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.

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