My little boy is seven years old, his name is Ben. He’s a great guy. In many ways he is all the things you’d expect a little boy to be, and in many ways he isn’t. I try to parent both of my children in ways that do not hold expectations nor limitations based on their gender. They are free to be their own person. The only expectation I hold for Ben is that he be himself and be the best Ben he can be. Society, though, has different expectations for our boys. I see a lot of stereotypes come his way about how a boy should act, think, feel.
We don’t give boys the space to think and feel very often. We tell them to toughen up, “man up”, don’t cry. And certainly, never show that you are scared or insecure.
That doesn’t work for my son.
Ben has social anxiety, which means he hates school, being on teams, and doesn’t like to be in big groups or do things in front of people. This makes life hard. Seemingly everyday regular things that all the other kids can do with normal effort, mine can’t. Joining a birthday party. Having fun playing a baseball game. Finishing first grade.
My kids freeze. They have panic attacks. They drop out of first grade in favor of homeschooling. They can walk up to a group of new kids at the park to make friends and start a game of play, but they cry over things that seem really little or insignificant and I don’t get it. I’m more like a Golden Retriever: everything’s a party and everyone is my best friend. Ben makes me pause, reframe, and see situations the way his little heart see them.
Like today at the first day of swim lessons, when he was hiding in the boys’ locker room because he was overwhelmed. He was stressed by the number of parents watching and the first day of anything can be hard and scary. I found him pressed up against the wall, his small fists pressed into his eyes. I could tell by the way his tiny chest was heaving he was fighting tears.
“Hey Beeze. Can I do something for you? What are you feeling right now?” I ask him.
“I think I might have tears.”
That’s what he says when he is trying to be brave and pull himself together. When he is trying to get on with it, suck it up, stuff his feelings down.
“Well, go ahead and have tears if it will help you feel better. Sometimes crying lets us get out our big feelings and helps us find our words.” He crumples into me after I say this to him, and he cries. I try hard not to.
In so many ways, I just want him to be “normal”. I want to say, “Buddy just get over it and get in the water. You know how to swim so what’s your deal?” But I don’t say those things.
I don’t want him to be one of those boys who grow into men who don’t know how to have feelings. Who are too scared to cry or reveal vulnerability. Who put so much effort into being “masculine” they cease being human. I want my son to know that everyone gets nervous or scared about all kinds of things. I want him to know that bravery is not the absence of fear, bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway.
I let him cry. And then I tell him we are walking out to the pool deck together. He is allowed to cry. He is not allowed to give up on himself.
We walked out of the boys’ locker room holding hands and we choose to sit against the wall near the shallow end. We sat off to the side, in front of dozens of people. He was the only child in the whole place acting like this. I made no apologies for it. It takes a lot of guts to be authentic in front of people. My guy does it like a champ.
While we sat I continued to see where he was at and what he was feeling. He said he’d take his turn doing the initial swim test once everyone left and it was just me and his teacher.
That was fine with me. Ben was acknowledging his limits and asking to do what he needed to do within the framework he needed to feel safe. Not bad for a seven year old. Some adults pay tens of thousands of dollars in therapy to learn how to do that.
We’ve worked really hard to get to this point, as just a few months ago he would have screamed and stormed off, or gotten angry and embarrassed and hit me. A lot of parents make excuses when their sons act that way. Boys will be boys, you know…..
Boys grow into men. As a parent it is my responsibility to raise my son into a man, not just sit back and watch him grow into one. Not to excuse away unacceptable behavior because of his gender. It is my responsibility to teach my son how to respect his body, which includes his heart and feelings. In teaching him how to respect himself I am teaching him how to respect others, another parental responsibility. He cannot, may not, absolutely not lash out in anger or violence when he has feelings that trouble him. We problem solve, compromise, and find a way to things the best way he can.
Boys get scared. And boys cry. Boys have feelings and boys feel pushed into things because their parents don’t want to be embarrassed or let down or have a kid who doesn’t fit in. Who doesn’t act like all the other boys.
The only expectation I have of my son is that he be Ben. Some days, doing so makes him the bravest boy in the room.
*Posted with Ben’s permission.*
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.