Raising a boy

// 20 April 2013

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male mermaid.jpg

My son is six years old. Just before his fourth birthday we were looking at birthday cakes I could make him and he found a cake consisting of mermaids frolicking on a rock. He loved it. He really, really wanted this mermaid cake. In the description it stated “Perfect for your little girl.” He is, as is often found with individuals on the autistic spectrum, quite literal. He took this to mean he was not allowed the cake; that it was only for girls. The resulting discussion led to him writing this “story”.

I was proud (still am), and a printout of the page remains above my desk to this day. If a six year old can get it, why can’t multinational corporations? He was confused with the segregation in toy shops and bemused at the insistence of his peers that some things were for boys, some for girls. But this was before he started school.

Since then, I have seen the effect on him of attending school and experiencing more of wider society. His Asperger’s has affected the extent to which he cares what other people think, but it seems a constant battle to keep the bigoted views he’s experiencing outside of the home at bay. We’ve had talks about same-sex relationships after his comment “Errr, that’s two men kissing!” and we’ve discussed the idea that women in science and mathematics tend to have to work harder to be respected. The latter arose because we were watching Jurassic Park and he exclaimed “Oh, look, a lady scientist!” I am yet to go into detail with him about the issues with his adjectival marking in this case, but he gets the gist.

The point I’m trying to make is that, as a parent of a boy, I am doing my absolute best to help him grow into a man who respects everyone and holds views that he has thought through, but the impact of the outside world (school, books, other children, other adults…) is difficult (to put it lightly).

We recently attended a wedding and he asked me why I wasn’t married. I told him that some people choose to marry and some people don’t. He thought about this for a while and said “Does that mean you’ll have monsters, like Princess Smartypants?”

These influences are all around him and often are innocently offered. My Grandad has expressed that he doesn’t want my son to get bullied for being effeminate. This teasing has happened, and I was left with a difficult decision. When he told me he wanted shorter hair because the other children said he “looked like a girl,” I asked him to think about it. We talked about what was wrong with “looking like girl.” We talked about why the other children might see something wrong with it. But in the end, when he came to conclusion he wanted it to be cut, I allowed it. Am I reinforcing the views that I would prefer to banish? Or would not allowing his hair cut simply stifle the autonomy that I would like to encourage?

The decisions faced by parents of all children every day have very real impacts on everyone around them. Peer pressure begins pre-school and continues. If this isn’t given a check and discussed at some point (home, school, friend’s house…) then once that individual reaches adulthood, attempting to re-educate is challenging – we are fighting ideals that have been reinforced for a significant portion of their lives.

When an adult expresses misogynistic or generally bigoted views it can be difficult enough to challenge, based on the context. But it’s possible, adult to adult. When a child expresses these views, what should we do? When my own child echoes these opinions he’s heard elsewhere I can have an age-appropriate discussion with him, but what about when we hear another person’s child express these views and not be challenged? Who should we try to educate in this situation – the adult or the child? Or both?

[The image is a drawing of a mermaid with a physically male appearance. It was created by Tatyana Nyanko and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Martine // Posted 21 April 2013 at 12:21 pm

Hi, just a small comment about language use since this is partly what you are on about here.

“But in the end, when he came to conclusion he wanted it to be cut, I allowed it.” You are plainly a compassionate thoughtful parent, but here you use the word ‘allow’, this word implies that you have the right to deny your child a haircut. I totally understand the situation, having been through it with both my boys, and that you are trying to encourage him to have his own opinions about his appearance not based on what is acceptable for a boy, but … would you really have ‘disallowed’ his request. Assuming as a feminist you believe in the idea of absolute bodily integrity I sometimes find it difficult to read so many apparently thoughtful people who think it is ok to deny children their bodily integrity concerning such things as haircuts, either because they want them to conform to societal expectation or because they want to ‘encourage’ them to ‘be themselves’. Just a thought. Interesting article. thank you.

Becky // Posted 21 April 2013 at 5:43 pm

Hi Martine – thank you, you’re absolutely right, I wouldn’t have disallowed it once he’d made his own decision. I guess what I meant was I physically took him to the hairdresser, which is what I could have said instead! It’s an interesting point though, that I didn’t consider my chosen verb there – definitely made me think. My first priority is encouraging his autonomy in as many ways as possible, so saying “No, your decision is invalid because it’s not what I would do and I just generally know best,” would be unthinkable, but I do think it’s important to discuss and explore before he makes decisions.

hjd // Posted 22 April 2013 at 12:23 am

This is really interesting. My son, nearly 3, has always wanted pink things, has wanted to wear skirts, and has had longish hair. As he becomes more sociable and present in the world, I have begun to question my permissive parenting and encouragement of self-expression, as I grapple with the dual parental duties of protecting your child and setting them free. I partly felt I should protect his dignity by not exposing him to ridicule which would influence the forming of his world view at this very delicate young age. I also questioned if I wanted him to be ‘different’ to meet MY need to feel different, or to show my colours as a parent (inapproprately). Treading the line between seeking social acceptance and celebrating uniqueness is an aspect of parenting I hadn’t thought about before…any tips from anyone? Thanks for the food for thought, Becky…

Cycleboy // Posted 22 April 2013 at 4:12 pm

” My son, nearly 3, has always wanted pink things, has wanted to wear skirts, and has had longish hair.”

100 years ago, pink was a boy’s colour and girls ‘had’ blue. Yet, it’s interesting how, even before the age of 3, your son had already identified pink as a girl’s colour. Just shows how insidious social conventions are. Even if you, as a parent, had not reinforced this colour identification, other outside influences will tend to undermine our best intentions.

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