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Other parents like to tell me about the differences between girls and boys, and they like to insist that these differences are somehow innate.  “We treat them exactly the same – the boys are just different from the girls,” they say.  They tell me that I don’t understand, since I just have boys.

I am declaring shenanigans on that shit.

Before I had my son (when I was single and childless and therefore had no right to an opinion on such things), I could see the difference in how people treated boys and girls.  At the same party, I witnessed these two scenes within a half hour:

Scene 1 – Three little girls on those little toy cars that you sit on and push with your feet, rolling around on the wooden deck.  Two of the girls bumped into each other lightly with the cars, with big smiles on their faces, obviously thinking this was fun.  Not just one, but two women jumped up from their chairs, with alarmed looks on their faces and panicky voices.  “No, no.  No running into each other.  Play nice.  Are you okay?”  The girls went back to just rolling around, carefully not bumping each other.  The adult females had made it very clear that bumping little plastic cars into each other at about a tenth of a mile an hour could result in Horrific Bodily Injury and most likely instant DEATH.

Scene 2 (less than a half hour later, on the same deck at the same party) – Two little boys riding on the same toy cars crash into each other.  Not a single woman stops it, stands up, looks disapproving or frightened, or says a word to the boys.  One woman smiles at me and says “Boys!  What can you do?”

Well, not too long after that party, I met the man who is now my husband and his then six-year-old son…  and very soon after that, I popped out another son for us.  And for seven years now, I’ve listened to people tell me that I don’t understand girls because I just have boys (ignoring the fact that I grew up as a girl so I think I understand at least a little bit about at least some of them).

Our youngest son is now in second grade.  For about the last two years, he has kept his hair long.  This has led to many people mistaking him for a girl.  Which means that I’ve had the perfect opportunity to observe how people treat him, depending on which sex they think he is.

And it’s crazy.  People’s voices deepen significantly the moment they realize that he’s a boy.  They will say things like “What beautiful hair” and then literally APOLOGIZE when they realize he’s a boy.  They will look alarmed if he falls at the playground, and then just laugh it off when they realize he’s a boy.

The other night a woman sort of bumped into him a little in a crowded room and said “Oh!  I’m sorry, dear.”  Then she looked at him again, and then looked at me and said “Oops – I’m sorry.”  I said “Huh?  For what?” and she said “I called him ‘dear’ – I usually call boys ‘buddy’.”

Seriously, people don’t even know how to interact with a child unless they can first determine the child’s sex.  They are lost and confused, and it’s not simply a pronoun problem.  They don’t know whether to use that silly little high-pitched voice and say things like “sweetheart” and “pretty” and compliment his shoes, or to belt out “Hey, there, little buddy!” and high-five him and ask what his favorite sport is.

And still people insist that they don’t treat the sexes any differently.

Not only do people use different words, actions, and vocal tones when speaking to a child they think is a boy and one they think is a girl…  they apply different rules to boys and girls.  DIFFERENT RULES.  Isn’t that sexism?  Isn’t that something that we enlightened 21st century Americans are supposed to be against?

Alex came home from school today and said that there was a herd (his word) of girls running around the playground today *hitting* boys and laughing and saying “Girls can hit boys, but YOU CAN’T HIT US BACK!  Ha, ha!”  He said a bunch of the boys ducked and ran away, and one boy just curled up in a ball on the ground.

What the holy hell?!?

Hey.  I am a female.  I used to be a girl, you know.  It was 40 years ago, and I remember that some people tried to tell me that I couldn’t do certain things because I was a girl.  You know what?  Being told that I couldn’t do something made me more determined than ever to DO IT, and to do it WELL.

So I completely understand Alex’s response to the herd of girls today.  He told me that he really wants to hit one of the girls, just to show them that he CAN.  Of course, I told him not to hit anyone at school unless he is really in danger.  But I also told him that of course he CAN hit a girl…  however because of sexism he would probably get in more trouble than if he hit a boy.  Because people think that girls are weaker than boys.

Heck, even *I* want to go hang out at the school at lunchtime, watch for these girls and their totally inappropriate behavior, and then crack their heads together.  I told Alex that I want to do that.  Wanting to do that is completely understandable.

