This post first appeared on Tanu Shree Singh's blog Random thoughts
'Girls can't fight.'
That was before I defeated the two of them in the Nerf gun face-off.
Not only did they end up miserably defeated but I managed to confiscate their arms too.
'So you were saying?' I had a distinct air of superiority as the boys stood pleading for their guns.
'Girls can not only fight, but can also kick our sorry backsides at it.' mumbled the little one.
'Huh? Did you say something?'
A louder humiliation and an apology later we settled for goodnight hugs.
Yes, an apology -- for making a generic gender statement. You might argue that it was just a game, but then, that is exactly how it all starts. 'Girls always whine,' 'girls can't fight,' and worse 'girls do not play cricket,' or 'girls love to cook.' -- these are not just random harmless statements, they lay foundation for a dark wall that defines gender boundaries.
Minimising sexism is one of the most daunting tasks that we, as parents, face today. From seemingly harmless stereotyping to abominable acts of sexual violence, all are a product of sexism so rampant that at times it is taken as an inseparable, imperceptible part of our society. As mothers we shield our children, irrespective of their gender, from news pertaining to rape and other forms of sexual attacks. But as women, the onus of responsibility falls on us to raise a generation of braver and more respectful men than before.
Like most moms, I have been hiding newspapers, hurrying to switch channels, and have hushed conversations about it -- all in a bid to protect the boys from news of gruesome acts of violation. There was conflict -- The mother in me wants to shield them, but the woman in me wants to sit them down and tell them. The younger one ended it with three words, 'what is rape?'
It was time. Time to let the can of worms spill. I told them as simply as I could, and tried to answer every query they had. But had I done enough? Are we doing enough? I am a mother of two preteen boys and the horrid thought that some day they might mistreat a young girl, constantly hounds me. When people casually turn and say, 'what do you have to worry, you have sons!' I flinch. And I worry as much as my neighbour who has a teenage daughter. So, as a mother of boys, how can I make it safer for the neighbour's daughter, their female classmates and friends, or for that matter the girl on the road? This is what I try to keep in mind:
My boys can never do such a thing. Any boy, irrespective of financial, or educational background can be tempted to misbehave with girls, belittle them, or harass them. So, the sooner you lose that illusion about innocence, the better. My boys are capable of doing it so I better make sure that I educate and sensitise them otherwise.
Dolls for girls, trucks for boys. So you think that if your son picks a doll, he'll grow up to be a sissy? Wrong. It is perfectly fine if your little boy likes to cuddle with a teddy bear. If girls haven't grown a moustache after playing with Lego, chances are our boys will be fine too. There is no connection between acceptable masculine behaviour and choice of toys. There is, however, a definite connection between varied, healthy choices and a wholesome personality growth. For the record -- my younger one loves to cuddle up with his stuffed raccoon and sissy wouldn't be the word anyone would use for him! Same thing goes for books too. Gender based book category is the most despicable classification that I have come across.
What's on Television? Another reason why I am not a big fan of the idiot box -- The girl forever needs rescuing, boys teasing girls is portrayed as a normal thing, and the idea of perfect woman is entirely delusional. So, keep a check on what they watch, discuss the gender portrayals, and the fact that TV shows aren't real. If the boys watch the hero treat women as an object that adds to one role model they shouldn't be emulating.
Stop justifying! Stop using phrases like, 'You know how boys are!' or, 'boys are wild,' or 'they are boys -- of course they are aggressive.' There is no reason a dash of testosterone should translate into higher aggression, and result in violence. Aggression of any form should not be acceptable, period.
Respect begins at home. If his sister doesn't want to share her toys, he needs to respect that. If you are shouting at the maid, you are teaching your son that it is okay to be rude to women of a weaker financial background. When he gets in a fight with a girl, tell him it is unacceptable to touch. If she or for that matter any classmate is getting nasty with the child, he needs to be encouraged to seek help from an adult.
