So the other day a cousin of mine stopped by with his wife and two kids. Their son is four and his sister is two. And they were excited to meet their new baby cousin. Yes, they thought they could pick him up and that he might enjoy their games.
But I was quick to tell them they would have to wait two years for that. They got bored with him and moved on to their own games, with the little girl trying to keep up with her big brother.
I noticed as they played that her mother kept telling my little niece that she is a girl and should move and behave in a certain way. I told the little girl that she will not be a girl until she is 15 years old, and until then her and her brother are simply children.
I didn’t think much about this conversation until I heard my nanny telling my son that he is a man and he shouldn’t cry.
These two children are just that – children. My niece is two. She can barely pronounce her name correctly and her gender is restricting her movement and behaviour. My son is a month old and he is already being told that he cannot express himself and his emotions fully.
Am I the only one who thinks gender is visiting these babies too early? Surely they should have all modes of self-expression available to them for the first decade of life? Surely their sex is irrelevant until puberty strikes and nature dictates otherwise.
A brief experiment with dating will show you men who can express anger easily but hide all other emotions; and women who say yes when they mean no, or are silent when they have a lot to say on a subject.
Months ago I wrote about teaching girls to say no as opposed to telling them they should say no. A girl who cannot say no to the offer of a drink from her aunt is not going to grow into a young woman who tells a young man she likes that she is not ready to have sex, or insist on condom use.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not criticising my cousin’s parenting. In fact she is a teacher and I am sure there is a lot I can learn from her. It is the gender expectations that struck me, from her, my nanny, myself and many of us. We are all guilty of putting our children in these boxes much too early and denying them the opportunity to express themselves and play in various ways.
I am going to try not to have my son feel the weight of his masculinity too heavily, if only at home and for the first decade of his life. I want to raise a man who has full access to his emotions, the vocabulary to name them, and the self-control to express them responsibly. That means he has to experiment with crying, screaming, silence, singing and many other forms of expression – not just the ‘male’ ones.