And then Alex and I sang a few lines adapted from the very first song he ever learned –

“You can’t always do what you wa-a-ant,

You can’t always hit who you wa-a-ant”

This ridiculous society-endorsed (and enforced!) sexual dimorphism leads to so much trouble.  I believe it leads girls to think they are weak but at the same time strangely protected, to think their power lies in passive-aggressive manipulation and sexuality, and to think that their looks are more important than their usefulness.

And today it led an otherwise generally sweet little boy to want to punch girls in the face.

Can we just treat each other like decent human beings, whatever dangly or foldy bits we have between our legs, please?

I hear it from parents and teachers every day.

“Say you’re sorry.”

It comes flying out of the nearest adult’s mouth every time some kid stomps on someone’s toes, pushes a boy in line for the drinking fountain, knocks over a classmate’s prized Lego structure, or spills milk in her brother’s plate of pancakes.

By the time most kids are in second or third grade, it has been drilled into them and apologizing has become a reflex reaction to every accidental or purposeful injury to another’s physical or mental feelings.

Bump – “Sorry!”

Stomp – “Sorry!”

Smack – “Sorry!”

Insult – “Sorry!”

Sometimes I see parents and teachers attempting to go past the one-word apology.  They try to instill a more complex response – one I recently saw in written form was something like:  “I am sorry that I [blank].  I know it made you feel [blank].  Next time I will [blank] instead.”  Good try.  But I’m still not buying it.

It has been my experience that when you have hurt someone, physically or emotionally, there is only one thing that will make it right between you and that person.  And that one thing is this:

DON’T DO IT AGAIN.

I believe this so strongly that I say it in capital letters to my son whenever he does something hurtful, to himself or someone else, whether accidentally or on purpose.

“Alex…  DON’T DO THAT AGAIN.”

Because all the other parts of even the most sincere and complex apology don’t really fix the problem.  When someone says they are sorry, even with a lot of modern psychobabble attached, let’s face it – you do not feel okay about it until time enough has passed that you know that they are honestly trying to change their behavior.  The words mean nothing except that they have learned to apologize.  And I don’t care about that when I’ve been hurt – I care only that it not happen again.

I remember when my son was four and I was mad at him for something and he actually said “But Mom!  I said I’m sorry!”, as though that should have fixed everything and my mood should have instantly been sunshine and roses again.  I had to explain to him that I would be mad until I wasn’t mad anymore, and I didn’t know how long that would be, and that his best option was to stop talking about it, let me have some space, and (say it with me, folks) DON’T DO IT AGAIN.

I believe this so strongly that I probably upset people when they expect an apology from me and instead get “I won’t do that again.”  People have been trained to expect the apology.  They want you to actually say the words “I’m sorry”.  Sometimes they want you to go into detail about how bad you feel.  They want you to make appeasement gestures like a bonobo chimp.  They may want you to bring them flowers or a card.  But when all of that is said and done, they are still not going to be comfortable until time has gone by – time without you repeating your offense.  Maybe a short time for a small offense (bumping someone in line), probably a very long time for a huge offense (an extramarital affair).

Not only do I not want my son thinking that “sorry” is a magic word that gets him off the hook…  I also don’t want him to think that it’s a magic word that lets other people off the hook.  If someone does something to him, I don’t want him turning around and trusting that person the next minute because he heard the word “sorry”.  I’d rather he was a little skeptical and careful about that person for a while.

When I see people bringing flowers (or a six pack of beer) to someone as an apology, I have to wonder:  Does the person being apologized to actually think all is instantly well?  Has that person been brainwashed by the “apology cult” into thinking the flowers make everything okay?  If so, that’s a sad thing indeed.  If not – if the person being given the flowers is still going to wait whatever time is necessary for the hurt to heal – then what are the flowers for?  I suspect they are a power play – “Look!  I made him give me flowers!  I am important and I have power!”  Or maybe the person just really likes flowers and figures “This whole thing is going to take time to blow over, but I might as well get some flowers in the meantime.”  It’s become a joke – when a man buys flowers for a woman and it’s not her birthday, Valentine’s Day, or their anniversary, how often does he get asked “What did you do?”  It’s a disingenuous power play, disguised as a healing act.

I don’t want my son to grow into a man thinking that insults and injuries to his person by a friend or romantic partner can be instantly healed with a couple of words and a token gift.  I also don’t want him to think that forgiveness is owed to him in exchange for a bouquet, a ring, or a pretty speech.

