There has been a lot of talk about the violence against women and children being perpetrated by members of the NFL lately. It got me thinking about how much we, as parents, as women, talk about the importance of empowering our daughters to be strong, to be vocal, and to respect themselves. As a mother who has no daughters, I wonder why we don’t talk more about empowering our sons to be strong, to be vocal, and to respect themselves. While driving in to work yesterday morning the local radio station was discussing this issue of violence among NFL players and a caller made the statement that we need to raise our young boys to be respectful of women. I completely agree. She went on to discuss how we need to raise our daughters to respect themselves. Again, I’m down with that. But why don’t we talk much about raising our young boys to respect themselves? Why don’t we hear as much hype around teaching our sons to be strong and stand up for what they believe in, what they want to do, and who they are? Is it because we are so concerned with raising our boys to be gentle, respectful men that we dare not encourage them to have a strong sense of individuality? I realize there are differences in the way messages can be received by boys and girls, and as a mother of sons I do want to be careful not to give my sons a sense that they should ever “fight back” in ways that involve physical violence. But I do want my sons to feel just as confident in their right to be who they are as I would want a daughter to feel. That doesn’t mean I would condone any violent behavior on their parts, but I think sometimes we forget that our little boys are just that – little! They are children, too, with feelings that can get hurt and emotions that should be accepted and encouraged. And as children they are vulnerable, and being taught to protect themselves is not a bad thing.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. My sons are eight and six. They are very active. They love to run and climb and ride bikes and build forts and explore the desert. Their little bodies are all muscle, and they are physically capable of so many things I never would have dreamed an eight and six year old would be capable of. My six-year-old plays soccer and he moves like an adult on the soccer field. No clumsy kid moves happening – when he is on the field he is ON! In contrast, my eight year old is completely uncoordinated on the soccer field but is like poetry in motion on a climbing wall or a rock face. The kid was born to climb. It is like watching a spider make its way effortlessly up a vertical face, and he has absolutely no fear when he hits the rock. It is amazing to watch. When they are in their physical element, it is easy to look at them and think they are strong. They are tough. They are little men in miniature navigating life effortlessly. But the truth is, they are LITTLE BOYS! Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes I am guilty of not taking their tender little emotions to heart. But the other night I had my first truly heartbreaking experience as a mom that was not related to physical illness but emotional turmoil, and it rocked my world.
I’ll set it up for you. My younger son is a ham. He is a goof ball. He likes to stir shit up. He is the life of the party. He has a loud voice and a big personality! My older son is shy. He is extremely sensitive. It takes him time to open up to people. Once he does, kids and adults alike tend to absolutely love him. He is sweet, empathetic, and a deep thinker who is curious and intuitive. But he has a hard time in a group, especially if he doesn’t know many of the people. We recently moved to a new home and changed school districts, which is a good thing, except that we had to pull the boys out of a school they had been in for a while and plop them into a new one. This is always hard for kids, but I knew it would be extremely difficult for my older son, as he has difficulty reaching out to new kids and making friends. I worked hard to set up some play dates before the school year started so he could meet some of the local kids. The boys both met some other boys from our neighborhood who ride the bus with them to school, and our older son has even had these boys over to play after school. I thought everything was going great! Then two days ago, my older son comes home from school and his first words to me as he walks through the front door are, “I don’t like school anymore, I have no friends.” Wait, what? What about the boys from our neighborhood who are in your class, I ask him. He says that yes, they are nice to him, but that he doesn’t sit with them at lunch and he doesn’t play with them at recess because they have a “group” they are a part of and he is not a part of it. They play games at recess that he doesn’t know how to play. When he does ask them if he can play, they put him on the team with the boys he doesn’t know, and he is instantly feeling uncomfortable and bows out. At this point I start to feel like I am dealing with a problem that girls have, not boys. What is this, “I need to be part of a group,” mentality and why is it coming from my strapping young son? How ignorant of me. How utterly fucking stupid of me not to think that he would have these issues. He is just a kid. And, he is a sensitive, shy kid who struggles to make new friends. What did I think was going to happen? My beautiful, sweet, empathetic boy, who helps the kids who fall down at school and always goes to sit with the loner kid in class, proceeded to walk into his room, shoulders bouncing up and down amidst sobs of despair, and lock himself in to cry it out. I was stunned, and speechless, and could barely keep myself from bursting into tears. This is not what I pictured raising boys would be like. But why not? I mean, he is a kid! He is young and has not been exposed to this feeling of being outside the group before. Daughters or sons, kids are going to get hurt, feel pain, and need help. Boy or girl, being part of a group feels important.
I don’t know if it is because he is a boy, but I was reluctant to bother him while he was locked in his room. I didn’t want to embarrass him. But eventually I knocked, and he let me in, and I told him I would leave him alone if it made him uncomfortable to talk to me. He said it did not make him uncomfortable. It was clear he wanted me there. He cried and cried, and told me he just wants to feel like he fits into a group. He knows these boys from the neighborhood are his friends, but he wants to have someone to play with at recess. He doesn’t like sitting alone at lunch. He doesn’t like sitting alone on the bench at recess. Of course he doesn’t. Who would? I tried to express to him that I understand how hard it is, and that I feel for him. I tried to be supportive. I even started blaming myself, doubting the decision to move to a new neighborhood. But ultimately I told him nobody is going to make things happen for you. If you want to be part of that group, you need to go sit with those boys and see what happens! Just take a seat at their table during lunch and I bet they will start to include you in their conversations. He told me it is hard for him because he is shy, and I acknowledged that. But this is a tough life lesson that we all need to learn, sooner rather than later. Nobody is going to beg you to be part of his or her circle. If you want to make friends you have to walk up to somebody and say, “Hi,” and see what happens. It is hard to put yourself out there, but that is how progress is made, not just with friendships, but also with your education, careers, hobbies, etc. You gotta go for it or nothing will ever change. Thinking back on our interaction I am curious if I would have reacted differently had he been a girl. Would I have rushed in and hugged her and stroked her hair and told her everything was going to be ok? Why did I feel so uncomfortable consoling my son? Somewhere deep inside me there is a false sense that boys are tougher than girls. I am guilty of subconsciously buying into this idiotic stereotype.
