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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Boys don’t cry: Why it’s more difficult to emancipate my son

Does anger or humiliation know gender? Does rage naturally pour out of boys and trickle out of girls? And while it seems like our daughter has figured out she’s no different from her brother, it's my son who started to confine himself to learnt notions of maleness.

New Delhi |
Updated: July 10, 2019 10:36:55 am

gender equality, how to teach kinds gender equality, why its important to teach kids gender equality, indian express

By Joeanna Rebello Fernandes

At age one or thereabouts, I photographed my twins sitting on a heap of clothes in a suitcase we were packing for a holiday. It was not until I started to write this piece that I took a closer look at the picture. Could anyone tell boy from girl at that early age, I wondered? In scrutinising their faces, I almost overlooked their clothes. There’s my daughter in a pair of pink bloomers and my son with a truck on his vest. Case closed!

In our defence, young parents are often the happy recipients of new and ‘preowned’ (less euphemistically, hand-me-down) clothes and our children simply wore what they got. But on second thoughts, I don’t think we ever rigged our son up in those pink bloomers! As liberal as we professed to be, we had our reservations.

Nine years, and some enlightenment later, we try to practice a bit more diligently the gender-equal parenting we’ve come to learn. But while it seems like our daughter has figured out she’s no different from her brother — she can play with a tea-set or with Hulk, cycle or play cricket, dress in a skirt or in dungarees, climb a tree or pick up a slug, read Captain Underpants and Rebel Girls — it was my son who started to confine himself to learnt notions of maleness, picking them up from the television, his friends, and even relatives!

By now, both had all-colour closets. When he cultivated his own sense of style — about two years ago — my son said he’d rather be tarred and feathered than wear a salmon pink t-shirt because “pink stinks. It’s for girls”. It was the word on the street.

I showed him internet pictures of cool dudes in a spectrum of pink. Evidence helped, and he relented. I also told him that about a hundred years ago, it was the boys who wore pink. (It was believed to be a ‘stronger’ colour. How convenient!) “Only the bold wear what they want,” I sagely said. The word, I reckoned, would be received positively by his budding male antenna, and this new association would stick, I hoped gleefully.

That was the first correction in the course. It grew harder as we progressed.

Like most children, mine too reacted to hurt and injury with tears. Then, around a year or so ago, I noticed my son started holding back his tears even when I could tell he wanted to cry. He would purse his lips, knit his brows and his whole face would contract into a knot of constraint, even as he started to internalise what he had heard: “Don’t cry like a girl”. My son began to conflate tears with feminine weakness and aggression with masculine heroism.

I recently asked him, what he thought about crying. “Crying in public is embarrassing.” And at home, I probed? “I cry where no one can see me if I have to,” he revealed hesitantly. I think I cried a little right then.

Does anger or humiliation know gender? Does rage naturally pour out of boys and trickle out of girls? We know enough by now to realise that children who are encouraged to look closely at their troubled emotions, to put a finger on the root, and figure out an expression and a resolution, are better prepared for life’s squalls. They develop greater empathy for others. “It’s okay to cry,” I said to my son. “You’ve seen me cry. Do you think I am weak?”

“No,” he said, emphatically. But he hasn’t seen many men around him cry. Does it mean he will learn to express his anger or sadness in a way that’s different from his sister and his mother? Wouldn’t that reinforce the difference?

We do what we can to raise our boys and girls right. We give them equal opportunities, encourage them to read widely so their pantheon of heroes grows, and their experience of life grows more varied. We undo stereotypes. We set examples. My husband and I take turns making breakfast; we take turns at the wheel on long drives. We’re trying to show them that our gender roles, choices and opportunities are increasingly blended. We’re trying harder with our son. Because we’ve emancipated the girl and not the boy.

(Joeanna Rebello Fernandes has been a features writer for over 15 years. She’s also the author of Treasure at the Train Station: A Mumbai Adventure.)

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