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“Careful!” “Don’t run too fast!” “Let’s not be wild!” Do you know that girls hear these phrases more than boys? Why aren’t we teaching our boys to be safe?
I was at the playground with my kids, one day when I noticed a young boy rush in front of a girl with his hand held up.
“Guys, can’t you see there is a girl here! Don’t be rough.” He yelled out.
It was sweet to see a boy of four or five want to protect a girl of eight or nine. Yet the incident somehow stuck in my mind. What is it about our society that entrusts boys with the responsibility of protecting the girls? Why is it that from an early age, we bring gender into the conversation and make kids believe that girls, no matter what age are frail and delicate and need to be shielded from the unpleasantness of rough play? Boys, on the other hand, are boys. They can be as wild as they want to be, breaking bones and shooting each other with (Nerf) guns and falling from trees. Why would a girl want to do that?
Much as I would love to explain why a girl would want to do that, as a girl who grew up doing pretty much what she wanted and as the mother of a daughter who grows up knowing that our genitals do not dictate what toy we want to play with, that is not the position I am here to write about. I am here in the position as the mother of a son worrying about the impact that this has on my boy.
Every time, we reinforce a female’s supposed frailty we are teaching our boys that the only way forward for him, if he wants to identify as male is to be stereotypically masculine – to be loud, unconcerned about invading someone else’s space, to take risks, play rough and be wary of expressing gentler emotions, for fear of being a ‘sissy’. There are multiple ways this hurts our sons.
While playing rough builds character, when it is limited to one gender, we are teaching them it is fine to segregate on the basis of gender. Every time we characterize expressing emotions as feminine, we are teaching our boys to suppress their natural instincts.
Studies have shown that boys as young as five and six are already conditioned to hide their true feelings, as ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘boys don’t play with dolls’. Is it a wonder that we as a society denounce men for not being sensitive enough or even completely oblivious to the emotions of others when they have been repeatedly told that to do so is a repudiation of their gender?
Another dangerous side-effect of not curbing boys as much as we curb girls, is unwittingly letting them believe that reckless behaviour is a part of being ‘male’.
Studies have shown that unintentional injuries are one of the most important causes of death in children beyond the age of one. The rate of getting injured increases throughout the years, with it peaking in adolescence and teenage boys get injured more than girls. Researchers cite many causes for these with one of the leading ones being ‘psycho-social conditioning’ or behaviour that becomes more or less routine or at the very least frequent, due to the psychological factors or social environment the child is exposed to.
For example, parents allowing boys to roam further away from the home and play alone without direct supervision, than girls of the same age
Or boys allowed to engage in exploratory play without being restrained while girls that indulge in the same behaviour are restricted.
All of this contributes to a false sense of security in our boys who start to internalize that risk taking is not a big deal, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Society has always put the onus of being careful on the woman. Do not go out after a certain time. Dress a certain way. Do not attract attention.
Be careful. Be careful. Be careful.
And why should we be so careful?
For men are careless – they are allowed to be careless with other people’s emotions, bodies, lives and themselves. They are, to a great extent conditioned to be so. So much so that boys fail to see that they themselves could be victims too.
According to a study reported in Time Magazine, girls have a 1 in 4 chance of being molested and boys have a 1 in 6 chance of being molested before the age of 18. Research shows that males are less likely to report sexual abuse. Since boys are conditioned from an early age to be more physical, they are more hesitant to report abuse, considering it to be a part of being a boy rather than inappropriate behaviour. They don’t talk about it, as “talking and expressing your feelings are not what boys do”. That is for girls.
As I look down at my sweet little one-year-old baby boy, my heart breaks a little. That is not the world I want for him. I have made sure that his four-year-old sister knows her gender does not determine either her favourite colour by default or what she wants to be when she grows up. And I want my son to know that he too can be whomever he wants to be – in a world he can play with dolls and express emotions, without being called ‘girly’ or deemed ‘lesser than’. I want him to know that he can tell me whatever he wants and that just as he should respect other people’s bodies, his body should be respected as well. What I want for them is a world where both boys and girls have to be careful or even better, a world where children are safe, irrespective of their gender.
As Gloria Steinem put it, “We’ve begun to raise our daughters more like sons, but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” And I believe that, that is the key to teaching our boys to be safe while making sure that they get to reach their full potential without being weighed down by the prejudices and preconceived notions of previous generations.
Click here to read the study on why ‘Boys Engage in More Risk-Taking Than Girls’
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Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Writer and Travel columnist.
Her fourth book and first collection
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