Is It Harder for Boys than Girls to Be Who They Really Are?

As I have written before in contemplating my son’s nontraditional choices of toys and clothing, the double standard at work in how we respond to children who don’t conform to gender stereotypes is rooted in a culture that values men and male stereotypes (physical strength, earning power, toughness) over women and female stereotypes (emotion, empathy, caretaking). Girls who gravitate toward traditional boys’ toys and clothing are praised for daring to be strong-willed and single-minded. Boys who gravitate toward traditional girls’ toys and clothing are perceived as odd (if not immediately pegged as gay or transgendered, despite being years from sexual maturity), with the potential to be seriously damaged by permissive parents who allow them to play with and wear what they like. Girls, in other words, are praised for “trading up” to male stereotypes, while boys are chastised for “trading down” to female stereotypes.

Despite the progress American women have made in recent decades, we still live in a culture that tends to value qualities associated with men/masculinity more than qualities associated with women/femininity. For example, there is still an income gap between men and women that is likely explained by continued discrimination. A web site that last year listed the most influential Christian bloggers included hardly any women on the list. When people wondered why hugely popular female bloggers didn’t make the cut, the list-maker responded by essentially saying it’s too bad that emotional women feel so badly about not being included. Within conservative evangelical circles, there is an ongoing, serious debate about whether God intends women to wield power solely in the domestic sphere (the idea that God might call women to high-powered careers or the ministry being anathema), and whether, even at home, women ought to defer to their husbands as the spiritual head of the family.

My friend Rachel Stone wrote a blog post for Christianity Today last week about why she allows her two sons to play the violent role-playing games that so many boys undertake naturally. She quotes child development experts who argue that the natural types of play to which children gravitate help them make sense of the world and develop the maturity needed to make wise decisions as adults. Rather than children’s natural play instincts leading to violent behavior, people accused of violent crimes frequently turn out to have had a lack of play in childhood. Rachel wrote:

When [my sons] zap imaginary monsters—or each other—with “space guns” that they’ve crafted from Legos, they’re not acting on hate, or mental disturbance, or a desire to harm. They’re playing. It certainly does seem that what my children do in play is in an alternate reality altogether. “Who is the only One who can give life?” I’ll catechize. “God,” they’ll reply. “So who is the only One who should take a life?” I press. “God!” they say, with a barely suppressed of course. I asked my precocious seven-year-old why, if that’s true, he still likes to play with guns. “That’s why we play with toy guns, Mom,” he says, neatly summing up Stuart Brown’s entire theory of play “so that no one will get hurt!”

Rachel mentioned to me one fact that she couldn’t squeeze into her blog post, which is that adults apparently interfere in boys’ play (directing their play away from the violence that some adults find difficult to watch) to a greater extent than they interfere in girls’ play. That dynamic sounded too familiar to me. Adults are more likely to direct and interfere with boys’ play, just as they are more likely to direct and interfere with boys’ choices of clothing or toys, if those choices make them uncomfortable. In a similar dynamic, some experts worry that American elementary education accommodates girls’ natural talents and tendencies more than boys’.  An emphasis on early reading skills and sitting still to do paper-and-pencil work makes it easier for girls, who generally develop language skills earlier than boys and also find it easier to sit still at young ages, to be successful in elementary school than boys.

What a bizarre mishmash of trends and data and stereotypes. Our adult world still celebrates stereotypical masculine ideals of success and power and career and earning potential. Women are still written off as being too emotional, expected to limit our power to the home, and told that if we want to succeed in high-powered jobs, we’d best not spend too much time and energy on tangential pursuits, like caring for our newborns. At the same time, little boys struggle when they do not behave enough like girls in the classroom, but are chastised if they admit to loving the color pink or wanting to play with dolls instead of trucks.

We seem to be doing a terrible job with our most fundamental task as human beings charged with caring for one another and fostering healthy societies—accepting each little boy, each little girl, each parent, each CEO, each spouse for who he or she is, and nurturing each one’s particular complement of the many gifts that God bestows on humankind. Reforming our cultural institutions to better accommodate our human diversity is tough. We can’t expect teachers, for example, to endlessly tweak classroom norms and teaching strategies for 20-something different children in a classroom. But cultural reform starts with individuals willing to buck societal expectations and model acceptance of others just as they are, even when they don’t fit neatly into accepted norms for boys or girls or men or women or students or employees.

Ben enjoys a chocolate chip cake pop with raspberry frosting (his very specific request) at his birthday party.

I am writing this the day after my son’s seventh birthday party, to which he invited two boys and five girls. As he opened his gifts, I saw at work that sorely needed willingness to model gracious acceptance. My sons friends’ gave him books and craft kits, and lots and lots of Barbie paraphernalia. These friends clearly know and accept exactly who Ben is. Even more striking, their parents were willing to do something a little uncomfortable and strange by buying a Barbie doll for a seven-year-old boy.

I am still frightened of what the future might hold for my son, knowing that seven-year-olds are accepting of “different” kids to an extent that 10- or 13-year-olds might not be. But for now, the acceptance my son has received makes me hopeful that some day, little boys won’t be told that they shouldn’t play with dolls, or have their academic success measured by norms that are better suited to little girls, and that women won’t be told that God intends our greatest fulfillment to come in serving our husbands, or that we have to choose between influential vocations and nurturing our families.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Bob Demyanovich

    The parent does not allow their progeny to insert items into an electrical outlet. Parents feed their child who is an absorbing effort to be adult. Scripture catalogs failure to contrast the ideal that is spirit not flesh; neither male nor female. Light dispels confusion and provides clear direction so that the parent’s heartthrob is prepared to negotiate their gift of life. Direction is clearly applied in this presentation.