I guess the best immediate response to use and to teach my son would be “I’m sorry, I won’t do that again”, since it conforms to the social expectation of the other person while reminding him of what is truly important…  changing his actions.

On the other hand, if you truly do plan on doing it again, save everyone time and don’t bother apologizing – instead ask the person if they are willing to tolerate your behavior, and if the answer is “no”, write that relationship off and move on, because it’s not going to work out.

My son, just turned seven last week, came to me yesterday asking “Is it true that in the old days people would make pens from bird feathers?” When I told him that it was, he immediately wanted to run out to the chicken coop and collect a feather so he could do it. I told him we’d have to do a little research first, to learn how to do it.

Thinking about it today, I realized that the next conversation we have about it will go something like this:

Do we want to make ink, too?
How about what we will write on? Do we want to make paper, or write on a hide?
Do we want to prepare that hide ourselves? Does that mean we have to skin the animal ourselves, too? Do we have to make the knife that we use to skin the animal? Do we raise the animal or hunt the animal ourselves?

And thus I will lead my son down the rabbithole of authenticity.

He has seen me slowly sink down that rabbithole from time to time.  I have done it to some extent with cooking, as my definition of “from scratch” has changed.  Cooking from scratch can mean buying eggs, flour, milk, baking soda, and sugar and making a cake.  Or it can mean getting eggs from your chickens, grinding grain into flour, milking a cow or goat, harvesting honey…  you see where this is going.  I have chickens for the eggs and I have started grinding wheat berries into flour.  But I live in town where I can’t have a rooster so I have to buy my chicks from a hatchery.  I purchase commercial layer pellets to feed my chickens (and supplement that with kitchen scraps).  I buy the wheat berries from the bulk bin of a local store rather than growing the wheat.  Maybe those things will change when we have land someday.  And then my definition of “from scratch” can change as well.  I did prepare one meal last summer that involved killing a chicken in the morning, digging up potatoes and carrots, chopping garlic and rosemary grown in our yard, and cooking it all in a solar oven.

Similarly with my weaving hobby.  I used to buy yarn and weave on a store-bought loom.  Now I weave on a warp-weighted loom that my husband made using hand tools in our shop.  I have worked my way slowly backward toward the sheep – first purchasing yarn, then purchasing roving to spin on a homemade spindle, then purchasing washed fleece and preparing it myself for spinning.  Living where we do, with a small yard and lots of neighbors, I can not back up any more in the process – washing raw fleece is a stinky, space-intensive process and will have to wait until we have land.

So anyway, it will be interesting to see where my son wants to go from his simple question about quill pens.  It turns out that his father has a hide from a deer that he shot and skinned, and he also has some of the necessary materials for making different kinds of ink.  This could turn into little Alex’s first Arts & Sciences entry at a local Society for Creative Anachronism event.

And why is this important for my son’s life?  Thinking about this project today, I realized that it was a good introduction into the kinds of projects one might get involved in with the Boy Scouts.  I used to have a negative reaction to the idea of my son in Boy Scouts, simply because of the religious-ness of the organization.  But that is changing slowly with time, and also I’m sure the religious aspects of the Scouts vary depending on where you are in the country – as my son went to preschool and attends after school care at the local YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) and there has been no religious teaching there, but I have been told that in other places there is.  My son wants to be a game warden.  He’s been quite adamant about this for about a year and a half now.  His older half-brother told him that a good way to prepare for being a game warden would be to join the Scouts.  He said that if you can get to be an Eagle Scout, it will really help you get your foot in the door as a game warden, because you will have life skills and character references and a network of support.

I was very impressed to hear a 13-year-old giving this advice to his 6-year-old brother.  And I realized that he’s probably quite right.  It’s never too early to think about your future, and not in the overly-simplified “stay in school” and “go to college” way…  those things are good, but there is so much more to becoming a well-rounded and successful person than just staying in school and obtaining a Bachelor’s degree.  Things like thinking creatively, being curious, being willing to sweat and deal with discomfort and dirt and stench to accomplish a goal, looking at things from other than a modern-day California perspective, taking pride in personal accomplishments, taking pleasure in basic physical activities, and having the simple understanding that “things are made from things” and not just sprouted out of the Dollar Store bins.

Good gracious, how did a question about a quill pen lead to all this?

I have raised my son to talk to strangers. I remember when he was about 2 and a half years old, and I was waiting at the pharmacy with him, and he just walked over and climbed into a chair next to an old man who was waiting, and said “Hi!” Then the man commented on his shoes, and he happily discussed shoes with the man for a while before wandering off to look at a sunglasses display. A woman waiting nearby gave me a very disapproving look.

Like yeah, that old man was going to molest my son ten feet away from me in the Rite-Aid pharmacy waiting area while I watched.

Teaching your children to be afraid of strangers is not going to serve them well.  It is not going to help them not be molested.

For one thing, most molestation is not perpetrated by “strangers” – it’s usually by family, extended family, or friends of the family.  So teaching your children that “family and friends are safe” and “strangers are dangerous” is misleading them.

For another thing, if your child IS approached in an inappropriate way by a stranger, fear and shyness are not what your child needs in his emotional toolbox – what he needs is the confidence to SPEAK UP and to CHOOSE TO DISOBEY.

He may have to speak up to another “stranger” nearby – “Hey, this man is bothering me!”  He’s not going to do that if he is afraid to talk to strangers.

He needs to disobey – “No, I’m not going to do what you say” and when the offender tells him not to tell anyone, he needs to go tell someone.

I have always thought “Don’t talk to strangers” is an odd way to raise children, considering that nearly everyone in the world is a stranger to them, and over time they are going to spend more and more of their hours and days away from their family and out in the world.  With all the strangers.

I think it’s great that my son meets more people than I do when I take him to a big party.  That he introduces himself to people at other tables in restaurants.  That he chats up the nurses at the doctor’s office.  That he tells jokes in the men’s locker room at the gym.  That he waves at people driving by.

The more social interaction he gets, the more I feel he knows what normal, healthy social interaction feels like.  Which ought to help him recognize when someone is not interacting with him in a normal, healthy way.  And because I have never scolded him for talking to strangers, I’m thinking (hoping) that he will not be afraid to tell me if anyone is acting weird to him.

I see him with a lot of different adults and older children in many different situations, and I love that he feels comfortable inviting people to play with him, singing for them, asking them for help…  AND he feels comfortable telling them “Stop that, now!” or “I don’t want to play like that” or coming to me and saying “He hurt me” or “He said a bad word”.

If my son were not so used to talking to strangers, I would worry about him more.  I remember being a shy kid (not so much at his age, but as an older kid), feeling awkward around strangers and afraid to talk to anyone, and I do not believe I would have had the social skills that he does to deal with any problems that do arise.

I am in no way saying that it is the parents’ fault when a child is molested, or that my son is invulnerable to abuse.  I am saying that in his toolbox for dealing with the world, I think confidence and social skills will be more useful to him than fear and shyness.

I’m so sick of people saying that to me.  It happens surprisingly often.  It’s always when someone is talking about being worried about their daughter:  Usually about her safety – protecting her from other people, sometimes other adults but often also her peers.

It’s worries about her going out in the world, being away from them and with other people.  Worries about her growing up.  Getting hurt.  Being negatively influenced by other kids.  And of course, that ultimate daughter-worry, getting pregnant.

Fine, worry about your daughters.  Comes with being a parent, I suppose.  But please DON”T tell me that I don’t understand because I have boys. 

Boys get hurt. 

Boys get raped.

Boys get beat up – often, and with less chance of someone stepping in to protect them.  And you can add in the fact that if you DO step in to protect them, you may be making it more likely that they will get beat up more aggressively the next time you are not there.

Boys get negatively influenced by other kids and other adults – possibly one of the worst influences being the attitude that “boys will be boys” and thus they are allowed to do shit that should be nipped in the bud.

And if you want to get down to the nitty-gritty…  the Big Scary…  PREGNANCY – I’ve got news for you: 

If my sons are the responsible people we are trying to raise them to be, and one of them sleeps with one of your daughters, and your daughter ends up pregnant…  THE BALL IS TOTALLY IN YOUR DAUGHTER’S COURT.  Not in my son’s.  He does not get to decide what happens.  SHE gets to decide whether to have an abortion, put the baby up for adoption, or keep the baby.  SHE gets to decide whether she wants to work after she has the baby, or stay home with it and make my son pay for everything.  This is her right, as it is her body – I do not begrudge her that, but I do begrudge you the right to tell me that all of the danger and worry is on your side.

