Wednesday, March 07, 2007

parenting boys, parenting girls

I read another one of those posts, recently, about how easy it is to parent boys, about how they're just puppies and you just throw them outside periodically and that's all there is to it. (To be fair, I think the post went on to talk about how the writer had re-thought some of that.) I'm not linking to it because 1) I don't really remember where I read it and 2) there are so many of them and 3) I'm about to get nasty about it so I don't want to link to any specific person. There.

Even when I read it, I had to disagree. But I know so many people who say the same thing, or something similar! So many women who, secretly or not-so-secretly, yearned for sons during their pregnancies, or when they dreamed of children. They said it was because boys were easier, or because boys are less complicated, or (my favorite, really) because there's no love like a son's for his mother. I remember hearing this one from a colleague when our kids (her boy, my girl) were both three or four, and her son jumped in her lap at a party and told her he loved her. The fact that my daughter did the same thing routinely was somehow not considered evidence of her superior love for me.

Forgive me if this all sounds like internalized misogyny. Why are girls the "difficult" and "complicated" ones? Tell me, for example, who gets in most of the fights in the world. Who wrecks the most cars, starts the most wars, rapes the most women? Still thinking boys are uncomplicated and easy?

Now, before you jump up and down on me: I don't hate men. I'm married to one, sister to two, daughter to one, and mother to a son. I love them all, and I have great colleagues and friends who are men, too. (They may stop speaking to me soon, but I still like them.) Most men, like most women, are neither violent nor cruel; nonetheless, patriarchal privilege still (mostly) exists, and still (mostly) tells boys/men they can do things girls/women can't or won't do. This can, of course, make parenting girls hard: it's hard to deal with institutionalized oppression, even if we don't call it that, even if it doesn't always seem like that's what it is. It's hard to deal with airbrushed pictures in magazines, eating disorders, manipulative clique-ishness, and all those aisles of pink toys in the toy store. But not harder, I'd submit, than dealing with a culture of violence, with airbrushed pictures in magazines, bullying, and all those aisles of guns in the toy store.

I have a son and two nephews who hardly fit the "puppy" model of parenting I outlined above. They are sweet, sensitive, weird (in a good way) little kids who can be both rambunctious and kind, who are fascinated by both cooking and firetrucks. In this they are not all that different from my daughter as a younger child: they are complex and interesting, and I look forward to seeing them grow up. They're certainly not the same as the girls they know, but easier? Harder? I just don't see how the terms apply.


anna said...

I think mine must have been one of the posts you were referring to since I think you read it and perhaps commented on it! One of the things that makes life so interesting in blogland is that, unlike in other forms of writing, you can get such immediate reactions from readers. Fascinating to see how one's words are seen.

One thing that is particularly interesting to me is to see the way you interpret the idea of treating boys like puppies. I'm not sure what you imagine the "'puppy' model of parenting" to be, but you seem to equate it with stereotypical male attributes like a propensity for fighting and violence. I don't see it that way - not at all - because all my puppies have been "sweet, sensitive and weird in a good way."

Maybe the metaphor works very differently for people depending on their individual experiences with canines in general, and puppies in particular!

Libby said...

No, Anna, I wasn't linking the "puppy" model of parenting to stereotypical male behavior (either causally or otherwise). I only meant --and maybe I could have expressed it better--that the notion that "boys are easy," which is what the puppy metaphor means to me, has never made any sense to me. Puppies are easy; humans are hard.

nutmeg said...

Oh, you have scratched an itch for me here! I have three girls and just added a boy to our family. Before I got pregnant with him, people used to look at my three girls and FEEL SORRY for me - like my life couldn't possibly be complete without a boy. When I got pregnant again, everybody made comments about how desperate we must be for the baby to be a boy, because those stinkin' girls, you know. Now we have a boy and strangers cheer for us in the mall! What the hell is all this saying to our girls? SICK culture we've got here folks. (Thanks for letting me vent - I need to go replace my electrolytes now!)

anna said...

I guess that must be one of the differences between us. On the most fundamental level, I don't think humans - at least not the small ones I've helped raise - are hard.

