I’ve always known how I would bring up my daughter. She would climb trees, she would fix things, she would be good at sports, she would have toys that did things. She would be physical, active, outdoorsy. She would also be gentle, caring, empathetic. Ambitious, capable, confident. We would battle, of course, especially through the teen years, but in the long run, we would be close and I would know she was grateful for her feminist roots.
So I wasn’t really planning on having three boys (parenting lesson #7: nothing goes to plan). I had never really thought about boys. It all just seemed a bit more straightforward for them; that male upbringing was simply a prolonged sequence of sport, fart jokes and sexual experimentation. I felt sorry for families that only had boys, how boring their lives must be.
Turns out that they are fragile little things, they worry and cry, they need comfort, security, routine. They dance and sing. They paint, draw, ‘scissor’ and glue. They skip along the road holding my hand. They are so untouched, unaffected by their gender. And it’s beautiful.
I won’t forget 5yo bursting into tears after school because they had watched a film where the kids got separated from their parents. He had held it together in the hall with his friends, and for the walk holding hands up the steps but as we waited for his brother he crumpled and told me the jumbled story with his arm like a vice around my neck. Oh these boring boys. At the weekend we played football and talked about school while 3yo arranged plant pots behind the goal. They argue over who makes their baby brother laugh the most. They beg us to do baking, water plants, read stories. They disappear to play complicated games together in their room. Sigh, so shallow these males. 5yo frequently mediates between parents and siblings displaying top notch emotional intelligence which rivals Catherine Ashton’s. Seeing him hold nervous 3yo’s hand and coach him through swimming lessons is priceless. Where is that tested in the school system?
Now I know that statically, these boys will be fine, by the virtue of being white, middle class and male. But I also know that they’ll have to navigate their softer sides against an expectation of aggression, competitiveness, even violence. I’m a believer in making change from within: they need to get into the boys culture in order to change it. They’ll need the skills to be able to banter in the changing room but have the self confidence to call out sexism, racism, homophobia and whatever else. It’s a lot of pressure to put on these boys. They already show a keen sense of justice (‘why is his half of the biscuit bigger?’) but can they hold their own in the big wide playground? 5yo complains of being exhausted after school because he has spent all day stopping the older boys from crushing the girls. He tells me that the girls keep kissing him and we talk about making sure they want to be kissed and his right to say no. He is confident in his values, and his sensitivity, but he is challenged relentlessly and all three will have to weather that throughout their lives.
The confidence question has been playing on my mind recently, probably as I battle my own demons on the return to work. I’m in observation overdrive, searching for the secrets of self confidence. I study people giving presentations, telling their children off, chatting over coffee. I’m fascinated by the noisy kids, leaders, game makers. This confidence comes from somewhere. I’ve thought about it in terms of the #banbossy campaign, which focuses on empowering girls. It’s a great initiative, but how about we celebrate the quiet kids, the ones getting on with it and not making a fuss. The low drama kids. The middle of the road. Hell, let’s just give our best to all kids. They key thing is that they are comfortable as themselves.
I’m glad that I had got this so wrong. Having focused so much of my life on feminism and women’s issues, it’s taken these boys to make me realise that everyone has a part to play in the solution. I was aware of it in theory, but now I get to see first hand how important it is to pass on those values to boys in practice. It’s not good enough to bring up balanced girls, we need to sort out the boys too.
Ok, so their room already stinks of boy, but their skin smells sweet and fresh. Kids are enchanting regardless of gender. And the real beauty is that they come with all of it unlocked. Although the doors will get closed as they get on with their lives, I want to make sure they always know where the keys are. And the fart jokes, they’ll need a good selection of those too.