I’m so happy to see that there is a lot more awareness at raising girls in a more gender-neutral way, teaching them to choose which toys they’d like to play with, not directing them to certain types of clothing, and raising them to be strong and independent. We are seeing the rise of lots of little feminists and even the media changing with amazing Disney role models such as Moana.
We are expressing to girls that they can be what ever they want to be. But are we really doing the same with our boys? Particularly as a mother of two boys, I can’t help but ruminate on the feelings that we seem to focus much less on nourishing the feminine side of boys. I feel strongly that we need to build and guide boys to feel confidence and strength in showing kindness, tenderness and love to everyone, including girls and women. The role that future men play in treating women with respect and equality is vital. Boys and men have roles to play with helping and supporting equality to progress.
Children are fundamentally undiscriminating, they don’t see disabilities, age, race etc. However, what they do seem to have their eyes wide open to is gender. Which starts from about the age of 3. Therefore, we need to get to work and start the reinforcement early. I have heard absurd things said to parents who nourish their boys’ feminine side, such as ‘you’ll make him gay’, and that they will get bullied or picked on, which is utter nonsense. I’m not saying for them to stop play fighting, running around like wild dogs and having pirate sword fights. I am trying to express the importance of not putting down females when raising our boys, to ensure that they don’t think that anything ‘girly’ is not ok, and therefore leading to girls and women not feel that who they are isn’t ok either.
Here are my top 4 things to think about when raising boys:
Challenge What Comes Out of Mouths
We can start by correcting and challenging the language that our boys and others around them are using. Without knowing it, we are being sexist too and letting sexism thrive in our homes and communities.
“Boys will be boys”, is a big one where we are ultimately teaching boys that it’s ok to be overly boisterous. Rolling our eyes at them going too far in wrestling and shouting or even bullying. We are communicating that it is fine for them to be aggressive or in some cases even abusive.
“That’s girly”, is seen as such a negative thing by boys. A girl or women over hearing this means that they feel that who they are isn’t good enough and that they are less than boys. The same goes for ‘you run like a girl’ etc.
“Toughen up” and “only girls cry”, is damaging language, as I discuss below. We are teaching our boys that it is wrong to be vulnerable and to show empathy to others. Which is crazy to me when we verbalise the meaning behind these phrases.
So, I like to respond to these when I hear them in ways such as, “yes I know it’s so cool isn’t it?”, “I bet she goes really fast”. Or simply “oh thanks”, does the trick into getting them to speak differently.
Let Them Lead Preference
Put your own bias aside and constantly challenge this. We can be proactive in our reactions and concerns towards boys playing with dolls, wearing dresses and liking pink. I think that toys, activities and clothes shouldn’t be gender exclusive. Let them lead with what they truly like and explore a variety of different toys, clothes and colours. We have a hell of a job to do here, trying to again challenge the mindset that they pick up from school and peers.
When it comes to birthdays and Christmas, until they are about 5-6 years old, we choose most of the toys, based on our gender preferences and what we ‘think’ they will like. If they want to have a doll to play with, then encourage this, it means they are working on being a good dad one day. If they show interest in role play with food and a kitchen, then embrace this, this little boy may be a future cook. Or if your son wants to make a sling for his toy rat, like in the picture, then why the hell not! Don’t always go for the obvious of soldiers, war, guns, and swords for boys. Ensure that they have a total mix. My boys tend to put their animals into a helicopter.
Be aware of when we are watching a film with them of the bias and sexism that comes in. So pointing out that it would be cool if there was a spider woman, and they'd be able to swing just as high between the roof tops. Also that Owlet from PJ Masks can fly and is an important, equal member of the team.
Really tune in to what they are curious about and roll with it. Especially at a young age. As they get older, making them feel comfortable to have friends that are girls, wear nail varnish and get behind some female role models. Let’s start listening to them and what they’d really like.
What better way to embody equality than to throw on a dress and a pair of heels?
Only Girls Cry
This is one that I feel so strongly about, as we know that suicide amongst young men is a huge issue. I believe that it’s harder for men to speak about about how they are truly feeling, and to show basic sadness such as to cry. I think drumming into them that you need to ‘toughen up’, ‘not to be a baby’ and that ‘only girls cry’ does a lot of damage to boys. I have seen parents say that children are ‘brave’ when they don’t cry, when I have witnessed them desperately holding in the tears.
In fact we should nourish this side of our children. Giving them the permission to nurture the caregiving side to boys and making this just as important as other ambitions that they may have.
When they cry, we can acknowledge that something hurts and that sad feeling. “I can see that has really upset you” and “I can see that this means a lot to you”, are phrases that I say a lot to my boys.
We so often hear men being sexually aggressive in conversations and bullying, which is disguised as ‘banter.’ I believe that we can redefine strength so that it is more gender neutral.
I am also teaching my boys about how to stick up for themselves, how to be assertive and to hold their own. But I am also talking to them about their feelings and acknowledging their need to cry and be hurt.
Female Role Models
Women are constantly being portrayed in a misogynistic light by lots of different outlets including media, education, social media and their peers. We can’t shelter them from this, however we can get their brains thinking about whether this is fair, loving and kind.
We can flood their brains with amazing female role models in the things that they like. This may take a bit of good old googling. But you can encourage both gender role models and ensure that their mind set shifts so that they see this. Female athletes are an amazing example of role models that will help to challenge the stereotype that boys and men are always stronger and more athletic. Women are often seen as weak and bad at sports, and that men only have physical power. Well tell that to Serena Williams, Nicola Adams and Jessica Ennis-Hill.
When they decide on their preferences, making sure that they know that women/ men do that too. Exposing them to both genders in their loved hobbies and activities. For example, what about taking them to see women’s football match, if they love football.
Ultimately the message to our boys is that girls are equal and can do the same things as them and that they too deserve, love, respect and kindness. The feminine, ‘girly’ and caring sides to our boys are also so important and loved by us. The boys that we are raising need to be aware of the role that they play inequality and to help eliminate girl hate.
Amy Holland is Director of Social Enterprise Single Parents Wellbeing, to find out more and to join the community: