Monday, March 25, 2013

Raising a Boy

He has been taught from an early age
that men are nurturing, too.
When I was pregnant, I assumed (until an early ultrasound told me differently) that I was carrying a girl. And I was really excited about that- training another strong woman to carry on my tradition of Witchcraft and cunning sounded like a wonderful thing. And then that little lump of flesh (called a penis) on the ultrasound really stunned me.

I must admit, I am now embarrassed and shamed at my very visceral adverse reaction to bearing a boy child (at least we think he;s a boy child- he keeps changing his mind between boy, girl, and goblin). I am not a separatist, nor am I a Dianic Witch (although I dabbled briefly with that path).

I believe that all sexes have value. I was grateful to that ultrasound, because it helped me get my shit together before Rowan arrived- so I could welcome him with all my heart and love him for who he is, regardless of genitalia, chromosomes, or (what will develop later) identity.

And I am happy to say that Rowan is an amazing human being and I would not have any other child, regardless of genitals, in his place. Every need I somehow had in my head about having a daughter has been filled by him, and then some. Rowan is mine and also his own- a truly unique individual who is not defined by his junk any more than I am.

Pink fuzzy sweater and a pigtail?
Why yes, please.
But raising a boy presents its own cultural challenges. I believe in raising kids as free as possible from kyriarchical standards (or what I have called the "Gender Agenda" in previous posts). And when raising a boy, you have many many people laying assumptions down on how to raise that boy so that they live up to the privileges and expectations that society dumps on them.* There is a lot of influence that I will have on him, but I fear about the messages he will ultimately get from others who would pigeonhole him into a role not of his own choosing.

For example, there's the issue with Rowan's appearance. 

We allow him to choose his own clothes, hair, and accessories. We believe and are teaching him that his body is his own and he can adorn it any way he likes. No one has the right to do things to his body, including dressing him in drab**, that he does not consent to.

Uniquely Rowan.
Much to his Pap Pap's chagrin, he has chosen sparkles, colors like pink and purple, rainbows, long hair, and glitter. And who can blame him? His mama is part magpie, so why wouldn't he be? He choses not to cut his hair (and believe me we ask him weekly if he wants to cut it- since he hates having it brushed). His hair is down to his butt and is most often pulled back into a utilitarian ponytail and often has barrettes in it to keep the shorter front pieces from getting gross from food. They make most barrettes in "girl colors" and "girl designs". (Rowan does not mind having multi-colored butterflies in his hair at all, but what about kids that do not like such "girly" things? Where are the gender neutral barrettes for kids- like dinosaurs?)  In related feelings, I hate that we assign gender to inanimate objects, colors, and patterns. It sucks.)

A Beltaine outfit
of his own choosing.
His choices lead him to be "girled" a lot. Our family, including Rowan, don't actually care. But the reactions we get from people being corrected range for horror to shame to confusion. And this perplexes Rowan enough to comment on it. "They think I'm a girl, mommy." "Yes, they do." I reply.  "Do you think you are a girl?" "No", he says. "I'm a little boy." Fair enough.

But it should also be noted that sometimes he tells me that he wants to grow up and be a lady like mommy. And some days he wants to have a beard like daddy. And the fact that he doesn't know or has made up his mind is fine by us. But it squicks a lot of people out. I bet that this phase is probably far more natural than in the children that had their gender chosen for them and forced to wear, say, and act certain things to reinforce their parent's idea of what a boy or girl "is".

Then there is the culture of violence that we force upon boy children. 

When we go to playgrounds, inevitably we run into boys playing war games with toy guns. It disturbs me that violence is considered fun and I have mentioned this to Rowan. He doesn't seem to like this kind of play either- because he always tells those boys "Go away! I don't like to play that." I don't know if this is a simple projection of me and my distaste, coming from him and his dislike, or a combination of the two. But I will NOT train my son that hurting or killing people is a fun game. We will not have video games like that in our home (ever) and we carefully screen his media intake. It seems like here in Ohio, almost all boys are all taught killing is fun from a young age. I like to think that I am giving Rowan more options in how to become a man (if he choses to be one). When his Pap Pap says, "He's a boy!" as if that objection to long hair makes sense, we tell him, "Yes he is a boy with long hair. There is more than one way to be a little boy." (And frankly, if you think there is only one way to be a boy or man I feel sorry for you.)

Some days he's a boy.
Sometimes he's a girl.
Somedays, he's a goblin or robot.
But he's ALWAYS shiny.
In the wake of the Steubenville and Indian rape cases, I have been thinking a lot about how to raise a boy in this culture- one that I personally am often horrified by. And to me, the answer is mostly - you don't. My son is not being raised steeped IN this culture, but alongside it. His parents often reject what society has deemed of value- and we are teaching him to value things like autonomy, freedom, responsibility, friendship and kin, and love over things like money and acquisition, domination, control and force, and the fleeting futility of "identity".

With a preschooler, the messages and steps we take look like this:

He has strict media limits.

No one, especially corporate interests, are going to tell my son how he should be. I limit "screen time" to 2 hours a day and even then- it does not happen *every* day. He never watches actual TV (with commercials and news breaks) in my home, but instead watches educational streaming video instead (no commercials, only approved programs). It may sound over-the-top to some parents, but a recent study has found that carefully curating what preschoolers and younger watch determines their aggression level. So Rowan picks from Sesame Street, Yo Gabba Gabba, Super Why, Curious George, Dinosaur Train, Word Girl, Dora the Explorer, and Go Diego Go, mostly. And still, there have been subtle messages in some of those programs that I disagree with and we talk about what we see together. He has no filters at this age- so I must help him do that. He also watches nature documentaries. He also only watches movies when mama and daddy is there to have dialogue with him about what he is seeing. Recently, he saw Wreck It Ralph and Despicable Me. We had talks about bullies, "bad guys", and being nice. In both movies, the "bad guy" turns out to be a good guy. So Rowan has been talking a lot about that lately.

He hears commercials on the music station that we listen to in the car sometimes. And I help him filter those messages, too. "They are talking about that because they want you to buy something, Rowan. They paid money to get on the radio to talk to you. They have an agenda- what do you think that agenda is?"

He is being taught that his body is his to with as he chooses.

(But mama and daddy sometimes need to intervene for his health- like making him eat greens or brushing his hair.) I remember applauding Jada Pinkett-Smith when she defended her daughter's right to crop her short and wear "boyish" clothes. Smith talked about how it was her daughter's body and she got to choose what happened to it. What a powerful message for that child to get from a loving parent!

Being a lightening bug
for Halloween.
No one decides for him how to express himself, as long as he is not harming himself or anyone else. So he will decide when to cut his hair, start potty training in earnest, and when he can be tickled or hugged. And we teach him that others get to make these decisions for themselves, too. So he is getting the "no means no" talk, even before his sexual awakening. We even gave daddy a time out once, for tickling without getting consent first (that made Rowan smile really big, to make daddy get a time out!).

And he will get all versions of the "no means no" talk along with the "yes means consequences- good and bad" talk when he does have that awakening. He will be getting sex education that not only has the bad consequences as a scare tactic (pregnancy, STIs) but also what makes a good relationship, what kinds of sex there are, full anatomy disclosure, and more.

In the wake of the Catholic Church and other predations upon children in the news, I am struggling with the loss of innocence that comes as I teach him about secrets, touching, and that not everyone is a nice person. But I know this message will keep him safe- so I have bought a book called "Not every Secret Should be Kept" and we started to talk about keeping safe and talking to mama and daddy about things that happen when we are not around.

We also teach him that affection and touching (as well as expressing his feelings) are wonderful human things to do.

So many men are emotionally stunted because of their conditioning as children. This manifests itself in emotionally unavailable partners and fathers, an obsession with sex (as a replacement for love), and a horrible repetition of the cycle. We strive to have Rowan be fully human- that is, not be limited by what others consider "normal" male behavior. Just as the parents of daughters must struggle with this issue, so must parents of boys- just in different ways.

In what ways have you found raising your kids, especially in regards to gender and culture difficult? What has been easy? What are you doing to educate you children about gender roles and expectations?

*Raising a girl has its own challenges- don't get me wrong. I just knew what I was in for with having a daughter- having been one myself. I was just unprepared for the particulars of raising a boy as a non-kyriarchal feminist household.

** Drab is the costume we give to boys and men in our highly gendered culture- dull colors, less interesting tailoring, less patterns. Drab is the boring version of drag- which is also a gendered costume.


  1. As someone who doesn't have children (by choice), I admire any parent who can get their kids to adulthood alive with all of their parts intact. :) I also applaud your goal to keep gender conditioning and stereotypes out. I'm wondering how you plan to address the fact that most people he meets are not going to communicate the same way that he does, or feel as free to express themselves as he does. As a small child, will he be able to understand that and accept it when he is criticized for the way he expresses himself? I also wonder if more people would prefer to teach their children the way that you are, but don't do so for fear of their child being bullied or not accepted.

  2. I'm raising a boy and a girl and it's a fun thing. I don't impose things on them. My son's favorite shirt over the summer was actually one of his sister's dresses. Though I will say they mostly pick out "gender appropriate" clothes but my son definitely picks out vibrant colors and patterns to wear. Though since he's moving up in sizes I'm seeing less fun stuff for boys and that bothers me. I posted on FB one day how me and my son were playing barbie dolls and my daughter was running around being a truck and said gender roles what gender roles? And around Christmas I had my first time of people telling my son, strangers in the middle of Target telling my son "ick that's a girl's toy you don't want that" when he said he wanted a pink Princess shopping cart. I responded nicely twice saying it's a toy, not a girl toy. Then when she kept butting in I kind of got snotty and told her off. But seriously who tells someone else kid not to play with a girl toy? I paint his nails when he asks me to, I put makeup on him when he asks me to, though his dad doesn't like that lol. And I bought him "girl" toys cause he asked for them. I hate that people think we need to tell kids how to act a certain way or wear certain things, though I have told both my son and my (ex) stepdaughter that BOTTOMS are required to leave the house unless they are wearing a dress.

  3. Love this post, Lily. My husband and I are raising our son in a similar manner. Although, thus far he seems to be very much into "boyish" things. Thanks for sharing a peek into your family's lifestyle. :)


    1. Aside from Rowan's affinity for sparkles and bright colors, he is very rough and tumble himself! A very physical presence!

  4. I really loved this article, esp. the sections about "media limits", "my body, my own", "affections and touching are good, but they have consequences".

    I admire that you and Oberyn are giving Rowan the chance to explore his personality as he grows up. Although my upbringing was different from his (it was the 60s-70s in a traditional Catholic country, after all), I still grew up believing that I am an individual first, a girl second. (None of us could understand how that happened.)

    Despite being more or less trad-looking, my outlook meant that I was still considered odd, an outsider. Shunned at times, laughed at for no reason I could see. I preferred books and strange subjects like the occult, esp. witchcraft. I really could not abide the US teen star magazines my peers liked, mainly because of the blank-faced teen boy stars. As for cosmetics and perfumes, I was envious of them and wanted to experience what it’s like to use them, but those things were beyond the family budget.

    Anyway, what I want to say is, with the benefits that Rowan is being gifted by you and Oberyn (helping him to know his own mind, his own personality, being a more compassionate person, etc.), how will he deal with being different? He might encounter prejudices and unkindness directed at him or being deliberately isolated because of it. How will he deal with boys who challenge him to a fight or would harm his friends unless he gets into fights? You know how unkind some people could be. But perhaps you are preparing his “sheltering community” with the friends he is having right now?

    Lilly, will you and Oberyn consider having him trained in self-defense, at least?

    1. We are part of a warrior tradition, and yes- we are already teaching Rowan about why people are bullies and how to defend himself. He will inevitably be "different", but we are teaching him to love and embrace it. He may not always as he goes through the conforming stage that comes with adolescence, but I think he'll be the better for it in the long run.

      I took Aikido and Aiki Ju-Jitsu. I would be happy if he took martial arts as a discipline!

    2. That is wonderful! Perhaps you and Oberyn should write a storybook on this? I am most fascinated with "bullies and how to defend yourself", what to do if you're isolated by other kids, etc. It's too painful to make children wait for Life to teach them these things. Sometimes, it becomes too late.

      I envy the children in your tradition, esp. the girls. You are teaching them to be compassionate, yet able to defend themselves if need be... It's different from the culture I grew up in -- "turn the other cheek" always when, in my experience, it is best, at times, to throw a rock-hard bread at the fool hurting you. This caused me quite a painful confusion for a long time, until I decided that I'd rather be considered "bad" because I fought, than good yet fooled. (Of course, it's a case-to-case basis.)

    3. Right now, O and I (along with w few select others) are creating a children book of nursery rhymes that teach Craft principles. Many people are unaware that many traditional nursery rhymes actually do that- so we are re-printing those (with teaching principles for the adults) along with new, original ones!

  5. I love this posts, I don't know if you can get it yet over there, but we have a british programme called Tree Fu Tom which I would highly recommend watching, my 5 year old loves it.

  6. Read a great article on studies of boys and girls and academic progress/learning today.

    This is why Rowan will be given opportunities to play music, dance and make art. Daily.

  7. Hi, nice to meet you! I'm a pagan mom of two kids, and my oldest (five) is a boy who we have raised very similarly to what you describe. He has become more interested in gender roles recently, and it's very interesting to watch him navigate. When he was around four he started to be sensitive to boy and girl things, but although he brought it up often (pink is a girl color, etc) he couldn't quite dismiss our arguments that colors and toys are just for people and have nothing to do with your genitalia... so now he doesn't say that kind of thing anymore, but he sometimes says things like "red is for fighting guys, not princess guys". I think he's trying to work out a way of having a masculine identity without tying it to biological sex, which is complicated and interesting to watch.

    We also do a lot of emphasis on consensual touching of all kinds, although I was curious when you mentioned time out after that. I see in your "about" that you're unschoolers like we are, and the consensuality is one reason we don't do time-outs or other punishments. I'm really not trying to be judgemental in mentioning this, btw, I respect that choices of other families, but for us radical unschooling is an extension of respect for the sovereignty of others over their bodies.

  8. Ah! We gave a daddy a time out after he continued to tickle Rowan when he asked him to stop. We are all about consensual touching, too!

    We do time outs. It works for our family because we don't see them or treat them as punishments. We explain before and after what they are about: anti-social, uncooperative behavior will ultimately make you lonely. No one wants to be around someone who breaks their things, does not respect physical boundaries or is mean. So it is a preschool level way of showing them those consequences.

    Love that you found the blog and I look forward to more dialogue!

    1. THis could be part of your book, too, for kids to teens.


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