurous big sister). It makes me furious and sad when people try to cram either of them (but especially my son) into a gender role for which his interests and personality are just too big. Even his grandfather, who adores him and is generally a thoughtful person, tries to correct him if he wants a pink hammer or to play with a doll. I want my son to choose his pastimes and clothing and favorite colors based on what he really *likes*, not what makes other people feel more comfortable– maybe having to squelch their own emotions and preferences early in life is a part of the reason that boys struggle so much with self-expression in adolescence.
    I have Raising Cain on my bookshelf right now, and your post has encouraged me to pull it out and read it. Thank you!

    • Yes! Your son sounds delightful! I think that more children would be like your son–demonstrating a wide range of healthy interests–if we would let them. I never embraced the concept of parents who wouldn’t reveal their child’s gender as he/she was growing up, but I do understand their motivation in seeking to protect their child’s unique gifts and interests, especially now that I have a child. I’ve even heard that we tend to handle male babies a bit more roughly than female babies.
      I really hope you like Raising Cain. It is definitely sobering at times!

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