It is not an uncommon practice in the 21st century for the left-leaning, hippie parents among us to raise our children in a gender-neutral environment. If our daughters want to play with trucks and spit in the grass during T-ball practice, that’s cool with us. If our son wants to play with dolls or wear a dress, bully for him. Our daughters will be spared of the princess culture, and our son will not be compelled to play with Transformers, unless of course he wants to.
Our oldest son, who is six, doesn’t yet really even appreciate the physical differences between a boy and a girl, while historical inequalities are completely lost on him, as we found out this week when my wife and I were confronted with a little wrinkle in gender-neutral parenting.
It began last week, when our first grader came home from school complaining that a female classmate had called him “mean,” which had hurt his feelings. We tried to get to the bottom of it, but typical of first graders, our son didn’t want to talk about it. Despite the fact that he had insisted that he had done nothing wrong, my assumption was that he may have had done something to warrant the insult, either through obliviousness or inadvertent insensitivity.
A few days later, however, we finally pulled the story out of him. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Why do you think she called you ‘mean’?
D: I dunno. Because I went first.
Me: What do you mean, you went first?
D: Well, see, we were playing a game in the gym, and we were waiting our turn, and H. said, ‘Ladies first,’ and I went ahead anyway, and that’s why H. said that I was mean. Why should girls go first?
Me: Oh. Well … ummm.
Perhaps you can see the instant conundrum here. How do we explain to our gender-neutral son that simple manners often dictate that we allow girls to go first? Our first thought, of course, was the truth: That the custom is borne out of traditional belief that women were the fairer sex. However, preventing the idea that women need special protection because of their inability to fend themselves would open a huge can of worms that our six year old wasn’t old enough to comprehend. More importantly, it might put the idea into his head that women do need this, and that’s something we feel ambivalent about communicating.
Me: Well, D, sometimes letting girls go first is just the polite thing to do.
D: Why is it polite?
Me: It just is
D: That doesn’t make any sense.
That tactic having failed because our son refused to settle for the it just is argument, we attempted a version of the truth.
Me: Well, it’s tradition, son. It’s something that we’ve always done. We let women go first.
D: That’s not a good tradition.
Me: Well …
D: It’s not fair, Daddy. Why should girls always get to go first? I don’t like that, because it makes me feel like you think that girls are better than boys.
Me: Well, no. Not at all! It’s just something we do, because it’s tradition.
D: We should change that tradition, Daddy.
Me: I don’t know about that, son. It’s good manners to let girls go first.
D: I don’t understand why it is good manners to have a tradition that makes boys feel sad.
And there’s both the kicker: There’s a custom in place in our country designed to show respect for women. It’s a gentlemanly gesture allow women to go first, or to give your seat up for a woman, or to hold the door open for a woman, and it’s a custom that I feel obligated to because I am from the South and as outdated as it might be, goddamnit, that’s just what we do. It is what is expected from us and for some men, what we expect from ourselves.
However, we can hardly ask our son to go against societal pressure to allow girls to go first if it means that other kids are going to continue to call him “mean.” On the other hand, why should we ask him to abide by a tradition that makes “boys feel sad” and leaves boys with the impression that girls are better than they are?
My wife and I were flummoxed and ultimately evasive when it came down to how to steer our son into the right direction. He’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. As parents, we’re equally damned. We can maintain our gender neutrality, and kids will continue to hurt his feelings by calling him “mean,” or we either express to him that the tradition was borne out of a belief that women were the fairer, i.e., lesser, sex, so he will think women are inferior, or we let him continue believing that women get to go first because they are better.
It’s a no-win situation.
“Boys and girls are the same, son, except when it comes to going first, I guess.”