Yes, there are irresponsible males who will run away (and their families who will actually HELP them to shirk the responsibility – shame on them).  I do not plan on my boys being like that.  And do keep in mind that there are also plenty of irresponsible females out there – who will forget to take their birth control pills for days at a time and not mention it, or who will actually want to get pregnant so someone will take care of them (I know it’s not PC to say so, but females like this do exist, and they are often very pretty…).

I’ll make a deal with you:

  • Teach your daughters to make people earn their trust, not just give it to everyone who smiles at them.  I will teach my sons the same. 
  • Teach your daughters to use birth control (AND protect themselves from STD’s).  I will teach my sons the same (and hope that research into male birth control gains momentum). 
  • Teach your daughters to not accept abusive or deceitful relationships (as friendships or romances).  I will teach my sons the same.
  • Teach your daughters to protect the boys and girls in their lives from danger.  I will teach my sons the same.
  • Teach your daughters to take care of themselves, to use their judgement, to be honest with their partners and friends.  I will teach my sons the same. 

And please, think before you condescendingly tell me that I don’t understand – like I don’t care about my boys, like they are somehow immune to danger and hurt and “bad people”. 

Our worries are two sides of the exact same coin.

My five-year-old son has a good friend up the street whose family is religious.  Alex often has asked if he can go over there on Sunday morning, and I always say “No, Honey, they are at church now.  You can go over in the afternoon.”  So of course, now he asks if he can go to church WITH them.

Now, I’m not rabidly anti-religion like some people I know.  But the only church I’d let Alex attend at this point is the local Unitarian Universalist church – I went there for a while about five years ago, and I know they don’t teach any “religion” at all (it was more like a town meeting with a little poetry reading thrown in).  I’m not saying *all* Unitarian churches are that way, but our local one sure seemed to be.

I’ve tried to explain religion to Alex before, and it just confused us both.  I think this sums up his understanding so far:

There are books with stories in them.  Some people believe that all of the stories are really true.  Other people believe that some parts are true, but other parts were made up (like a lot of the stories that Alex himself tells!).  Other people believe that everything was completely made up.

Church is kind of like school, but the teaching comes from these religious books.  The people who go to church might get mad if you tell them that you do not think the stories are true.

Alex is a natural-born skeptic (or at least agnostic).  He likes stories, but he does not think that anything that doesn’t SEEM like it could be true IS true.  He likes stories about vampires, zombies, gods, monsters, ghosts, and flying ponies.  He does not think that means there are such things in the real world.  His father and I, however, do tell him that just because you haven’t seen something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – you can not prove that something does not exist.

When he asks me about Santa, god, ghosts, and the tooth fairy, I tell him that I have not seen them and don’t really believe in them, but a lot of people do believe in them and I can’t prove that they are wrong.

Some people have told me that it is good to expose Alex to some of the Christian stories as he’s growing up, so that at least he has some idea what people are talking about.  So this week when I picked up his normal fare of library books about Greek myths and monsters, I picked up one book about the parables of Jesus.  Because while a lot of the stories that other people tell about Jesus are just plain creepy, the dude himself told some good stories.

One thing I have no idea how to deal with is the crucifixion scene outside the local Catholic church.  Life-sized representation of the cross with Jesus hanging there with his crown of thorns and people bowing in front of him.  Alex has asked me a couple of times what’s going on there, and I have just changed the subject…  really not interested in getting into how criminals used to be killed by nailing their hands and feet to wooden crosses and hanging them until they died of suffocation, blood loss, or exposure to the elements.  And how some people believe that this one guy came back to life a few days later.

Although Alex does love zombie stories, so I guess he’d like that one, too.

So often when I hear parents these days talk about how they get their children to behave, it just sounds passive-aggressive to me.

I live in California, so it may be that I am seeing/hearing more of this crap than people in other parts of the country.

