What about boys?: Father’s Day Musings
In the past, I’ve shared my thoughts about celebrating Mother’s Day. Today, I find myself considering very similar gender based issues on Father’s Day. In a single thought, I’m not a fan of Hallmark Holidays that reinforce gender divisions. Instead, I hope we can use these moments to reflect more deeply on the moral act of parenting and raising children. Parenting, as a moral act, is best characterized as stewardship. Parents are called to (and sometimes by law required) to steward our children toward the greater goods of society. From an ethical perspective, I hope that is a collective common good, but in other cases, the “greater good” is determined by corporations, government interest, or social constructions of oppression. Parenting in a heterosexual family structure often contributes to “stewarding” children right into gender based divisions and norms.
Today, on Father’s Day, I want to ask “dads” to consider how gender constructions while often providing benefits to men, deeply restrict the full range of parenting that you can provide to your children. These restrictions on fathering start young and get reinforced throughout our childhoods and adult lives. bell hooks, in her essay “Revolutionary Parenting,” illustrates an example of mother = female: boys taking care of a doll are often said to be playing mother. However, “Seeing men who do effective parenting as ‘maternal’ reinforces the stereotypical notion that women are inherently better suited to parent.” The boy is practicing being a father (a male parent) who takes care of children and nurtures them in relationship. The label of “fathering” may be off-putting as it reinforces a link between sex and gender identity—yet in this use, it allows effective parenting (nurturing a baby) to be equally recognized as mothering and fathering.
As a sexuality educator and feminist ethicist, I am often asked why I spend so much time talking about girls empowerment and women’s equality. First, I think that is a false framing of what I do. When parents, students, Christian educators, and so on hear me talking about gender equity, they often assume it is only about “girls”. In fact, gender equity is about everyone both being unique and valued for how they live out their gender as well as not discriminating against any one gender. Gender equity is about everyone.
The other day, while researching for a completely different topic, I came across feminist theologian, Joyce Ann Mercer’s blog, Boy Power? which seeks to answer this same inquiry. I originally posted about this on my blog a few weeks ago. She says:
“There is some good work on adolescent boys out there. The good stuff focuses both positively and critically on boys’ gendered experiences amid changing social realities. And then there is some writing that I call “backlash boy literature.” The backlash stuff whines about how everyone has been paying too much attention to girls lately, asserting that boys are the real victims/marginal ones in contested gender spaces. What’s clear to me is that attention to how gender shapes the lives of teens is important for both girls and boys, and is a good focus for feminist theological reflection.”
Asking how gender shapes the lives of our children is extremely important. Yet, the mistake gender-inclusive parents (myself included) often make is to approach gender as though it shouldn’t matter. So, on Father’s day as we consider how men shape parenting and are shaped by their gender, I find myself reflecting on how boys learn about gender. In an essay for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Mothering Sons, (27.2, 2001) I wrote about just such an experience:
Bronwyn Davies, through an in-depth study of preschool children, found that adult caregivers were missing a crucial link between sex and gender in their attempts to move children to “gender-neutral” play and identity. She writes,
“Adults interested in liberating children from oppressive sex roles are generally not questioning maleness and femaleness as such. They are simply rejecting the negative side of femininity for girls . . . .and the negative side of masculinity for boys . . . . What we have failed to realise in wondering why it is that children so enthusiastically take up these ways of being so is that these qualities themselves are key signifiers of dualistic maleness and femaleness. Children cannot both be required to position themselves as identifiably male or female and at the same time be deprived of the means of signifying maleness and femaleness.”
In other words, we ask children to be and play across gender lines while constantly reinforcing their sex as girl/boy. Girl/boy has no meaning for the children when gendered behaviors are removed and disrupted, given the wider society defines them as one in the same. When my son was three, he was crushed when a girl in daycare told him his favorite color could not be pink. He was not equipped to respond and in fact had no other models of boys or males who claimed pink as a favorite color. Children who play and identify on a continuum of gender must be given the tools to negotiate not just gender, but gender’s connection to sex. The connection is certainly illusive and not determinative, but it exists starkly for younger children in particular.  It is easier to pretend the categories don’t matter or are infinitely mutable, than to do the arduous work of resourcing our children in their sex/gender identity formation.
While I do believe gender is a social construction, there are links that yet undefined between gender and sex identity that cannot be easily dismissed. In fact, I find many of those links quite prominent in younger children. The question for me as a Christian Ethicist is: Can we equip our children to both negotiate the devastating social effects of not complying with gender norms as well as invite them to be who God-created-them-to-be even when their gender identification seems so stereotypically connected to their sex or radically divergent from it? Gender-inclusive parenting means we also have to evaluate ourselves and be willing to tangle with the mess of how gender influences our lives and thus our parenting. It isn’t really girls or boys who need attention, it’s our ideas about what being a boy or girl should mean that needs thoughtful re-evaluation. What better day than Father’s Day to begin such work!
 bell hooks, “Revolutionary Parenting,” in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1984), [133-146], quotation on 139.
 Bronwyn Davies, Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales: Preschool Children and Gender (Boston, MA: Allen and Unwin, 1989), ix – x.
 See discussion about gender/sex issues many boys face in relation to their faith journey in Robert Dykstra’s section on “Losers and the Struggle for Self Awareness” in Losers, Loners, and Rebels : The Spiritual Struggles of Boys, eds. Robert C. Dykstra, Allan Hugh Cole, Jr., Donald Capps (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), as well as Dan Kindlon’s and Michael Thompson’s book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2000).