During a recent men’s retreat a couple of us men we’re talking about boys and specifically the issue of boys’ and girls’ “space.” The first comment came from a dad whose wife insists that whatever he buys for his 2 year old son he needs to buy for his 4 year old daughter. She doesn’t want them treated any differently. If he buys his son a toy gun, then he should buy one for his 4 year old daughter. If he buys him a GI Joe action figure, then he should buy one for his 4 year old daughter. (Interestingly, she didn’t insist that whatever he bought for his daughter he should buy for his son…). He asked me what I thought about that. (Marriage counseling, for starters? :))
That particular issue has become the norm in today’s world. Girls easily inhabit what used to be “boy space.” Increasingly the mantra is, “anything a boy can do…a girl can do (and perhaps do even better).” Girls easily move in and out of boy territory. They can play with superhero action figures one minute and then host a princess tea party the next. They can spend a day in boot camp and then do their nails with their girl friends in the evening. (I am intentionally using strong stereotypical boy/girl stuff here to make the point!) There are very few male spaces left that girls have not moved into.
But is it always good for the boys?
As our discussion continued another man told a story about a boy from his church who was on the wrestling team at school. During one of the matches he was to face a girl.
Good for the girl! She’s broken through another male-dominated barrier.
But is it good for the boys?
Imagine what that young man was going through as he stepped into the ring: 1) He’d been raised to treat girls with dignity and respect and now he was supposed to wrestle her and possibly hurt her. 2) Due to the nature of the sport, he would no doubt be placing his hands in all sorts of inappropriate places. What was he supposed to do?
He forfeited. He refused to fight her. Because he didn’t want to hurt her. Because he didn’t want to disrespect her.
Some may say he was afraid to lose to her. Perhaps. But even so…is a boy losing to a girl in a wrestling match good for a boy? Especially when girls are beating the tar out of boys in our education systems and now the job market?
Again, girls have moved into almost all areas that once belonged solely to boys. And culturally, we make a big deal out of it. The media features stories about girls pitching for the boys softball team or playing basketball on the boys team. (I can’t remember a story celebrating a boy joining the girls volleyball team or softball team. If a boy does try out for a girls team we immediately question his agenda!)
In many respects, girls moving into “boy world” is a good thing. It’s a powerful reminder that we are created in the Image of God as equals.
On the other hand, in many cases, this is a bad thing for boys. Boys need space to hone their masculine skills. They need their own space where they can compete against other males and not lose face by losing to a girl. They need the space to learn to be men—to strut their testosterone in hopefully positive ways (mentors are vital!). Boys need boy spaces to play, to wrestle, to learn how to move in and out of hierarchies, to learn how to relate to the world of men—and a variety of men.
Boys do not move in and out of the feminine world in the same way that girls move in an out of a male world. Most boys are not going to wear princess dresses. Most will not play with dolls (and this has little to do with social engineering or nurture)—except perhaps to tear off the head and use the body as a gun or a sword. Most boys will not go as a group to the bathroom or spend hours doing their nails.
Girls have girl space…and they need it. And they go back to it after hanging in boy space. But boys have few boy spaces left to go to (video games is one of the few!).
My advice to the dad about buying toys for his son and daughter: There is nothing wrong with buying both of them the same toys…but from time to time he should buy his son a toy for him and him alone…something that helps him feel like a boy (whatever that toy may be for that boy) just as it will be important to buy toys for his daughter that help her tap into her girl side (whatever those toys might be for her).
So…two questions to mull on:
What boy spaces are still available to our boys?
What boy spaces might you create for the boys in your life?