This is the kind of thing I’m talking about:

– People who don’t say “No!” to their children.  When my boy was a toddler at a store with me, a woman near me told her little girl repeatedly to “please stop” pulling things off the shelf, and then she actually said to me “We’re trying to avoid using the n word, it’s so negative”.  Seriously, she said that.  Well, gee, lady, I don’t think “nigger” is appropriate language to use with a toddler, either – but what does that have to do with this situation?!?  But anyway, if you use “please stop” to mean “no”…  it just ends up meaning the same as “no”.  Honestly, if you have a problem with the word “no” being negative, you’re missing the entire point.  You use negative feedback to stop undesired behavior.  Positive feedback to reward good behavior.  The negative feedback MUST, by definition, be negative.  Otherwise, you’re just a bribing, begging, toothless pushover.

– Someone once told me that I had “humiliated and embarrassed” a little boy when I was helping coach a soccer team.  I had picked him up under my arm, carried him to the sidelines, and sat him down.  He had been hitting other kids (kids smaller than himself) in the head with the ball while waiting in line for a drill, and had not stopped when I told him to.  “Humiliated and embarrassed”?  He SHOULD feel humiliated and embarrassed.  He was being a jerk.  Jerks should be humiliated and embarrassed – done at a young and impressionable enough age, maybe it will help them STOP BEING JERKS.  But these days a lot of people think you should just ignore bad behavior and eventually it will go away.  They think that left on their own, kids will naturally stop bad behavior – that it’s always just some “phase” the kid is trying out.  Yes, kids have phases – but you know what?  You can make some of those phases very short with a little humiliation and embarrassment.

– Every child should have the opportunity to experience and practice self-direction.  Time to play as they want to, time to figure things out on their own, time to experiment with their surroundings and their abilities…  but it’s gotten ridiculous lately!  So many people seem to think that giving your children commands and expecting them to be obeyed is barbaric.  Instead you are supposed to ASK them in an overly gentle, wheedling tone to do something.  So you hear parents in the park saying “Don’t you think it’s time to go home now?  Aren’t you getting hungry?  How about we go home now – we can have ice cream at home, won’t that be nice?  Do you want to do that?”  Makes me grind my teeth.  Pay close attention at a park, school, or birthday party and you’ll notice that even those sentences that are otherwise phrased as commands almost always end up with a question (and thus the option of refusal) at the end:  “We have to go home now, okay?”  “Let your brother have the ball now, alright?”  “Come over here, will you?”  Sometimes I want to just stand up in a room full of moms and dads and yell “Christ almighty, people, grow a pair and tell your kids what to do!”

– I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard a mother say something along the lines of “you have to make him think it’s his idea”.  You want to play that game?  Really?  What happens when it’s something urgent and important, and you don’t have time to play manipulative mind games?  Isn’t it just plain exhausting to be so manipulative, instead of just saying you want something done and having it done?  It’s quicker and easier to say “Get in the car.  Now”, and have the kid get in the car, rather than cajoling and negotiating.  Think how much time you’d have for other things if you didn’t have to do all that mind-game shit.

– Strangely enough, while all these people walk around unwilling to give their children simple basic commands, they are often also controlling every moment of the kids’ lives.  The manipulation is constant for some parents.  A never-ending chain of simpering suggestive questions, guiding every social interaction and play experience.  I prefer to let my kids be pretty free-range, playing as they like with whom they like, roaming pretty far from me as long as I know where they are, getting themselves bruised, making mistakes – a “don’t sweat the small stuff” approach.  They know the rules and boundaries, and if they break them they get a quick and clear reaction – if they stay within the rules and boundaries, they have great freedom.

All this modern parenting reminds me of how women in my mom’s generation (and some young women now) talk about controlling a man by “making him think it’s his idea”.  Which at least makes logical sense if there is an imbalance of power in the relationship – as the less powerful person physically, financially, socially, etc. sometimes passive-aggressive manipulation is the only way to get what you want or need.

But parents are supposed to have the power in the parent/child relationship, so there’s no excuse for this manipulative BS.

And if you take a larger perspective than your child’s immediate happiness, you may realize this:

Treating a child so passive-aggressively his whole young life may turn out someone who can not handle honest communication in any relationship.  Is he going to have to find a partner who never says what she wants, just plays mind games to manipulate him?  If you never tell your child what to do, how are you preparing him for the work force?  Do you think his boss is going to take the time to make him think it’s his idea to mop the floor, or stock the shelves, or serve the customers?  After about preschool, are his teachers going to?  Are the police going to?