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Devon Corneal Headshot

What Are Little Boys Made Of?

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Several months ago I wrote about how I reacted and felt when I found out I was having a boy and had to put away my dreams of raising a daughter so I could embrace raising a son. More recently I recommended a summer reading list for kids and organized the books into groups for "boys" and "girls." These two very different posts had one thing in common -- a fair number of readers were offended because they thought I was stereotyping boys and girls. I even got my first *eyeroll* on Twitter.

In short, they thought I was sexist.

I found this troubling, because most "ist" words tend to freak me out. Racist. Narcissist. Ageist. Chauvinist. They're divisive, and for a girl who spent her 20's proudly calling herself a feminist (an "ist" I like), the accusation stung. I looked it up because "sexist" seemed so counter to who I am that I worried I didn't know the right definition. (This also seemed important because I just discovered that my 4-year old believes that "jealous" means the same thing as "happy." Sometimes, words don't mean what we think they mean.)

Sexism, it turns out, is either "prejudice or discrimination based on sex" or "behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex." The first definition seems bad. But I don't think that was what my unhappy readers were referring to. Fostering stereotypes about Little Dude's activities and proclivities because he's a boy, however? Would buying him toolbelts, blocks, train sets and police officer costumes or grouping books into boy and girl categories count as perpetuating stereotypes about gender roles?

Guilty as charged.

I'd like to make everyone happy and renounce my sexist ways, but I'm having trouble. You see, I believe boys and girls are different. I don't think that's a horrible thing to say. In fact, I think it is an important thing to say. Not only because it explains why, when I pick my son up from preschool, the girls are braiding Miss Jessica's hair and the boys are crashing toy cars on the playground, but also because it gives us permission to recognize and even celebrate those differences.

I don't accept that to be a good parent I have to paint my son's room beige and purchase gender-neutral stories about plants or farm animals. I don't aspire to raise a genderless child, like the family in Canada who kept their son's sex under wraps for five years in order to prevent people from defining his gender for him. Even if I thought conducting a psychological experiment on my kid was ok, I couldn't keep a secret that long. You should see me at Christmas. It's not pretty.

This isn't to say I want to raise a caveman for a son (and I do hope I'm not offending any cavemen out there -- would that make me "cave-ist"?) or force girls to dream only of getting married and raising babies. It's just that denying our differences won't get us anywhere, especially when the scientific literature seems to suggest two things: 1) there are innate, biological differences between males and females (whether it is brain size or function, hormonal levels, stress responses, or the like), and 2) those differences matter, but they don't rigidly or inexorably predetermine our lives. Biology is not always destiny. There's a whole lot of nurture, free will, self-determination, life experience, parenting or call-it-whatever-you-want that can and will affect who our kids are and who they will become. That's what's important. That's where parenting matters. Because there's a huge divide between acknowledging gender differences and using those differences to limit our children's choices or opportunities.

If traits are innate and biological, then I say we should accept them. For one, doing so will save us from the exhaustion of trying to change things that can't be changed. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard a parent say that from the moment their son came out of the womb, he wanted to play with cars, no matter how many other toys were put in front of him. Ditto for girls and pink princesses. There's nothing wrong with that. What's a problem is if that's all our children are allowed to play with because we've precluded them from exploring other options or aren't willing to challenge nefarious stereotypes. Our job as parents isn't to hide our heads in the sand about gender differences. We should recognize that differences exist and then support and nurture our children's choices to be who they want to be -- and who they feel comfortable being.

I am still trying to figure out the balance. My son is a boy's boy. He likes trucks, cars, dirt, and wrestling. Nothing will change that. However, he also says his favorite colors are "rainbow" and "sparkle." My husband and I encourage him to cook and garden, he has a play kitchen and apron, and we praise him when he does pirouettes in the living room. When he showed an interest in babies, we got him his own doll to take care of and he is meticulous in making sure Jack is appropriately dressed and fed. He watches Dora, and reads Olivia, Madeline, Eloise and Minerva von Vyle. Last week he had a playdate with his best friend and the two of them enjoyed wearing his friend's sisters' dresses. Fine by me. Not only is it adorable, it will make a great opening photo for the slideshow I plan on creating for his wedding. I won't, however, let him wear nail polish or my high heels. Not because I think those things are "girly." It's because I think four is too young to start wearing make-up of any sort and I'm worried he'll break his ankle.

I'm also against preschoolers going to tanning beds and getting their tongues pierced, but I don't think I'm alone on that front. I have my limits. I hope they're more about common sense than sexism.