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Friday, June 15, 2007
(11:14 AM) | Stephen:
Boys And Girls

Melissa sent me the link to an interesting article in the Opinion Journal - I know! something not completely worthless from the WSJ editorial pages! - about a guy trying to be a good father to three boys. My daughter gets most of my worry time right now because she's 5 years old, and my son is only 9 months old. But as he moves from being a squirmy little worm to a real person with a real personality, I'm starting to shower him with the kind of worry that he deserves as well.

Tony Woodlief, the author, and I have several things in common. The following sentences could have been written about me:
I'm not what you'd call a master of the manly arts. I can't start a fire without a match, or track a deer, or ride a horse. I don't know how to fix cars, and my infrequent forays into home repair usually necessitate medical attention.
Well, I'm a little better off. I can ride a horse, and I'm at least learning how to do stuff at the house; it's amazing what the cost of hiring a plumber can teach you. But I'm not very athletic, I hate camping, and you won't catch me out in 10 degree weather laying in the snow waiting for some deer to come along, hoping that all the drunk numbskulls I'm sharing the forest with don't mistake me for something worth shooting.

Woodlief goes on to talk about the ways in which boys have been negatively stereotyped by this society. In this, he's half right. There is a tendency to demonize normal boy behavior, especially in schools. I'm not trying to say that all girls are this, and all boys are that, but there are some hormonal differences, you know, and those do affect behavior. Schools have become way too interested in forcing total compliance from children and their teachers, with "zero-tolerance" policies and a lessening of teachers' abilities to handle situations with their own best judgment. And to be clear, this is not the fault of psychologists or administrators, but the current trend to blame schools for every problem in this country, to institute standardized testing at every grade and to insert the judgment of the school board and parents into every decision instead of allowing professionals to do their jobs.

Boys are prescribed Ritalin at way higher rates than girls precisely because Ritalin suppresses the types of behavior boys are more likely to evince, and even beyond prescriptions boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls.

But Woodlief takes these things and heads down the wrong path entirely, using them to justify a call to some old idea of "manliness" as espoused by people who lived and died 100 years ago. Certainly we have advanced enough that we're not left with some false dualism, some silly idea that one can be "manly" or "womanly" and that those words are to be defined according to 10,000 year old traditions.

I'm glad that he wants to allow his sons to simply be who they are. Where Woodlief goes wrong is in the way he denigrates his own personality in the process. Somehow he's internalized the idea that he isn't a good role model for his sons, so he has to make sure they get exposed to "manliness" and can grow up to be different than him. It's a shame, really, that he doesn't think highly enough of himself to just be who he is rather than trying to fit himself into an outdated mold like Teddy Roosevelt.

See, that's the real secret of parenting. If my son grows up loving the outdoors, sports and inherits his granddad's massive talents for working with his hands, then I want to encourage that. If he loves to paint, or read books, play musical instruments or the ballet, I'll encourage that as well, without feeling like I'm obligated to push him one way or another.

My daughter currently loves dolls, the colors pink and purple, anything that has a Disney princess and playing dressup. That's all great. She may stay "girly" forever, or she might head off in another direction. And my job will be to continue to accept her and encourage her in who she is, not who I think she should be.

Woodlief also talks about teaching his sons morality, but in a fairly ridiculous way:
Maybe the problem isn't that boys are aggressive, but that we've neglected their moral education. . . . .Manliness, then, is not the ability to survive in the wilderness, or wield a rifle. But having such skills increases the odds that one's manly actions--which Roosevelt and others believed flow from a moral quality--will be successful.
If it's what my son will respond to, then I'll tell him that moral virtues are "manly." But I'm not going to buy into the idea that being able to survive in the wilderness will make a boy moral.

In fact, morality is a fairly universal idea. An action should not be moral for one person and immoral for another. My daughter and my son will not be raised according to different moral codes. Both of them will be raised to respect others and treat them with dignity. Both of them will learn from me the difference between right and wrong, the value of compassion, their obligations to those in need. I cannot comprehend the idea that there are moral values which apply to my son and not my daughter just because one of them has more testosterone than the other.

And that's the other half of the equation, the part that Woodlief gets wrong. Girls are also negatively stereotyped, of course. They aren't good at math, they cry easily, they're not strong, they're moody, they can't make their own decisions. As they get older, they aren't to be trusted to safeguard their own sexuality, they're deceitful seductresses who deserve what they get, they're targets for psychos' suppressed rage, they shouldn't be allowed to make their own reproductive decisions from birth control to whether or not they can successfully raise a child.

While Woodlief is raising his boys to be manly and that manly is moral, is he unconsciously teaching them that not being manly is immoral? What will that do to his sons and the way they interact with women, if they have been taught that they are men, they are manly and that is the source of their strength of character and morality? Will that not mean that women, who are not manly, are therefore immoral?

Raise your children as people. Let them be the individuals they are, without judgment, without projecting your own inadequacies and society's dysfunctions on them. Let them explore that which interests them and encourage them to learn, to play, to be active and thoughtful. That's all they require, really. The rest is just extraneous worry, and take it from an expert, we can all do with less worrying about nonsense.

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