Of Boys and Cultural Stereotypes
“Is it OK for my son to play dress-up like a princess and dance?” asked Bob, after one of our parenting seminars. Bob, who looked like the former college athlete he was, and his wife were concerned about their five-year-old son 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 traditional cultural stereotypes.
Here’s some advice I gave these parents:
Affirm and Validate
True gender differences and gender roles come from God our Creator. But every culture has certain gender-specific stereotypical standards. The problem is that, since Genesis 3, every culture’s ideas on gender contain fallen elements. So, before we guide our sons away from behaviors we don’t like (or the sub-culture in which we live, like the church, deems unacceptable), we have to ask if a biblical line is being crossed.
All our little guys, whether or not they present any atypical gender 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.
Often parents are worried when their sons have different temperaments, talents, and interests that are not stereotypical for boys. Dads need to 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’s purpose for him is to bless the world and build up his Kingdom through his unique giftings.
We want to help our little guys find safe ways to integrate into the world of boys, which eventually becomes a world of men.
Dad, if you’re the guy who loves sports, then you’ve got to let “it” go as a must for your son. Instead, explore what your child’s personality, gifts, and passions are, and then support them, develop them, and cultivate an appreciation of them. So, a father who loves football and has a son who loves art, dance, and drama needs to show up for recitals or performances, appreciate the inner complexities of his son’s fine art with him, and support and celebrate his efforts and successes.
Protect and Guide
Bob and his wife have a good 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 atypical gender behavior. And this is a very valid concern. We have to protect our little boys from bullying and shaming. So we have to be engaged, stepping in to stop verbal or physical abuse by other boys while avoiding a tendency to overprotect.
But protecting your son is not isolating 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 martial arts, put him in a choir, started trumpet lessons, and tried art classes. At nine, we are still discerning his top gifts and cultivating his passions. Sample lots of boy-related and general kids’ activities, but be wary of requiring your son to remain in an activity he doesn’t like.
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 feeling overwhelmed and anxious in a loud, crowded place.
I started to gently break his habit of holding my hand and hanging back from the other boys. I 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 to interact with the boys. He is more reserved than other boys, but over time 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 to toughen him up. We need to gently guide and redirect them, and that is far different than isolating or shaming them. This way we can help our sons feel included, part of the tribe of men to which they belong.
As parents, and especially dads, we need to pray for wisdom in raising little guys up to be men who follow Christ, who is the ultimate model of manhood.
And for Bob and his wife, that might mean their son grows up to be a dancer.