By Melissa Stefanec
This month, my son, River, is turning 3. My first child was a daughter, and I have learned so much about kids, society and myself from raising her. However, raising a boy has taught me a whole, separate set of lessons about people, raising children and myself. As a feminist and humanist, I spend a lot of time contemplating how to best raise a boy in today’s society. Navigating gender stereotypes and norms is complicated, but I am trying to help my son make his way. Nothing in parenting is a guarantee, but here are some of the ways I am trying to raise a well-rounded, well-respected, strong, resilient and open-minded man.
“Boys will be boys”
This saying doesn’t fly in my house or around my kids. This attitude does two things I don’t like; it gives boys a pass at bad behavior and associates bad actions with being male. I still can’t understand who wants to push these ideas on any child, regardless of his or her sex. If my son does something bad, it’s not because he’s a boy. It’s because he is a child and he is learning. He will get a consequence for his bad behavior and not have it excused by adults or himself.
The golden rule
My husband and I teach our son to treat others as he would like to be treated. We don’t treat boys like boys and girls like girls. We don’t make exceptions or accommodations for others based on sex. We promote respect, strength and kindness to all people.
With both of my children, I have been very careful to not use “he” as the default pronoun when the sex of something is unknown. When we see a toad hopping around our front yard, I often say something like, “look at her, isn’t she amazing?” There is no reason to assign things as male until we know otherwise. I don’t want my children thinking either sex is the default. I figure if I do my best to default to “she,” that will counteract the rest of the world defaulting to “he”.
Use of adjectives
There’s no “_____ like a girl” in our house. There’s no “_____ like a man” in our house. I won’t tolerate either gender being embodied as good, bad, strong, superior, inferior or otherwise. I think for real progress to be made in gender equality, one thing we need to stop doing is using similes and metaphors regarding gender and sex, especially around children.
Books about girly stuff
I’m not spending all day reading my son books about princesses, mainly because I don’t want either of my children to be immersed in that culture, but we spend lots of time reading books about sharing, caring, adorable baby animals, super heroes, trucks, bugs, kittens, people unlike us, people like us and funny stuff. My son and daughter share a lot of the same books. I like to expose them to a lot different topics. Then, I can find out what they actually like to read about, instead of feeding them topics they are supposed to like based on their sexes.
I teach my son that his body is his own. He is in control of his body and what it does. He gets to tell others when he wants to be hugged or kissed. I am also treating him to view other’s bodies in the same manner. It’s that simple.
Clothing and toys
My son loves dinosaurs, just like I did at his age. As such, he has all sorts of clothing and toys featuring his favorite critters. However, I stay away from violent and angry dinosaur clothing and toys. That way, he gets to enjoy dinosaurs without having violence and physical power being marketed to him. He is simultaneously interested in kittens and baby animals. He totes around his favorite toy, a big-eyed, neon green and blue leopard kitten named Leona, with pride and love. Boys like cats too.
Crying is cool
If my son is hurt, I let him be hurt. He is a tough little person and usually shakes things off, but if he is hurt physically or emotionally, I give him whatever support he needs. I don’t ask him to hide his emotions or pain. I let him have an outlet and seek the love he needs to fix his problems. I want him to know men have feelings and nerves too; he can be strong and male while simultaneously acknowledging his own pain, fears, frustrations and challenges.
Cuddles are cooler
My son gives hugs and kisses to people he loves, and I don’t plan on making him rein that in at any point in his life. Boys need cuddles just as much as girls, and I’m not going to tell him he is ever too grown up for love. When he decides to pull back on such things, I will respect that, but it won’t be curtailed because I or my husband encouraged it.
I am thankful every day that I have a son. It makes me want to view things from a male’s perspective. It makes me think about special challenges that little boys (and men) face in our society. Raising a boy is giving me a chance to become a more thoughtful and empathetic person. I will always be grateful for that. I am glad I have the opportunity to raise a daughter and a son; it will help to keep my perspectives and biases in check. It’s also a lot of fun and making for a lot of love.