We need to discard the stereotypes if we’re to raise our children well


I was drawn to Lauri Hennessey’s piece (“Raising a boy who hugs his mom”) because of the headline, thinking it would celebrate a ritual we’ve prized in my family for generations. I was saddened to find within the essay a tradition of a different kind, one that I had hoped we were eliminating from our ways of raising children — stereotypes along gender lines (as well as clichés referencing gay designers and producers).

With the notion that “powerful boys are those who have dads who teach them all the boy stuff and moms who teach them it’s OK to cry or to hug…,” the implications are immediately marginalizing. First, it slices in half the prospects for those kids with single moms and dads who, by such reasoning, can only parent according to their chromosomal luck of the draw. In a society where half of all marriages end in divorce, men and women, and society in general, need to recognize that the full range of lessons imparted to children can come from both mother and father. But never mind marital statistics. The premise that we should limit ourselves, much less our children, to a proscribed set of activities and instinctive behaviors according to our sex is archaic.

I was raised on a ranch, where boys milked the cows, mowed lawns and earned summer wages driving grain trucks, while the girls entered pie-baking contests, cleaned house, canned and fed harvest crews in exchange for the promise of a college education — if they didn’t get married first. Aside from the unfairness of the latter part of that bargain (which has since been ushered into obsolescence with the aid of the women’s movement), my five brothers, two sisters and I grew up watching our very masculine father sashay into the kitchen on Saturdays with an “oh, goody” smile and roll up his sleeves to help my very capable mom knead bread dough. He was no stranger to a dishpan, knew exactly how to operate a mop and at 87 still claims his right to be half of the salsa making team. Mind you, this is a man who broke horses as a teenager, could take apart a combine and knew how to stitch up a prolapsed cow at the end of a catastrophic delivery. (I don’t know whether he could have designed the interiors of our home, but I imagine if he’d had a little extra time he’d have had opinions that would have translated nicely.)

When at age six I learned from him the finer points of frying an over-easy egg, he and I became the official breakfast makers until I graduated high school. I never wondered whether his sensitive egg-frying nature rendered him less manly, I just knew he and I were a team, and I treasured our morning ritual. The mindsets of the time challenged us all to find the difference between conventions handed down by decree and those taught by example. The best gifts my parents gave to us kids were the examples they imparted on a daily basis, ones that genuinely defied the clichés of male and female behavior. Without any proclamation, the strongest message I took away from home was that we were all capable of being and doing anything.

When I found out I was having a son, knowing it would be my only child, I shed a tear. I thought for a moment, “What will I teach a boy?” But I realized that was stupid, because this was my chance to fix the gender inequities I’d bristled against in my youth. As that boy grew up, I gave myself license to chuck old societal tapes. When he saw me knitting, his curiosity presented a “teachable moment,” and he ended up knitting a little hat for the cat. When he saw me using a sewing machine, he wanted to know how that worked, too — so I gave him a lesson and he went through his fleece cat hat phase. When I remodeled the first of our homes, I figured rather than scolding my toddler for getting into the tools I might as well teach him what they each did. Beginning with a Phillips screwdriver and on through the full range of my woodworking tools, by the time he hit high school, his love affair with tools branched off into a passion for auto repair that continues today. His first real job was apprenticing with a Rolls Royce mechanic. But his love affair with the kitchen is also a huge part of his identity, because both his mother and father gave him permission early on to see the kitchen as his rightful domain. To this day his Dutch Baby is the birthday gift I anticipate with mouthwatering joy.

My son’s father departed the family when he was nine, so if I’d believed I could only teach my child how to sing and cry and cook and hug I’d have raised a handicapped adult, unable to embrace the panoply of life’s challenges and opportunities around him. It was vital to me to teach him that we all have within us the ability to use tools, to garden, to knit, to design, to manage money, to sing, to hug, to cry, to run businesses, to do math, to bake pies. It became essential that he believed there are no limits. The key for me was giving myself permission to chuck the old tapes in the way I lived my own life. For starters, I stopped making that “kidding apology” for being a woman who knew how to use power tools.

Whether working alone or with a partner, every parent needs to look inward and realize that sexist messages are the real predators and that the greatest sabotaging force in kids’ lives are gross generalizations about boys’ and girls’ innate capabilities. We need to give our kids the power to see themselves as human beings and equals among genders, not as boys or girls, or hetero or homo, or smart or dumb. They need to hear in our ordinary conversations that they are people capable from birth of doing many things with their hands and their brains and their bodies and their souls and their lives, and that their gender does not require them to set aside parts of themselves as they grow to maturity.

I loved the fact that the author’s son, by birth order, is given the opportunity to tag along and experience his sisters’ world. But her judgmental leap to the counterpoint — that boys are all about guns and violence — broke my heart because it is just too easy a trap when discussing boys. Too many new parents think the first banana gun proves their point and see it as their cue to “raise a boy like a boy.” And the suggestion that girls can only be full of life if they have powerful moms and dads who let them speak renders inconsequential every vivacious, accomplished woman who did not come from such lucky, supportive parenting.

We have a saying in our family, one we utter whenever we’re bidding one another goodbye at the door. “Never rush a hug!” My strong, manly dad coined that phrase, and there’s not a male in my family who would rebuff the notion. My grown son, hands covered in axle grease, is right there to embrace the tradition. It was an easy one to establish. We all just had to set the example and then give him permission to follow.

— Rebecca Wittman, an Islander, is the author of two books on the art of varnishing wood and has written for “Waterlines,” “Wooden Boat” and “Yachting” magazines.