Boys and Cultural Stereotypes
“Is it OK for my son to play dress-up like a princess and dance like a girl?” asked Bob, a father, after one of our parenting seminars. Bob, who had the look of a former college athlete, and his wife were concerned for their five-year-old boy and some of his behaviors. At the same time, Bob didn’t want to squash his personality or crush his son’s spirit. He also worried that his son might be bullied because he did not fit into cultural stereotypes.
Here are the two points of advice I gave these parents:
Affirm and Validate
True gender differences and gender roles come from God our Creator. But every culture expects certain stereotypical behaviors from boys and girls, men and women. The problem with this is that, since Genesis 3, every culture’s ideas on gender contain fallen elements. So, before we guide our sons away from certain behaviors that our culture deems unacceptable, we have to ask if a clear, biblical line is really being crossed.
All our little guys, whether or not they present any gender atypical behaviors, need us to envelop them in love and affirmation. We need to affirm them first of all for who they are. They need to hear, “I’m so glad God sent you to us,” and “I love you!” before we affirm what they do by saying, “You’re great at ________,” or “I’m glad you do ___________.”
Oftentimes parents are worried when their sons have different temperaments, talents, and interests that are not stereotypical for boys. Dads need to honestly deal with the idol of having a son just like them — a chip off the old block. Therefore, affirm and validate to your son that his personality and gifts are from God. Tell your son that God will raise him up to bless the world and build up His Kingdom through his unique giftings.
Dad, whatever you’re into, from football, baseball, basketball, or anything from NASCAR and monster trucks to investing stocks and the golf channel, you’ve got to let “it” go as a must for your son. Instead, find out what your child’s personality, gifts, and passions are, then support them, develop them, and cultivate an appreciation of them. This means that a godly football coach whose son loves art, dance, and drama needs to supportively show up for recitals or performances, appreciate the inner complexities of his son’s fine art with him, and celebrate his efforts and successes.
Protect and Guide
Bob and his wife have an idea of their young son’s personality but not a clear sense of his giftings and passions yet. Dads like Bob fear that other boys may bully their sons when they see their gender atypical behavior. And this is a very valid concern.
We have to protect our little boys, and that means having our radar up for bullying and shaming. So we have to be engaged, observant, and step in to stop verbal or physical abuse by other boys. And yet we must beware of a “helicopter parent’s” tendencies to overprotect.
The way to protect your son from being bullied is not to isolate him from other boys and boyish activities. This is where gentle guidance comes in. We want to help our little guys find safe ways to integrate into the world of boys, which eventually becomes a world of men.
With my son, we’ve tried most of the major sports, dabbled in some martial arts, put him in a choir, started trumpet lessons, and tried some art classes. At nine, we are still discerning his top gifts and cultivating his passions. Try and sample lots of boy-related as well as general kids’ activities, but be wary of demanding or requiring your son to remain in an activity he doesn’t like or stay in a setting in which he does not feel safe.
Now, remember, Bob had a specific question about dress-up and dancing. And in helping your son grow up, there are times when you need to gently guide and redirect his behaviors and help reshape some of his attitudes. My son held my hand and clung to me like glue when I first started taking him to Cub Scouts. He was probably feeling overwhelmed and anxious in a loud, crowded place. But, like Bob, I didn’t want him to be the brunt of ridicule.
I started to gently break his habit of holding my hand and hanging back when we went to Scouts. I simply said, “Guys don’t usually hold their dad’s hand all the time unless they are in a dangerous place.” I would even leave the room to go to the water fountain so that he had interact with the boys. He is more reserved and less rambunctious than some of the other boys, but eventually he found his place, figured out some social cues, and began to enjoy the loud, large group meetings.
Note that I didn’t shame my son with any “Man up!” commands. I did not say, “A real man doesn’t ______” to ‘toughen him up’. When a dad says, “We guys do _____ or don’t ______,” we are guiding and redirecting rather than isolating and shunning. This way we can help our sons feel like they’re on our team and that they belong in our tribe of men.
As parents, and especially dads, we need to pray for wisdom in raising little guys up to be men who follow Christ, our savior and ultimate model for manhood.