How to not reinforce toxic masculinities when giving advice to young boys about interacting with young girls.
I was invited to join my son to his mother's friend's (far outside of my friend group) holiday gathering a few hours ago, yesterday technically, and while I was a bit reluctant, once I told my son I was invited, he said it was the best Christmas ever and spoke about how excited he was. I had to go.
Taylor is turning 6 next week. He was joined by a 5-year-old (self-identified?) girl who's birthday is three days from his. They are the same age.
What do you do when a girl repeatedly slaps your son's ass, pushes his head into the couch, tugs him to play with her, fake punches and kicks him, and more? What do you do?
Here's what I did. When it first started, I redirected the 'play' to things that were less physical like drawing and video games - we ended up watching a movie. It went something like this: "Excuse me, we don't play like that, okay? Because someone will get hurt and start crying so let's find something else to do. Shall we?"
Then it continued after the movie (obviously) so I tried the more firm intervention approach. "Hello? Thank you. Would it be alright if we stopped playing this way? He seems very uncomfortable." And continued with, "Taylor, you have to tell her to stop hitting you and that you don't like that. She will continue unless you let her know."
You get the point. Basically, we tried all civil routes and she just kept pestering my child. Let's do some unraveling of this situation. For one, this little girl is a girl. She knows she is a girl. The same way that Taylor knows he is a boy. Soon they will know it's all socially constructed, but until then, this is their reality. They both understand the ways that their gender identities grant them certain privileges and holds them by certain standards - whether they choose to follow that is another thing, but they know, especially at this age. Trust me.
You don't believe me? I have an example. Taylor nearly started crying because she was inviting him to play with her dollhouse. He ran to me and told me that he cannot play with girl toys because he isn't a girl. I reminded him that she played a Batman video game with him and it didn't make her any less of a girl so playing with her toys won't make him any less of a boy and that toys are not gender exclusive (sometimes I have to just insert some jargon in there for good measure). That's not all though. They know that boys cannot hit girls. They know that boys aren't supposed to be affected by bullying, especially bullying from a girl! They know that adults are watching and although I'm [always] the only one paying attention, they know the adults in the room will notice if any of their actions disrupt gender norms because they've tried it or seen people try it and watched them get policed back into the binary. They know, they know, they know.
I saw my son struggle with not being able to defend himself physically. I saw my son struggle with outpouring his frustration with her to people in the apartment. I saw him attempt to avoid her. I saw him run from her around the apartment. I saw him ask me for help. And this is where I want to know if I've failed him. When he asked me for help, I simply addressed the girl one of my very passive questions in hopes that she'd cut it out.
In a debrief with my son this evening after we got home, we spoke about this and he explained that even after I told her to stop, she just did it when they were in places that I couldn't see them and even when he told her, she didn't stop. That was when I became extremely vulnerable. After telling him that I was so proud of him for not hitting her back because hitting doesn't solve problems, it just starts and ends fights, I went into uncharted territory by telling him that I realize I should have told the girl's mom that she was acting up and I feel really bad for making that mistake. This may seem like an obvious thing for you reading this account but remember, this was a friend group that I didn't know and I was merely an invited guest - maybe even invited because my son complained about me not being at the last get-together, so I was very conscious of that with every move, including this one. So I explained that next time he could even talk to a child's mom and so we rehearsed what that conversation would look like between him and someone's mom. He did well. We hugged and continued to talk about integrity and how important these types of debriefing conversations are because we can learn and plan for next time to work as a more effective team and even when we are alone.
It was ridiculously hard for me not to talk about everything that I felt. I truly feel like this girl had a crush on Taylor because he was trying to avoid her so much and she kept coming to him annoying him, purposely. Is this true or is this my conditioning? Is this my patriarchal hope that my son is so irresistible that evil little girls just gravitate with love and show it with evil little girl gestures like tugging across a room and ass-slapping? How dangerous would it have been if I would have said, "Taylor, don't worry about it! She was just being mean because she likes you and that's what girls do when they like boys." I think that's a very common approach and I was very close to saying that but thought about how that could do a few hurtful things to my son's brain:
1. It could invalidate the stress he was feeling by being exposed to violence by a girl.
2. It could show him that physical violence between him and someone else (maybe even a domestic partner?) is completely acceptable and maybe even something to seek in a potential partner.
3. It could show that physical violence is a cue for love and a form of affection from girls/women or 'people who like you.'
4. It could make him think that girls who do nice things to him don't like him and that the mean girls do like him. When in fact it could be the complete opposite, it could be they both like him, it could be neither group likes him.
5. It could strip the power of women away from them by showing his little kindergarten self that they have limited emotional intelligence and cannot distinguish the difference between hurting and hugging.
I can go on and on but the reality is that comments like these are always shared with our sons and I am working against that, every single day, to show him that people will be able to love him in authentically healthy ways, without physical, emotional, or verbal abuse attached. This is also an effort to show him that he does not have to assert his masculinity in every instance and that it is okay to feel frustrated and/or accept invitations to play with pink toys.
The road to anti-patriarchal masculinities is long, vulnerable, and scary but intergenerational dialogues, especially within the family, are the headlights on the vehicle trying to avoid as many potholes as possible. We definitely hit a few bumps today but we didn't hit any potholes! I'm so grateful to have such an awesome co-navigator.
I received an incredibly important comment a few months ago when this article was originally posted regarding my use of the term evil little girl. It took me a long time to process the use of the phrase and I have a lot of different ways I can begin to defend that use and I'm still not sure I should remove it or not. I did want to point out that their comment was very important and it was somehow removed so I felt the need to create the space for myself to be called out. I am debating on whether to remove it or not, I think I lean on it being a teachable moment for myself and a discussion to have about public writing.