Talk, talk and more talk! Sometimes listening to the loopy, distracted stories from the school about the day can be excruciating. Make that extra strong cup of coffee for yourself, and listen to them. You have to know what is going on in their life to be able to guide them regarding appropriate behaviour with girls. When the elder one told me he had a fight with a girl, we talked about why it wasn't okay to get into a physical fight with girls, and what constitutes a gender bias in a verbal fight. His verdict: 'Ma, I think I am better off staying away from them.' Yeah, right. We all know he'll come around!
Don't cry like a girl! Excuse me? And how do girls cry? The mechanism is fairly similar. So saying that he is crying like a girl usually tops the silliest-things-ever-said list. Encouraging boys to express, talk about, and acknowledge their feelings will not make them lesser men. When you use such statements, you are squishing two birds with the same stone: You are telling the boy that men do not cry, so whatever it is that's bothering him, needs to be brushed aside, or taken out on someone. And you are also telling him that crying is an inferior thing to do, girls cry a lot, and hence are inferior. Also, when they see a strong assertive woman, it interferes with the picture of a docile, forever teary-eyed woman they have deluded themselves to believe. This can lead to an internal conflict, and sometimes a perceived threat to their manhood.
Talk about sexism. If they do not know what it is, they wouldn't know how not to indulge in it. It takes a lot of information for them to understand the do's and don'ts, and a whole lot of talking to understand the implications of the same. Be honest and they will listen. You can't expect boys to be genetically coded to know of all behaviours that could be labelled as sexist. You have to engrave it on their minds.
Aww, he is still a baby! Trust me, even when he is fifty years old and you are toothless, he'll still be a baby. My elder one is 13, and nearly my height and of course is my baby. The other day, we went out for lunch, and he got up to wash his hands. A young girl of nearly 20 was already at the basin and he, unmindful of the constricted space stood right next to her, making her uncomfortable. So, I gently told him about physical space boundaries that he needed to respect in future. The fact that he is my baby is no excuse for not learning basic etiquette pertaining to minding himself around others. Don't be just besotted with the chubby infant you had birthed a decade ago. Be vigilant and help him adapt to the changed demands from him as a grown up boy.
Fathers, get your act together. Gender awareness is one arena where the male role model can have an indelible mark, so put away the laptop, newspaper or the mobile you are hiding behind, and take charge. Respect your wife, do not hesitate in apologising, help around the house, and stop making statements that reinforce gender bias (like the one about us driving). Talk to your son about respecting boundaries, and being courteous to women. Never hesitate in praising women achievers. These are just some of the things you could do to help him be the man we all hope you both can be.
They will date. Accept it. The sooner you accept that, the healthier it is. Once that reality is digested, you can help him understand the boundaries that he needs to respect in a relationship. Teenage romance might not culminate in marriage, but it definitely lays the foundation of how he treats the partner in a future relationship. So there are going to be girlfriends but we need to decide who would we rather be -- The mom who tells him that it is bad/immoral to fall for someone, or the one who talks to him that it is okay to feel like that at his age, and helps him learn his limits?
Promote sensitivity and kindness If your son is crying over a dead sparrow, an emaciated beggar, or the pet he lost last week -- don't shuffle uncomfortably. Give him a hug, and appreciate his sensitivity. Rewards random acts of kindness with praise, and if need be, a chocochip cookie. A kind, sensitive man is more likely to respect a woman, than the brainless, heartless Mr. Brawn.
This is my list. I keep adding things to it. For, when I was younger, I hurried home before dark, my heartbeat quickened every time I passed through a lonely street, I felt angry when travelling in a bus meant unsolicited stares, and somehow I continue to do so. Hence, each day, I try. I try to undo all that they learn when they step out. I try to get them to see that gender equality doesn't imply crossing boundaries. I try to get them to try varied books, and activities that are so callously labelled as feminine. I try to teach them to question, seek answers, and constantly evolve.
Yes, I am a mother of two boys, and no my fears are no lesser than yours.