That’s not what little boys are made of. That doesn’t even make any damn sense. Still, girls are supposedly made of sugar and spice and everything nice, and God help that poor little girl who has a will to stand up for herself. “She’s bossy and feisty and mean.” Meanwhile, she was just practicing her own autonomy. There are countless myths we teach our young children that force them to white-knuckle their way through childhood, seeking approval at only the right, precise times and squashing their authentic “no’s.” Kids will tell you if they are uncomfortable, verbally or physically. But we are so consumed by maintaining appearances and politeness and gender norms, that often we do a disservice to our children.
“Go kiss your aunt and uncle goodbye, or you will go in time-out.” From toddlerhood onward, we force children to kiss or hug their relatives or family friends hello and goodbye, despite the children’s clear discomfort. What parents fail to consider is that either there is a legitimate reason for discomfort, such as boundaries being crossed that a parent may not be aware of, or the child is simply uncomfortable showing affection to people they do not know. Regardless of the root cause, when forced to follow through with physical signs of affection toward a person they do not want to hug, the child is taught that their feelings and boundaries and consent do not matter. They should instead force themselves to stifle their “no” and let someone else cross their boundaries, often facilitated by those meant to protect them. Parents often forget that much of children’s lives are decided for them by their parents. It is the parent’s responsibility to keep the child safe but also to prepare them for life in an unsafe world. To do this, the child must be accustomed to using their own voice and forming their own opinions. Small opportunities to make choices that have minor consequences teach children that their voice, and thus consent, matters. Conversely, if a parent never asks a child their opinion on their clothing, food they would like to eat, or activities for the day, the child will have a very underdeveloped sense of bodily autonomy and self-value.
An insufficient sense of autonomy and a low self-worth make way for malleable boys that are susceptible to toxic myths perpetuated by media, peers, and authority figures alike, such as, “Boys do not cry; do not act like a sissy.” William Pollack describes the boy code as the necessity for boys to act stoic, independent, macho, athletic, and phobic of anything deemed feminine, such as warmth, empathy, and sensitivity. If boys do not align with these traits, they are wimpy losers, ridiculed relentlessly not only by their peers but often even their own fathers express disappointment in effeminate sons. A demand for perpetual strength and stoicism forces boys to suppress their emotions. Extremely corrosive, boys lose the opportunity to develop adequate emotional intelligence, because they feel pressured to not fully experience and indulge in the full range of human emotion. Sadness, hurt, and disappointment are all valid aspects of the human existence, but due to societal pressures, boys are taught to channel those feelings into aggression and anger instead.
That inappropriate processing of aggression can lead to perhaps the most damaging and toxic belief we feed to our young children: “He is teasing you/hurting you/pushing your physical boundaries simply because he likes you.” First of all, wow okay how insulting to that little boy. Secondly, perpetuating this myth makes boys believe that inapt processing of emotions and outward displays of physical violence will go unpunished. “Boys will be boys,” after all. This is not just a boy’s issue, however. It teaches girls to expect violence and inappropriate displays of affection in their relationships. From grade school onward, young girls are taught that boys will take advantage of them and tug their ponytails and steal their pencils and kick sand at them, and all of it ultimately gains the boy respect. We as a culture do not value the discomfort of females, from the playground to the boardroom.