I am a child of the 70s, a child of equal rights, of feminism, of the era of sensitive males. I grew up believing that anything boys could do, girls could do better, that women could compete with men, toe-to-toe and head-to-head, but that men still were supposed to open doors and that boys couldn’t hit girls.
My sister and I were the only children and the only grandchildren. We learned (with varying degrees of success) to cook, clean, sew, shoot, whittle, fish, sail, row, woodwork, and dig really deep holes in really hard clay (ask about the swimming pool debacle of 1990 sometime.) There was no “men’s work” or “women’s work” in our childhood home; there was just work. There were chores to be done and whoever was best suited or was free at the time did them. We played with dolls and with Tonka trucks, had tea parties and waged battle in forts. In our day, there was still a term for girls who “played like boys” – tomboy.
I married a man who could cook and clean, who would be an equal partner in child-rearing, not (as I told my mother-in-law early on) because I was lucky, but because in my mind, these things were required. I entered a profession, once dominated by men, at a time when the pendulum was swinging the other direction. Today, roughly 90% of graduating veterinarians in the U.S. are female.
This trend in veterinary medicine mirrors educational trends throughout the country – more and more women are holding higher and higher degrees.
In general, I applaud all of these societal shifts. I’m female. I have never had any desire to be defined by my gender or my reproductive capacity. Yet, I can’t help wondering – as our societal expectations for men and women have evolved, what are we leaving behind.
For those of you who are parents, think of your children’s classes for a moment. What is the gender breakdown of kids who are considered “difficult,” “challenging,” or “hyperactive?” I’d be willing to bet that the percentages skew heavily toward the boys. Now think back to your own childhood. How many of the men among you (or brothers, neighbors, or cousins of the women) played with toy guns, owned a BB gun, set things on fire, or played with illicit explosives? Come on, don’t be shy. Raise your hands.
I’ve been taking the same informal poll for the past 20+ years, and so far the results have been unanimous. Ever adult man of any generation I have questioned has admitted to lighting something on fire or blowing something up as a kid. Most of them played army or war. Many admit to “near misses” and “close calls” – brushes with mortality of which they still hope their mothers are unaware. Many report getting in the odd fist-fight or two – over name calling, a toy, a girl.
Now, jump back into the present.
How often do kids roam the neighborhood in packs – on foot, bicycle, or skateboard? We tether them to electronic leashes (cell phones) or shuttle them from one supervised activity to another. Homemade explosives of any sort tend to attract the attention of federal law enforcement. Kids are helmeted, padded, and sunscreened to the extent that they may as well be placed in plastic hamster balls.
Historically, the classroom setting – despite the complaints of my generation that teachers “favored boys” – has had a female bias. Since the late 1800s, teaching has been one of the more feminine professions, and the virtues of the classroom (sit still, wait to speak, focus on one task at a time) tend (though not always) to come more easily to the girl-child than the boy. But, boys had recess.
Again, think back. Who dominated your childhood playground? Where did the exuberance and aggression of youth happen?
My kids are fortunate – their classroom setting provides opportunities for active as well as passive learning. Boys and girls alike are taught skill such as handwork, cooking, gardening, and woodworking. They are allowed to wrestle and to climb trees.
Yet, I see a trend that troubles me. Increasingly, parents are demanding a crackdown on “aggressive play” on the playground – a banning of sticks as “weapons,” a ban on “war games.” Ok, so I don’t want kids whacking each other with sticks, and I’m generally opposed to war and killing in real life. But, when did we become so afraid of our innate aggressions that we grew terrified to let our children playact?
I’ve heard people say that kids can’t distinguish between the world of imagination and that of reality. This may be true for the 3-4 year old, but for the grade-schooler, I call Bullshit. I’ve seen young kids, immersed in a fantasy world, look derisively at a parent who attempts to join in. “It’s just make-believe, Mom,” they say. “Duuuuhhh.”
It isn’t PC nowadays to say it, but men and women are not the same. Equal is not alike. Boys and girls have different parts, different hormonal influences, and different evolutionary drives. Yes, nurture impacts nature. But we dismiss our nature at our peril.
I’m reading an advance copy of a terrific non-fiction book called Zoobiquity. This book, written by a human cardiologist, looks at the correlations between diseases and conditions across species. One chapter is devoted to adolescents and adolescent risk. Across many species, one demographic stands out in the fields of risk-taking and aggression. You guessed it: the young male.
Think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. Which males are most likely to survive and to reproduce their genetics? Sorry, not the sweet, sensitive, cautious ones.
No, I’m not advocating a return to the era of the cave man or even to disco. But I do worry that we are systematically stripping away behaviors, mores, and character traits associated with masculinity without replacing these traits. We have created a world in which women and girls expand well beyond traditional or evolutionary roles, while at the same time narrowing the world of men. You can nurture, we tell our men – but most primary caregivers are still female. We honor your service, we tell our soldiers, but we chide our sons for playing army. Even in the bedroom, we women have taken an increasingly assertive role (and I say yay), but what have we left as “appropriate” for masculine sexual expression? (I’m only qualified to speak to heterosexual interactions.)
My son turned ten yesterday. I worry about him sometimes – sandwiched between two sisters, raised by a mother with no brothers and a father who never knew his own dad. I wonder if we are giving him enough of a sense of his own identity and place, as a male and as a person. I don’t want him to grow up “masculine” in the misogynistic, hyper-aggressive, insecure-hiding-behind-macho sense, but I do want him to have a strong identity and a place of his own in the world. I don’t want him to grow up afraid of his own strength, of his darknesses, and of his power. I don’t want that for him, or for any of his generation.
Right now, Aidan knows who he is. He will shake his hips to Lady Gaga or wield a Nerf Gun with the best of them. He’s fine playing “Pretty Pretty Princess” with Sierra (with the indulgent sighs of an older brother humoring his baby sister) or with leading her on an armed assault against an unknown enemy. He will cuddle into our laps for snuggles or try to burp the alphabet.
It should (though in deference to the black and white nature of modern society and the internet, I’ll say it anyway) go without saying that I’m not a fan of fighting, war, sexual violence, objectification of women, arson, or risk-taking-induced injuries. But, the fact that I don’t like these things doesn’t eliminate them from the species. I wonder what we are losing when we consistently strip away opportunities to test boundaries and to find identity. Thanks to modern agriculture, technology, and medical advances, we no longer need men to fill the roles of hunter or protector. But what are we giving our boys in return?
Amazonian fantasies aside, no good will come of a society of ill-educated, insecure, or submissive men. We need to either find new ways for our boys to test and challenge themselves or to loosen the reins of political correctness and fear. Shifting the pendulum to a female-centric society will do no more good than a history of patriarchy has done. Women lose when they are denied the opportunities to work with, compete against, and partner with men equally. When we are denied the chances to work through our darkness, how are we supposed to fully develop our light?