Posted: Nov 04, 2013 8:00 AM
 
Though she was teasing my son, a stranger at a coffee shop told my boy not to "act like a 6-year-old girl." I walked away wondering if the next thought through my son's mind was, "Why? What's wrong with being a girl?" Even when joking, the messages we send our kids result in a lifetime of perspectives and underlying beliefs.

I don't even remember what my son did to prompt her words, but I remember quite clearly what they were: "Don't act like a girl."

She said it jokingly, with a smile, in an act of friendly banter. She meant to be funny. It was not meant to offend, belittle or condescend. It was obviously something she'd been saying without much thought for a very long time. Though taken aback, I just smiled, paid for our food and walked away with my 8-year-old son. Later, I thought about whether or not I should have said something to her. It just didn't feel right or part of my nature to match somebody's attempt at friendliness with a searing, "Why? What's wrong with being a girl?" or "Are you going to charge me extra for that misogyny?"

I just want some coffee, lady. Keep your ignorance to yourself.

It happened so quickly, I didn't even bring it up with my boy, though I've decided I'm definitely going to soon. I thought about the interaction for days. I thought about how many layers of messaging exist in that simple declaration: "Don't act like a girl."

First of all, the assumption that there is a single, uniform way to "act like a girl." That it's even possible at all to act like a girl.

We all know what 'don't act like a girl' means, particularly when directed to a boy: Don't whine. Don't cry. Don't be weak and pathetic. Be a 'man.'

But let's back up a bit. We all know what "don't act like a girl" means, particularly when directed to a boy: Don't whine. Don't cry. Don't be weak and pathetic. Be a "man."

Don't demonstrate the feminine qualities we all hate that will get you nowhere in the world. Be strong, masculine!

The message

So we are simultaneously telling our kids that 1.) Girls inherently act in certain ways that make them lesser than boys and 2.) Males must actively work against development of any of these abhorrent "female" traits. So basically we are dictating the personality development of both genders. We are delineating what it means to be an acceptable male and female.

I wonder if my son thought about his sisters. I wonder if he thought about his mother. I wonder if he thought about any of the women in his life, contemplating why another woman instructed him in no uncertain terms to not act like them, even though he respects and adores them.

I wonder how many times a boy has to hear those statements before he determines he is clearly the superior sex.

I wonder how many times a boy has to hear those statements before he determines he is clearly the superior sex.

I wonder how many times a girl hears it before she develops a deeply rooted inner shame, and determines she is clearly the inferior sex.

And I wonder how these internalizations play out as these kids grow into tweens, teenagers and adults. How many boys puff their chests and try to "act tough," maybe denying their more gentle, sensitive selves for fear of "acting like a girl?" How many boys avoid activities they may enjoy because they fear appearing too "feminine?" And I wonder how it relates to rape culture, to discrepancies in pay between men and women, to fewer women in leadership, math and science positions.

Self-examination

And I wonder if the woman working at Starbucks has ever given a single thought to what she's actually saying when she tells a boy not to "act like a girl," and if I were to say anything, would it make a difference anyway?

I don't know about that, and the opportunity has passed, but I'm certainly going to talk to my son, and make sure I watch the words coming out of my own mouth. Which cultural narratives am I repeating without a thought, because they've become so ingrained I don't even notice them anymore?

We all like to think we're enlightened and modern, but nobody's immune to societal influences, and we can't change what we don't know. If I want to change the narratives, I first have to see clearly what they are and how they're manifesting in my own actions.

I may not like what I see, but I have a duty to my kids to examine it.

More on gender

Dear Dad: I don't need you to protect me
Teach your children to be flexible about gender
Gender-bending: When your son dresses like a princess

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