On its surface, it seems like raising boys shouldn’t be any different than raising girls. Your son wants to wear a pink tutu and play with dolls? Let him, just like you would let your daughter. Tell him he can be anything he wants when he grows up, just like your daughter. Cuddle him and play with him and affirm his feelings, just like you would with your daughter.
But reality is that society puts different pressures on boys, and if parents want to raise a son who truly believes he can be anything that he wants and who fights for gender equity, they have to work hard to do so. Because boys get so many messages, from teachers and extended family and TV and other kids — and probably from you and your partner, unknowingly — that tell him he can’t be caring or sensitive, that he has to be strong and not show vulnerability, and that he won’t need to put as much effort into home life as women do.
“To put boys into a box does them a disservice,” says Shelly Flais, M.D., a pediatrician, single mom of three boys and a daughter, and author of the new book Nurturing Boys to Be Better Men, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Really, the goal of the book is to remember that our sons are whole children and to nurture all the different aspects of them.”
Doing so comes down to two main strategies: reaffirming that your son can have a range of interests and personality traits, and modeling gender equity in the home. Here, she explains how to make this a priority — and a routine — inside your home without overturning everyone’s busy lives.
How do parents tend to raise girls and boys differently?
Even in the younger ages, I often heard as a mom of three boys, people say, “Oh, you’re lucky. Boys are so easy.” And I would say, “If you think that raising boys is easy, you’re probably doing it wrong.”
There’s this idea that they’re not as communicative or chatty, and that’s welcomed. But since when is parenting about, leave me alone and just do your thing? Boys aren’t necessarily easy; they just communicate in different styles. And certainly, there are plenty of boys who love to talk your ear off. I have sons like that. I have patients like that. If you spend time with a range of children, you’ll see the diversity in them.
There was a big study that came out this year on American and Chinese children. They examined preschoolers’ viewpoints of gender roles within a household. And already at preschool, kids were internalizing and normalizing that the mom of the house does this, and the dad does this. So even within our own homes, it starts earlier than you think.
Birth to 5, we can kind of cocoon our kiddos, and create their world for them. Once they’re spending more of their waking days in school and they’re doing activities, sports, religious education, that’s one of the challenges: How do we counteract those outside forces? Because the bottom line is, the default setting is going to be that generational way it’s always been. And unless we’re conscious about it, it’s going to be hard to combat. Combatting it isn’t an everyday, all day thing. I’m a single working mom of four kids — I know parents are busy. But have that feed in the back of your brain, informing your decisions.
How do you combat these unhealthy messages about masculinity that boys might be getting elsewhere?
There are age-appropriate books where a female is the protagonist of the story, or about female scientists. Expose your child to those different perspectives. There’s tangible things that we can do that aren’t that hard, but they plant a seed that grows over the years.
When you consume media together — and that’s not just TV, that’s social media, that’s targeted ads that are even in little kids’ free games online — be aware and present, and have conversations. You are going to encounter situations that have that mentality of putting “boy” in a masculine box with limited emotional range, and you can ask questions, and say, “Well, what do you think about that?”
I’m a Simpsons fan, but Homer Simpson is the archetype for the dumb dad who has no idea what’s going on. And sadly, there are so many TV shows where that’s the main family structure — where the dad is clueless and a bumbling fool. And as the mom of three boys, that makes me really sad. If they choose to become parents one day, I want them to be full, active partners. So have conversations and ask questions, just to get your kiddo thinking.
At the younger ages, that’s going to be very simple. It’s akin to the sex talk. Parents are always afraid to talk about things related to sex with their kids. A strategy I always suggest with my patients is to buy yourself some time and say, “Well, what do you know about that?” Or, “What do you think about that?” It’s twofold: You get their frame of reference, because it’s probably on a level much simpler than you thought, but it also gives you a little bit of time to compose what your thoughts will be on the subject. And whether it’s sex, or gender roles within society, if we as parents start lecturing, especially to elementary and younger, we’re going to lose our kids.
You talked earlier about preschool-aged kids already having ideas about what moms do and what dads do. Why is that equitable division of labor, including emotional labor, so important when raising sons? And does that mean you have to split all tasks 50/50?
Kids do as they see, so role model the future you want your kids to see. There was one family I interviewed where the mom was intentional about, when they drove as a family, she would drive, just because she didn’t want to send that message that only the dad navigates.
One family I interviewed for the book said whoever cares about it more does it. So if one parent is more concerned about the cleanliness state of the home, that was their task to bear. If the other was more interested in the grocery shopping, the food prep, mealtimes, then that became their job. And certainly, there’s often mom maintains indoor, dad maintains outdoor scenarios for families. Mix it up. We might be getting in our patterns, and we need to flip the script and reassess. But it’s going to be 70/30 in some realms, 30/70 in others, and that’s okay.