I always longed for a girl and never got one, but if I had, I probably would have treated her like a puppy too!

Heather said...

this post rocks... that's all I've got to say

Claudia said...

Interesting. I have two girls. I always wanted two girls. I am very lucky. My husband wanted girls. One is "easy" and one is "hard." I have very little experience with boys. I have three sisters. My father, while in my life, left my mother when I was 11. All my blood grandfathers were dead before I was born. My husband is an only child. We do not enjoy typical "boy" activities: sports, cars, etc. We didn't know what we'd "do" with a boy but now it doesn't matter. I'm sure if we'd had one, we wouldn't really have thought about it again. I think children, because they are humans, are individuals and should be treated that way. The gender stereotyping needs to die. Let's teach our girls to fix a car engine and our boys to cook and change a diaper. Our kids will thank us for it.

Caroline said...

Here, here (hear, hear?!)! Anyway, yes. This mother of sons thinks, to oversimplify, that fewer boys would grow up to embrace their patriarchal inheritance if they were treated less like puppies and more like the complicated humans they are.

Libby said...

Nutmeg, I got the same thing when I had my son 7-1/2 years after having a daughter, though not quite so obnoxiously. And since I had never really thought one way or the other about having a son I was pretty shocked by it. Claudia, yes, once you have them they just are who they are, aren't they?

Thanks, too, Heather & Caroline. Nice to be validated.

Anonymous said...

Ouch, this hits close to home. I was one of those pregnant women wishing for a boy because I thought it would be "easier" than reliving my teenage angst, and because I wanted that special mother-son bond. TO be fair, my father had just died and I also wanted to name a son after him.

It was only after she was born--and I realized with a shock that she is absolutely different from me (she's blond, physically confident, and, now at three, very determined and autonomous) that I began to question my assumption that a son would be ... well, better.

All my years of education and feminist parents, and it took having a daughter for me to really love being a woman. What a fucked up world.

Great post!


terry said...

I have to go back to the puppy thing for a moment. Raising our dog was way harder at times than raising my sons! I have an essay I am writing now called "Everything I Needed to Know about Raising Boys I Learned at Dog Obedience School." What did I learn? That consciously trying to learn more about it was a good idea. That I needed the support of a community. That all creatures want love and approval. That if you use violence, you teach violence. That they can be taught NOT to eat the hot dog, at least while I am watching! And much, much more. So maybe it is the "easy puppy" part we need to rethink;)

Chris said...

Shouldn't there be a male viewpoint here? Having helped raise two of each, I started with the assumption that a boy would be easier because I know about maleness, but (think) I treated all four pretty much the same. If I were inclined to carry a gun and shoot things, I might have been inclined to do that more with sons - but I'm not. What I remember is reading to them - equally - and going places - together. I do, however, wonder whether the tendency of women to be more verbal doesn't make them more satisfactory when it comes to keeping in touch. The girls do and the boys don't. That makes girls easier on the singe standard of keeping in touch.

Libby said...

Aeron, thanks for your comment. I do think that raising daughters makes a lot of us more feminist--dads and moms alike. And, Terry, I like your notion that we're not thinking right about easy and hard! I know, though, that you are trying to do more than "train" your boys. We don't particularly want puppies who are independent thinkers...And thanks, Dad, for providing books rather than guns!

Heather said...

you should really vent more often. this is great.

Mom said...

A son is your son till he gets him a wife;

A daughter is your daughter all of your life.

Old proverb - maybe the original was in Swedish...

Mom (of 2 sons and 2 daughters, if you didn't know!)

Lilian said...

AWESOME post and very very interesting discussion going on in the comments.

Oh, what your mom just said! Is the only thing that pains/worries me about having only sons -- but, but... it didn't really happen in my husband's family of FOUR boys -- I guess that we, the daughters-in-law, are more like daughters really.

Anyway... this most excellent of posts made me feel kind sad again for not having a girl. In spite of the fact that I don't believe any of these things are true, they are kind of a consolation sometimes -- "oh, yeah, if it's hard with the boys, imagine how it'd be with a girl." Thanks for making me see through that -- OF COURSE it's the misogyny that's embedded in our society that makes people consider girls as harder to raise. AWFUL! And I'd never thought of that!

