I have three children — two girls and a boy. My boy, 7, is my monkey in the middle, and there is no child who knows girls' needs better than a little boy sandwiched between two of them. His older sister is the joining queen. If there is an activity, she wants to be doing it. And half of those activities are about girl empowerment.
There was the mother-daughter Girls Leadership seminar we did. It was great. We role-played how to navigate social situations and learned about emotions. Then there's her all-girls camp, where feminist quotes are plastered all over the bathroom stalls. "Does the fact that women earn 75 cents on the dollar to men bother you? Then get mad," read the one I glanced at during moms weekend. She's on an all-girl running team with branches all over the U.S. that is as much about the sport as it is about teaching girls how to advocate for themselves and make lasting friendships.
"What about me, Mommy?" my son asked last month after dropping off his sister at her running meet. "Is there a team like that for me?"
I asked around. There are a few organizations that encourage noncompetitive running in boys, but by and large, the response I received when people were pressed was pretty typical: "All other sports are for boys!"
But what about the boy like mine? The sensitive boy who quit karate because he couldn't stand the sparring? The kid who wants to have fun and learn how to channel his emotions without competition and contact?
It's not just girls who need empowerment and emotional outlets. And yet we have focused almost all recent attention on that. As the mom of two girls, I am thrilled my daughter is learning at 8 what I (and my mother) could have only dreamed about. These changes are wonderful and will bring equality. But we have to do right by our boys too. And right now, it doesn't seem like we are.
More than one-third of my friends have sons who are being diagnosed with ADD. And while a few boys I know are into sports, a lot more seem to be unfocused and scattered. They are told to "man up" by fathers who don't know better. Last year my son had long hair, and more than a couple of local dads made their disdain for his "girl hair" known.
"Why don't you make him look more like a boy?" a friend's husband asked. This is the message boys are getting. If they don't fit into a very narrow definition of masculinity — strong, rambunctious, athletic, violent, nonemotional — then they are seen as unworthy. And yet there are so many boys who aren't like that. I shouldn't have to point out that every child is an individual as opposed to a gender. But I do. Every day.
These boys who are different are suffering. And then the men they become are unhappy. Newsflash: Men have emotions too. In fact, as a parent to both, I'd say my children are about on par when it comes to emotional meltdowns and hurt feelings and friendship drama. But "girls are drama," right?
When we ignore boys' emotional needs and tell them to "man up," when we insist that all boys need is a ball and an open space to "work on their emotions," when we dismiss boys as being "easy" and girls as being "drama," we hurt all of our kids. I am not saying we need to accept bad behavior as "boys will be boys," but I am saying when a boy acts up, it's not always because he needs to channel that energy into lacrosse. Sometimes he has hurt feelings he can't express. Sometimes he has social drama. Sometimes he feels like he is not as smart or as attractive or as funny or as popular as another child. He needs self-esteem and empowerment too.
The fact is, we are doing a disservice to all our children by putting them into these categories. There is no "easy" gender. There is no "drama" gender. Both boys and girls need empowerment. And while it's true that boys and girls often have different needs, it seems like we ought to focus on meeting them both. To raise good women, we need good men.
To raise good men, we need to focus on them as individuals and stop treating them with a one-size-fits-all approach. Boys have emotional needs too. It's high time we started meeting them.
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