We’re going to mess up. My four kids were born within four years, so for a stretch, I had backed off on my clinical duties. And because I was home more, I took on more tasks. Then, when I returned to work full-time, it stuck like Velcro. I was still doing all those tasks, and I wish that I had stepped back and said, “There’s some inequities here. Before, this worked, but our situation has changed.”
Something that I advocate in the book is periodically taking a step back, seeing what’s working, what’s not working, and having honest conversations about it. Oftentimes, the other parent doesn’t even realize that these things are a burden. The biggest thing is having that growth mindset, and realizing that we all have room for improvement. Be willing to see what’s working and what’s not, and go from there.
This applies to the emotional load too. Take dentist appointments, for example. It’s not just taking the kid to the dentist. It’s the planning, it’s being aware of the calendar, it’s making sure the insurance is up-to-date with the dental office, making sure they get a school excuse note if they have to be pulled out of school for the dentist — all of the surrounding tasks that go with it. It’s a lot.
Part of restructuring of who does tasks is not gatekeeping dads. Like, “Oh, you’re not changing the diaper the right way.” Or, “You’re not burping your child the right way.” Often we women are our own worst enemy. We want to encourage our kids’ dad to be as involved as possible. And there’s certain non-negotiables: making sure they’re being buckled in the car seat correctly for car rides, making sure the crib is safe, etc. But then certain style things, such as his feeding styles, or diapering styles, let dad own it. Because if you’re undercutting him at each opportunity, he’s going to be like, “Well, I guess I’m no good at this. I’m not going to do it.” And then it becomes weaponized incompetence.
Why is it important to get your son involved in housework too?
For too long, women have been asked to do more and be more. And for everyone’s sake, we need to split that up.
It’s actually a social media trend right now, of parents doing certain activities with their young sons, with the tagline, “You are welcome. Your future partner knows how to cook. Your future partner knows how to clean.” And I would argue, I wouldn’t just do it for a future partnership, I would do it just because it’s raising a full human being.
As kids get older, all of that investment really pays off when they cook something or make something. And it’s funny, because I’ll put it on social media, and people are like, “Oh my gosh, how did you get your kids to do that?” I didn’t get him to do that, that’s just kind of how we ran the house, and that’s what then later happens.
Also, cooking is fun. I’ll admit, I love cooking, and so selfishly, when my sons were young, we’d cook together in the kitchen. And when your kids are young, it’s definitely more work. Whether it’s cooking or cleaning, you’re coaching your child through it. So yes, it’s going to be more work, but think of it as an investment for the future, because ultimately, they need those life skills.
My sons at very early ages could fend for themselves, make an easy meal. I’ve always had a life skill, anti-helicopter parent approach to my parenting. I thought, “Okay, when you’re 18 and you leave for college, you need to know how to do your laundry, and do these basic life tasks.”
But that said, my youngest child had a medical crisis. She was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of eighth grade, and my twins were sophomores in high school, and my oldest was a senior in high school applying to college. My daughter started 12 weeks of chemo. And thank goodness, our community, friends, family stepped in, but my sons were very much thrust into a role of basically maintaining the household, preparing simple meals for themselves, navigating their school assignments on their own without a parent holding their hand, guiding everything. And I was shocked because here I was trying to instill life skills for the future, but lo and behold, the future hit much sooner than expected. And that’s life.
Is there anything else you do to avoid boxing in boys to a limited set of masculine norms?
Very early on, children start showing us who they are. Follow your child’s lead. Pay attention to what they’re interested in — whether it’s being outdoors and being boisterous and active, whether your son is the kind of kiddo who’d rather curl up with a good book or spend hours building with blocks. Join in with that, and then don’t necessarily try to pivot away from it.
Recognize that all preschool boys love playing in the pretend kitchen. It astounds me that to this day I’ll have patients where the boy chose a certain Halloween costume, or wanted to have a specific toy, and the dad gets upset, and says, “What are we going to do?” And not just dads; there’s extended relatives and even moms who are shocked. But by definition, especially birth to 5, kids are exploring, trying on different identities, trying new things. They imitate the grown-ups around them. They see a parent cooking, and of course they’re going to want to cook. It has no bearing on what they’re going to make of their lives, or future career paths, or any of that. I think we as adults often put too much emphasis on preschool activities.
So, A, we shouldn’t judge and try to redirect or steer if it’s a perfectly innocent child exploration. But B, pay attention to that, and nurture that interest. Celebrate who he is, and then help him grow and expand.