I don't think raising boys is easy AT ALL -- Kelvin, for example, is a very challenging, if fascinating, person to deal with. I totally get your puppy metaphor -- and I think it has to do with the American culture too, this view that children should be "pushed away" in a sense so they become independent (and quite individualistic, which is the norm of behavior in this society -- I say that as foreigner who has very very few American friends, except now in blogosphere and who has a hard time to live in such a society).

This is particularly true of boys, as the greeting card industry tells us -- and I only found out about it after my son was born and I got these cards (see how I learn about American culture? It's hard for a foreigner to absorb these little things -- we have to find markers here and there and make sense of a whole culture) who are supposed to like "Snips & Snails and Puppy Dog Tails, that's what Little Boys are made of" [While girls are made of what? Sugar Little Girls Are Made Of: Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice? YUCK!!!!!]. Little boys are just supposed to play outdoors and come inside to be fed and tucked into bed, that that's it. Just like a puppy. While girls have to stay inside and be proper...

YUCK again!

Anyway, I could write lots about this, now that you got me started!

And now I want that girl, yes I do :(

kate said...

Hmm, I read this post earlier and have been thinking about it, but not sure I wanted to comment. But I think I will, anyway...

When I found out I was having a boy, I was somewhat disconcerted. I had been imagining raising a strong, feminist girl-- or at least trying to-- (and yes, I know it's just as important, if not more so, to raise a feminist boy!) I didn't know what I would do with a boy, never having been one myself.

And when I found out I was having another boy, I was momentarily taken aback again-- I mean, I loved my son, but I also hoped to have a girl as well. But that only lasted a moment before I got on board with the idea.

And of course my two sons are very different from each other, so I know that they are not all the same, but that doesn't stop me from thinking, now, that if I have another child, it would be easier to have another boy.

Why? Aside from already having all the clothes and toys (of course some of them would be fine for a girl, but some might be less so), I think I have lost my courage around having a girl. Now, the thought of navigating the world of Bratz dolls and overly sexualized clothing and all of that humbles me, more than it energizes me. And the biggest difference, I think, is that a mother is a role model for her daughter in a way that feels different-- and probably is different, to some extent-- from being a role model for sons. That feels like a heavy responsibility.

Intellectually I know that of course it is just as important how I model what it means to be a woman for my sons, but emotionally, the thought of having a daughter as my audience is frankly a bit intimidating.

But if I did (do, at some point?) have a daughter, I'm sure I would just buckle down and meet the challenge as best I could, and probably even discover that it wasn't at all like what I had imagined it to be.

I guess my issues are more about how I would parent a girl, rather than thinking that one gender is in and of itself easier to parent.

But still, probably this is similar to the sentiments you are taking issue with!

Libby said...

thanks, Lilian and Kate! And, Mom, I've heard that rhyme, though I've also heard the reverse sentiment expressed: that girls leave to get married --change their names, etc.-- but boys always come home. I wonder which sentiment comes from where?

Kate, I agree that there are issues, especially dealing with look-ism, hyper-commercialized sexuality, etc., with girls. I just don't think parents of boys should (or even, really, can) avoid dealing with those, too, and parents of boys (and girls) have to deal with the "masculine culture of violence." That said, I can imagine that with two boys one would imagine a third would be "easier"--if nothing else, you'd already have the hand-me-downs!

Magpie said...

I have one child, a girl, and my husband was thrilled to learn that she was a girl...he said he couldn't imagine raising a boy if he turned out to be as rambunctious as my husband had been as a kid (the rolling the car over, blowing off fingers type of kid). So we raise our feisty girl, who wears pink AND gets dirty AND plays house AND races cars through the kitchen.

About the "snips and snails and puppy dog tails" cultural stereotype, we have a copy of Mother Goose in which the girls like snails and tails, and the boys are sugar and spice - it tickles me every single time. (It's by Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells, but I can't remember which one.)