two boys fishing
Introspection Parenting Society and Culture

Honoring the personhood of my boys

October 7, 2019

We talk a lot about empowering girls these days. They can do anything! They can be strong and assertive and smart! And they can!

For generations, females have been put into a box that only fit a select few. The rest of us have been cramped, crammed, and stifled. Certainly it’s time to open the box!

But where does that leave those of us raising boys? We say our boys should embrace their sensitivity, be vulnerable, talk about their feelings. And we truly want this!

Boys and men have been crammed into a box as well. And it is just as cramped. Just as stifling. I am working so hard to raise kind, communicative boys who pursue their passions and be themselves.

Yet what I’ve discovered is that society seems just as reluctant (if not more so) to change the way we view boys as we are to change the way we view girls.

My theory is this… Although there is most definitely a population of men who are threatened by empowered women (and these men tend to hold positions of power, which gives them a very broad platform), empowered females aren’t as scary to the general population.

We see an adolescent girl starting a snow shoveling business or running through the yard with a foam dart gun laughing with her younger brother and we think, “You go, girl!”

But when my 11-year-old son tried to start a yardwork business, people looked at him askance. Not everyone, but some. He’s taller than the average kid. He looks older than he is. Is that young man up to no good?

And just the other day, when my older son, now 13, was playing happily with his seven-year-old brother and the neighbor boys, ages 12 and six, he was yelled at in the front yard for bullying a kid he never even saw was there.

The boys were in the throes of an epic Nerf battle. Someone walked by while the two older boys were plotting their next move. A child was on a scooter. My younger son and his friend called out a greeting, but the older boys didn’t even notice him.

The boy’s mother stopped and berated these two boys, who were kind enough to play with their younger brothers – something not every adolescent will do. She was certain that they’d been whispering and laughing about her son.

The older boys were disoriented. They weren’t even sure what was going on. They tried to explain, but she wasn’t having it. She was afraid for her son’s safety.

The game ended then. My older son hasn’t played outside since. This was two weeks ago.

The news is full of these kinds of stories; stories of people being afraid of adolescent boys and young men minding their own business…

Sometimes even doing good works or trying to be their best selves:

Hamilton cops say their employee not Mayor Yaede alerted police
Teens seeking snow shoveling cash run afoul of the law
Ohio boy’s lawn mowing business gets influx of support after neighbor calls the police
Police body camera footage shows Native American teens being pulled from CSU tour
Neighbors Call Cops On Teens Playing Basketball — But Officer Asks To Join In

And sometimes with devastating consequences:

A black teenager was listening to rap music. A white man allegedly killed him for it.
Mistake over high beams ends with Michigan cop killing teen
Ex-cop Roy Oliver found guilty of murder. Could face life for killing Jordan Edwards
A look at what happened the night Trayvon Martin died

Yes, there are important conversations to be had about race in some of the above examples, and these are just a few of the many such tragic stories. Entire books have been written on this subject, with good reason.

But we would be remiss not to acknowledge that gender is also at play here. We need to admit that we are afraid of teenage boys and young men.

This is a complex issue. As I searched online for the above stories, there are at least three times as many stories of young men assaulting people than there are about young men doing good. So maybe we have good reason to be fearful.

Or maybe we need to expect more from our media. Maybe we need to demand equal coverage of the good and the bad. If we want our young men to be sensitive and kind, we can’t just talk about it. We need to live it, support it, and reward it. Publicly and often.

How do I explain to my gentle giant of a son that some people will just be afraid of him? It’s not his fault, and it shouldn’t prevent him from living his best life.

He wonders why a clerk at Target is following him around while he looks at candy bars. I tell him he needs to keep his hands out of the pockets of his hoodie when he’s at the store.

“Why?” he wonders innocently. It’s never even crossed his mind to steal.

He asks, “Why am I supposed to hold a door open for a girl, but they can treat me however they want?”

Why, indeed.

My response is…

1) Nobody gets to treat him however they want. We talk about setting healthy boundaries.

And…

2) He should hold the door open for everyone, male or female, not because the other person deserves it but because it’s the right thing to do.

I try to teach him grace.

I am 100 percent on board with the #MeToo movement. I’m glad that perpetrators are finally being held accountable. I believe in STEM camps for girls and equal pay for equal work.

But as I’m raising my own boys, I’m wondering, are we leaving them behind? How do we teach them to be partners in progress?

How do we do justice to the untapped potential in girls, while also honoring the personhood of our boys?

Other writing you may enjoy:

A letter to my son on his first week of school
Fingernail paint
No strings
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Letter to my newborn son
Raising a gentle man

Copyright © 2019 Sara Beth Wald

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this, I have thought of this often, so many ads, shirts, billboards tell my daughter to be strong and take on the world. But I often feel like what about my boys? I worry they will grow up in a world waiting for them to fail, to mess up and then if they do will there be support? Ugh being a parent is hard and maybe harder today. I strive to teach all of my children to be themselves and love with the biggest heart, but I worry for what is to come when the little kid grows and they become a teen.

    1. I wish I could tell you it gets easier! But kids are smart! The older they get the more they figure things out. My son asks me questions I don’t know how to answer. It doesn’t feel fair to him. It’s a tough thing to explain. It’s a good thing we’re all in this together!

  2. As someone who teaching about gender (and that has mainly focused on women), I am addressing many of these issues as I just begin to navigate parenting boys (only 1 and 4 years old). My 4 year old loves things associated with boys (cars, trains, etc.), but he also loves to dance and things that are “fancy”. We’ve encouraged him to enjoy and play with whatever brings him joy and when he has asked to paint his nails or get a tutu, we’ve been supportive, but he’s already telling me that kids in preschool have told him that he can’t do or be certain things because he’s a boy and only girls do those things. Like you said, I 100% support opening up the box we’ve put girls in, but now more than ever see the urgency of doing the same with boys. While no one blinks an eye, when my friend’s daughter wears a firefighter outfit during dress up, kids do shame boys (even if they don’t mean it harshly) for dressing up as a ballerina. And, like you having to tell your older son that other people might have certain perceptions of him even though he is kind, I had to tell my 4 year old when he asked “why did so and so say that I am a girl if I want to be a ballerina? But that’s not true, right?” that many people think that girls can be certain things and boys can be certain things, but that they are wrong, and that boys and girls can be whatever they want, play whatever they want, and that they important thing is being kind to each other and doing what makes your heart happy and letting others do the same.

    1. So true, Lori. I had a similar conversation with my younger son about sequins. They’ve started making “boy” sequin shirts now, so I must not have had the only boy who felt left out of the sequin craze. It does come from the kids at school, which ultimately comes from messages they’ve received at home and in the media about gender. We still have so much work to do. I do feel hopeful though that there is an awareness and shift (if ever so slowly) happening.

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