When I found out the sex of my first pregnancy (boy), I was terrified. My partner wanted a girl, “they’re cleaner” he would joke. Not to mention that his daughter was a lovely child growing into an equally delightful young woman. That lovely daughter also wanted a little sister, and only a little sister – mostly so she could practice her braiding.
But me, I wanted a girl because I felt more comfortable, more confident raising a girl. I was sure I knew, or at least had a good idea, how to parent a smart, strong, and fierce young girl into a confident, compassionate, and successful young woman. Besides I had so many of those women in my life, I could simply point to them as examples, as role models for a daughter.
As a socially aware and politically involved feminist, I also knew the myriad gendered challenges facing this and the next generation – sexism, assault, male-dominated violence. I had a road map for raising a strong capable woman. I could use all the work I put in on myself to help parent her. I could buy her all the books about strong women and dress her in “The Future is Female” onesies and hang pictures of RBG and Shirley Chisolm above her bassinet.
But a boy? I had no clue how to raise a boy, especially one who would grow up with all the privileges of an upper middle class educated white man with a face like his father’s (it’s a very nice face). I was, and am, terrified that no matter what I do, he’s going to be exposed to millions of little messages that tell him that he’s better than the girl next to him, that his value as a boy and young man is measured by how few emotions he shows, how hard he can hit, or how much damage he can cause.
So the first time I heard “Oh no, boys are way easier.” I was a little confused, chalked it up to personal preference. But the second, third, and repeated times after, I started to think. Why do people think boys are easier? Then I realized…
Because there are less rules for boys.
Boys are easier because as kids we leave them be. We let them jump off porches and climb trees. We don’t worry about them breaking a bone or scuffing their shoes because “Boys will be boys.” We ignore bad behavior like hitting or biting because oh “He’s all boy.”
How many of our daughters have been given advice on how not to be assaulted at a party? Or how not to attract unwanted attention from the “wrong men?” How many young women have been told not to wear this or that, because of what boys might think of her? Or worse, do to her?
All of them.
But as those rambunctious toddlers grow up, how many parents sit them down and explain consent? How many times do we sit boys down and warn them that stripping their shirts off during a pick up basketball game might make them seem slutty to the cheerleading squad? Or tell them to not go “too far” at homecoming because they don’t want to be “that boy?”
Those scenarios sound as ridiculous written down as they do in my head. Because we, largely, don’t do these things. We expect women to not only be responsible for themselves (and their children), but even responsible for the thoughts and behavior of men. That’s what we tell them when we advise them not to do X because of how boys or men might respond. We don’t tell our boys that they are responsible for the choices of women. We often even excuse them from the responsibility of their own choices.
When we do that, we send a message to men that they are neither responsible, nor capable of managing their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. We sever their autonomy before it develops and leave them, and the world they inhabit, broken.
If boys are easier, it’s just because society doesn’t have as many requirements for them, so we have fewer rules, and give less guidance. In providing less guidance for our young boys, we, in effect, ignore them.
When parents don’t participate in the shaping of their children, society gets full reign. And society is currently shit at parenting boys.
This is dangerous. Not only for the people who come into contact with these unguided and society-shaped boys, but for the boys themselves. Ignoring our boys and men not only makes them more likely to be predators, it makes them more likely to be victims. When we don’t teach boys about consent from an early age, they not only fail to recognize its receipt, they also never learn how to give or deny it themselves. When we teach them that violence is an appropriate outlet for their anger, they not only commit violent acts, but they are also willing to accept violence from others.
When we ignore boys, we teach them that they are worthy of being ignored, A neglected child is heartbreaking, but a neglected boy is dangerous. The most severe cases of neglect are linked with violence and criminal behavior, particularly in young boys, according to a recent (small) study. It makes sense. Neglect leaves children to navigate an often confusing and terrifying world alone. On top of stumbling through the external world, neglect leaves children to charter the complex layers of their own emotional and mental health alone – something most adults are not even capable of doing successfully. This neglect is isolating and can lead to young men unable to express themselves in a healthy, non-toxic way, lead them to parrot what they see in our culture as displays of masculinity and power – which is mostly violence. Extremist and hate groups understand this dynamic. They understand the role that feelings of isolation play in creating young men vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization, it’s why they find so much success in targeting these unguided young men.
On the spectrum of helicopter to free range mom, I tend to lean towards free range. I believe in the power of independent play and in allowing children to fall and fail. I’m not advocating for holding my son’s hand through every step of his life, nor do I think more rules based on gender is the answer – quite the opposite actually. I find many of the gender-based rules we have to be not only ridiculous and archaic, but damaging (seriously, just allow the spaghetti straps already). I’m not talking about more rules, I’m talking about finding the right ones.
I’m advocating for a society in which parents feel as invested in preparing their boys to be “good men” as preparing their daughters to be “good girls” or “nice young ladies,” and a society that supports and reinforces this approach. I’m advocating for a more careful look at what guidance our young boys are missing, what they so desperately need to be the strong, capable, and independent men who, along with their women colleagues, peers, and partners create a better, healthier, and more inclusive society. Where we don’t ignore or excuse bad behavior of young boys, but where we love them enough to expect more, and give them everything they need to get there.