We talked for a long time, and ended up delving in to broader ideas of self worth and self-respect. He mentioned that he has a friend at school who is also a new kid, but lately this friend has been blowing him off for another kid. He was bummed about this. I tried to relay to him to forget that kid! If that boy doesn’t see what a great friend you are then don’t waste your time. I was trying to make the point that you have to love yourself for who you are and not compromise your feelings for someone else, especially if that someone else doesn’t give you the time of day. “But mom,” he says, “when he fell down and scraped his leg I got him a wet paper towel and took him to the nurse, and then later that day he wouldn’t sit with me at lunch.” Guess what? That kid is a jerk. Forget him. I mean, wouldn’t we tell our daughters to forget someone who treated them that way? You know, that whole, you are a queen or a princess and deserve better, or whatever else we tell our little girls? Why not our sons?
There is something interesting going on here, and it feels like a shift of epic proportions in the way we talk to our kids about their self worth. Girl power is infused in everything these days, from clothing to toys to the stories the media brings us about amazing young girls (which I am all for). Boy power, as an idea, doesn’t exist. Admittedly, I only bring the perspective of having young boys, not daughters, but I was a young girl once and I remember what that was like. When I was little, I didn’t get a lot of talk about being a strong, independent girl. There was no “Girl Power” movement. Nobody said, “You go girl.” Girls were not as prevalent in roles of power and prestige. It was still very common for the women who were our role models to be housewives or teachers or dancers. I never once met a woman scientist, or doctor, or athlete, when I was growing up. It was considered unladylike to yell or scream or even stand up and fight for what we wanted. It didn’t seem to be that way for the boys. Boy power was an unspoken reality while girl power wasn’t even considered. I remember getting into a scuffle with a boy in third grade – I was on the swing and I jumped off and bashed into him on accident, knocking him to the dirt. I apologized. He got pissed. He came at me, and we were in a lock, arms extended, trying to push each other down. I remember feeling like what I was doing was not what a girl would do, that I should run away, and I was scared of what everyone would think of me. But I didn’t run away, because I was pissed too.
It is so common for little boys to be physical and we often hear, well, they’re just being boys. When girls scuffle, it seems shocking! I am not condoning anyone scuffling, but I find it interesting how, in this time of redefining gender roles, of women fighting hard for equal pay in the workplace, and equal recognition, and in some cases just equal opportunities for education and jobs, we find it uncomfortable when girls exert their strength physically, but when boys do it, even though we may not like it, we think it is normal. Why, then, are we surprised that men who make their living being physical, who spend all day bashing into other men as hard as they can, and are cheered on, sometimes get physical with their partners? I know, I know…there is more to it than that. Lots of boys and men play football and are not abusers. I get it. But I cannot imagine strapping a helmet on to my sweet young son and telling him to run as hard as he can into another child, and then expecting him to understand that it is not ok to be violent. Honestly, I am not judging anyone whose sons are football players, and I am quite sure there are many of you out there who would say that football was great for your son in a variety of ways. (In fact, my younger son has asked about playing football, and for now the answer is no, but when he is older, if he chooses to do that I will support him). I am just wondering aloud about this strange and somewhat incongruous mentality of wanting to empower our young girls (without encouraging physicality), and teach our young boys to be gentle and respectful (while encouraging sometimes brutal physicality). How many mothers of daughters consider putting them in a full contact sport as children? How many mothers of sons consider signing them up for ballet? Is it any wonder that our daughters are sometimes confused about how to exert their power, and our sons still grow up thinking boys don’t cry?
It is a great time to be a woman. Regardless of the fights we still have to fight over equal pay, health care, controlling our own bodies and so forth, women have never been so prominent in the public eye or so successful in every field imaginable. Our daughters are fortunate to live in a time when they can choose to be whatever they want to be, and will likely have a way to make that happen (even if it requires a struggle). Girl power is its own franchise in this country, and having a tough, opinionated daughter seems to be more important to mothers these days than having a pretty little sugar and spice daughter. Less pretty princess and more witty badass – I am all for that. As a mother of boys, I encourage my boys to be tough and opinionated, while still trying hard to teach them that violence is never the answer. I model that behavior by never hitting them, nor striking out at anyone else, and by trying very hard not to scream like a banshee when they are being naughty (this works sometimes, but I am not perfect, and there are days that I fail and the voice reaches screech level). My husband is gentle and caring, and rarely raises his voice. He is an amazing male role model. I am hopeful that even though we live in a time of intense girl empowerment, my sons will also learn how to have their own self-respect (without disrespecting women). And when my boys are sad, I tell them it is ok to cry it out, and hope that they continue to stay in touch with the feelings that make life hard sometimes, and find appropriate ways of dealing with these emotions.
And so it turns out boys do cry. And it is heartbreaking for this mom to watch. But I would rather spend all day holding my crying son than spend one second watching him put his fist through a wall. Let’s push for boy power, defined by strength of character, self-respect, respect for others, and emotional awareness. No violence necessary.