I was in the 7th grade the first time I heard Gloria Steinem speak. She was on an evening news show. With every word she said on equal rights and equal pay, I promised myself that I would raise any children I had in my future as equals — regardless of gender.
Now, I am the mother of three sons, and this promise to myself has proved more difficult than imagined. Despite my efforts to guide and discipline within the framework of that parenting vow from decades ago, I fear societal expectations still affect how we raise boys.
Are they to be tough heroes in the way many movies, books and shows portray them? Or are they to be the kind and compassionate new model of male? It's not clear to them, and even in the same space with which I share my hopes for them, the world often says otherwise.
Two years ago, when my son was 11, he became interested in jewelry making. We were at a craft store one afternoon when he saw a kit that would move him on to the next level of skill. I went to lift the box off the shelf, excited to buy it for him. He put his hand on mine to stop me. In a panic, he said, "It's pink! I can't get it!"
What is our culture telling our boys?
The shocking answer to me that day was that anything for girls was bad. If it was for girls, boys can't have it or else they're not "boys." At this tender age, the cusp of puberty, my 11-year-old son wanted to identify as a boy and be accepted as a boy. But that would mean saying no to this pink-colored box. Even if he did want it.
We need to prepare this next generation of sons who are emerging from the once clear cultural line between male and female. But by telling a boy that "girly" items are off limits, we are limiting their pursuit to discover who they are.
In her book, "Raising Boys," author Dr. Peggy Drexler talks about the complicated issue of defining today's boys. Her pioneering research in a new form of parenting, which rejects social judgments about gender stereotype and stresses the importance of communication, community and love, shows a seemingly better way to raise tomorrow's men.
"We need to revisit, enlarge the idea and expand the definition of what it means to be male, to be a boy who grows up to be a man," she said.
How then, do we move forward and provide our boys with the benefits of limitless choices in possibility of personality, emotion, temperament, feelings, talents, moods, choices, interests and friendships?
"We parent with love, connection and communication. We don't paint being male as better or stronger. It's the music of love and the secret of sound children. You listen carefully, you respond the best way you can, and you foster your children's interests and give them loving guidance. We support them and teach them," said Drexler.
What about chivalry?
But there still needs to be a balance with what came before. The role of chivalry - once the moral and social code of knights - can still apply to today's boys and men in an expanded role.
It remains critical to teach our children to offer their seat when all are taken, to open a door for a stranger, to help carry books or packages for someone they see in need of help. And it still remains important to teach our boys to respect women.
I tell my children that when we show respect to others, we show respect for ourselves. We can be proud of how we choose to interact with people. We can walk tall because we treat others with kindness and respect. In the face of some of today's lingering societal attitudes toward women, it's crucially important that they see women as deserving of respect. Feminism cannot be seen as an excuse to neglect courtesy and respect.
Teaching our boys about the inequities women face is key.
Cheri Fuller, author of "What a Son Needs From His Mom," writes, "Men who grow up putting women down make poor spouses and fathers, poor employees, business owners and co-workers."
When we teach our sons to be diligent in their treatment of women, we are making our world better and are raising valuable citizens for our communities.
How can I best raise my sons?
In Dr. L. Kohlberg's book, "The Philosophy of Moral Development," we read of a new set of family values as it applies to sons. With 40 percent of homes now being headed by a female, the landscape of family is changing. What we are beginning to witness is vital, and Dr. Kohlberg explains how society can benefit from new men in the making.
"Sons who have been brought up to embrace diversity and inclusiveness to communicate and to cooperate and negotiate instead of resorting to aggression, not only will bring these qualities to their own families but will see their professional environment as an extension to their family and family values. As a result, they'll be increasingly selective about the vocations they choose, the jobs they take, the companies they work for and invest in, the communities they opt to live in. And then whatever area they touch will rise to the highest level of family values," she said.
Somewhere, my son had learned that pink was for girls, and that it's bad for a boy to want things for a girl. This was limiting him and making him say no to what he was interested in. I asked my son that day to hear my voice above the voice of his peers. It's hard for him as a child, to place trust in his parent when it's his peer group he looks to for acceptance. It is, after all, your peer group that will tease you, and it is society and what they say you need to be that is your fear.
When we ask our sons to trust us, are we sending them out into the world to be ridiculed for the things that they enjoy? Whether they trust us as a parent or make the choice to conform to their peers, they are walking into a world where they will have to make a choice. How do we teach our sons to stand strong against the brace of cultural expectation for them?
In a later interview, Gloria Steinem spoke of her dreams for our next generation: "I hope that one day we will no longer change the unique individual to fit society, but that we support each other in our solutions."
Our challenge as a parent has always been to bring up our children strong, resilient and with a fortitude of mind, body, and spirit able to last through all the living of life. Our support of their choices and roles they aspire to in their lives are what we hope they need to carve out their own path and direction.
If we want to teach our sons how to handle significant obstacles and help them find the courage to take their first steps, what then are our first steps?
For Tina Seitzmann, mother of two sons, she began with teaching her boys a motto that she grew up with, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Another mom of sons, Shari McCue, maneuvers through with love.
"It's hard work, but I tell my boys that I am growing up with them. They aren't alone, and we are learning together," she siad.
Brigit Keitzler, mother of one son, explains that listening is her foundation in raising a boy.
"I want him to talk. My father was silent. I want more than this for my son. I want him to see how talking helps everyone, especially himself," she said.
The discussions I've shared with my own three sons has shown me over and over their maturity, and how I'm growing into mine as a parent, too. I value how safe they feel being honest with me and how they share what they don't feel free to tell others. I don't want my sons to ever feel alone, no matter what their questions are. I'm not just a parent, I'm a human, and like them, still learning about myself, too.
Along with that promise I made years ago to raise my children equally with love and promise of opportunity, I now have added that I am here to help them transition to the next part of their lives, with confidence and acceptance of who they are. I don't want my sons to have to decide between who they want to be and who they think the world wants them to be.
Maybe today, that begins, with helping a boy not allow the color of a craft kit to stop him from pursuing what brings him pleasure.■
Alexandra Rosas is a blogger for Metroparent and mom of three boys.
Dr. Michael Thompson, co-author of "Raising Cain," writes of protecting the emotional life of boys. He gives the following advice:
Give boys approval for the full range of human emotions and help them to develop an emotional vocabulary.
"The simple idea here is that you consciously speak to a boy's internal life all the time, whether he is aware of it or not. You respect it, you take it into account, you make reference to it, you share your own. If you act as if your son has an internal life — if you assume that he does, along with every other human being — then soon he will take it into account."
Recognize and accept the high activity level of boys and give them safe places to express it.
"Many parents of boys do embrace the physicality of boys. Some do not. Most teachers of boys also love boys; some, unfortunately, do not. Boys are tremendously sensitive to adults who do not have a reasonable tolerance level for boy energy, and when they do sense that a person has a low threshold of boy tolerance, they usually respond to it as a challenge. Boys need to learn how to manage their physicality to do no harm, but they need not be shamed for exuberance."
Talk to boys in their language in a way that honors their pride and their masculinity. Be direct with them. Use them as consultants and problem solvers.
"Because boys fear feeling and vulnerability, it is important to communicate with them in a way that honors their wish for strength and does not shame them. Is communicating with boys sometimes difficult? Yes, it often is. Is it impossible? Almost never. If you are willing to ask consultative questions, put your emotional cards on the table and not be disappointed by brief answers, you can communicate with boys."