  • Tim

    Boys and dolls – how on earth did this get to be such a “crisis” in American child-rearing? At least the toy companies know how to accommodate this, even if to a limited extent. They call those toys action figures. Now, if only Barbie came with a camouflage outfit and GI Joe had a pink sweater.


  • rachel – even one sparrow

    I’m thankful for your post, and for your articulation of what is really at work here. It really has bothered me that our culturally norms have deemed what is “appropriate” for boys and “appropriate” for girls as if it’s God’s commandments. Right now, I have one little girl who is OBSESSED with baby dolls, but I try to encourage her to play with trucks and trains too (although with another girl on the way, I’m happy she’s chosen this time to be obsessed with babies). But my husband recently pointed out, “Wow – EVERY type of girls’ item is pink.” It’s so true, and nearly impossible to escape.

    One thought I had about the research regarding education favoring girls’ tendencies over boys’. I haven’t read the research, but I do remember learning in a number of my education graduate classes that teachers tend to call on boys to answer questions more than girl. Apparently, this creates an environment where boys take more of the initiative in the classroom to speak, ask questions, engage, and learn. Have you run across that research at all?

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes indeed, I did see that research. It’s another strange piece in this mishmash of stereotypes and messages. Early schooling caters more to girls’ natural tendencies (e.g., early verbal skills and an ability to sit still for periods of time), but boys are called on more in class, girls still get messages about math and science not being for them, etc. I just keep coming back to the fundamental fact that we have to learn how to relate to people as PEOPLE, not as a gender on whom we project particular desires, talents, etc.

  • Jeannie

    This post also made me think of one of the posts in your top 10 from 2012, related to choosing the sex of one’s child. This desire to select can be based on stereotypes too (“I want a boy to play baseball with”; “I want a girl to shop with”) — but the child you actually get may not fit the mold. When my daughter (who has Asperger’s, incidentally) was five and took the owners’ manual from our new cordless phone to bed with her for bedtime reading, I admit I wondered what kind of daughter I had. Now we enjoy watching “Tangled” together and talking about One Direction — but that’s because she likes that stuff (among many other things). If she was still into owners’ manuals, we would probably just have a different kind of fun.

  • DaveP

    > Is It Harder for Boys than Girls to Be Who They Really Are?

    That’s a really interesting question. My immediate gut answer is “it’s easier for boys” because I think men generally have it easier in life then women.

    > I am still frightened of what the future might hold for my son, knowing that seven-year-olds are accepting of “different” kids to an extent that 10- or 13-year-olds might not be.

    Since my wife’s and my kids are already grown and out of the house, I have sort-of already seen the future. And my wife, who has been teaching for over a decade, has collectively seen the futures of lots of kids. Her experience has been that the future works out best for (in order from most important to least important): 1) kids whose biological parents stay together, 2) kids who have two parents of any sort, 3) kids who live in low-anger households, 4) kids whose parents don’t drink or smoke.

    Of course there are exceptions, but it might be that a child’s future has less to do with how the child behaves, than how the child’s parents behave.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Phew :)

  • Meredith @ Homegrown Friends

    Thank you so much for your post. After I posted a photo of my son in purple and green nailpolish, my friend Holly pointed me towards your blog. As a mom and an early childhood educator it is wonderful to hear more people discussing gender stereotypes. In my kindergarten class I had open discussions with my students centered on the question “what is a boy’s thing? What is a girl’s thing? Who gets to decided?”. Bringing these stereotypes front and center helped break them down and have my students, at age 5, be able go move past them and see each person as an individual. Surely we as adults and those influential in the toy market can do the same.

  • A. Kjell

    “The grass is greener” cliche comes to mind as I read this. Is it harder for boys than girls to be who they are? The question seems irrelevant to me since dividing children up into simply “boys and girls” is too vague to present any real data, especially since the underlying theme here is “transgender.”
    The answer is: it depends. And it depends on many variables. It depends on the society and the family one is born into, it depends on the individual’s ability to adapt and cope and push forward against opposition.

    I have three boys, including two on the spectrum, and they have some gender-non-conforming tendencies. I was a bit sad to see that they stopped professing to like the color pink around the 1st grade or so. I always provided them with a variety of toys and let them pick out pink splashed Crocs to wear one summer. I always remind them that they don’t have to hide what they like. That there are no boy colors or girl colors, etc, but they can be as typically “boyish” or girly as they want. I did have one ask to have me paint his nails before and I did, but talked to him about how the kids might react at school (we live in the bible belt)… and he decided to take it off and have it be just something he has at home sometimes.

    I can’t think of anything more difficult as a trans boy than developing breasts and having a period. I’m surprised I survived that. Puberty has to be hard on any trans kid, but for the blood to come… a never-ending, painful red nightmare.

    I don’t think any of the boys are *as* trans as I am.. they seem to have qualities of both and seem to have a healthy attitude about their bodies so far. (two 8 year olds and a 4 year old).