I Think I Might Have Tears

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.

Swimming BoyLike 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 headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa 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.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

Resources for Boys

Parent question:  “I really enjoy your blog and am working hard to raise my daughter with a broader view than just princess, even though they are her first love. I also have two boys. One almost two the other almost nine. I was hoping you could help me find some good balancing resources for them as well. I feel like I’m focused on making a whole girl but not the whole boy. Thanks.”

 PPBB Answer:  Thanks so much for your kind words! Finding info for boys is not as easy as it would seem, but there are good resources out there. For online sources I like Achilles Effect , Let Toys Be Toys – For Girls and Boys, and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. All three address issues around gender + marketing + culture.

As for books, I recommend:

“Packaging Boyhood” by Sharon Lamb, Lyn Mikel Brown, and Mark Tappan

“Achilles Effect” by Crystal Smith

“Real Boys” and “Real Boys’ Voices” by William Pollack

“The Men They Will Become”  by Eli Newberger

Also “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” and “The Gender Trap” are good. Diane Levin does great research on violence + play (The War Play Dilemma), and Jackson Katz is pretty much God when it comes to this stuff.

Keep your eye out for The Representation Project’s “The Mask You Live In”.

How do we raise sons into men we admire?

How do we raise sons into men we admire?

Early Morning Moments

That space inside those early morning moments when the first child stumbles out of bed, wild haired and fuzzy eyed and makes his way to your lap. His velvety cheek snuggles against your chest as his little arm curls around your neck and he says “Good mornbing, Sweetie Geel” and you sigh as you wrap up those arms and legs that are so, so big and so little all at the same time.

And you begin to discuss that matters of the day, like do Angry Birds love their moms and super heroes needing large muscles to fight buildings that turn into monsters and wondering if the neighbor boys are awake yet. But you don’t want the world to be awake yet, because you just want your little boy to stay lap-sized and sweet for it might be a matter of months or maybe you have a year before he won’t fit in your lap anymore, or won’t want to.

You continue to discuss the careers of super heroes and begin to wonder if he is already thinking about the man he will some day be. Because you do, you think about the man he will some day become and you want him to be a good man. You want him to be intelligent, kind, strong, and fair. But for now you get to quietly smile down at the little foot in your hand and the blue polish covering his piggy toes that belies the fact your little boy still believes sparkles are magic. This morning, he is still your little boy.

He asks for juice and you blink back some tears as you answer “Sure, Buddy” and inform him that you read somewhere that Angry Birds do, as a matter of fact, love their moms. And he looks at you with a smirk, as if there was any other answer.

The only other family member who gets more snuggles from Benny than me is the brown and white puppy.

I Love You One Skillion: The Class of 2026

Benny, on his final morning of preschool.

Dear Benny,

Last night you came up to my desk and asked if “a skillion” was more than one million. I wasn’t sure how to answer that, and you are so intense with your numbers and math problems that as adorable as you were, I felt I had to break it to you that a “skillion” is not an actual number. I was curious as to why you wanted to know, and when you answered that you “love me more than one million so that means you must love me one skillion”, I grabbed you up and smothered your soft little face in kisses.

Salty kisses, because you were filthy grimy from the playground earlier that afternoon. I had to brush sand out of your bed when I tucked you in tonight, how does that happen? In a few short months that playground will be your playground, as tomorrow is your final day of preschool and you will become a kindergartener. We will leave behind amazing teachers and we will move on to the big elementary school.

I don’t know who your kindergarten teacher will be, but I hear all three choices are great so I guess we can’t go wrong. I just hope whichever classroom you end up in has children who are kind and ready to make friends with an awesome little boy who knows odd facts about insects, collects rocks, and has a bit of a reputation for saving hurt and lost animals. I hope the teacher is the kind of teacher who slips you difficult books to read and answers your tough astronomy and physics questions. Your queries often stump me, so I am more than happy to let your teacher field some of those doozies.

Kindergarten is just the beginning, and since you are already testing as quite advanced it is really just going to feel like a seven hour playdate for you each day. I hope that you continue to think school is fun. I look forward to your art projects, book reports, and winter holiday sing in that cherubic monotone that only cute short people can pull off and still keep the whole room smiling. Before I know it we’ll be on to spelling tests and baseball games, guitar and gymnastics practice. I’m excited for your first school play and meeting that boy or girl who becomes your best friend in the whole entire world. I hope you stay hungry for math and science and go on to build those bridges in Africa you told me about.

You are my last baby and I don’t know where these past five years have gone. I hope they have been magical for you because they have been for me. I like watching the world through your eyes, listening to you play, trying to answer all of your questions. Don’t ever stop asking questions. And yes, I looked into it, all of the kinder rooms have Legos. I just wrote myself a reminder to mention to your teacher your obsession with Houdini….probably something she should know ahead of time.

I hope school is kind to you and is a place that respects the caring and inquisitive child you are. Many times expectations of boys feel too rigid and limiting, and you approach life with your whole heart and some of those expectations I mentioned are not going to fit you. I want you to know that is okay and there are many ways to be a boy. The only thing your father and I expect from you is for you to believe in yourself.

Actually that isn’t true, I expect you to be honest and respectful of others. You are my sweet boy now, but every day you grow more into the man you will become and I want you to be the kind of man I would be proud to call my friend. You will be taller than me some day, your hand will no longer feel like a little warm catcher’s mitt in mine when I reach down for it. I want to be able to fit into the curve of your arm, look up into your face, and think to myself that you have grown into the kind of man this world needs more of.

But we have to get through that first day of kindergarten so that you can officially become the Class of 2026. I didn’t think I was so emotional and nervous about this but I must be because tears are running down my face. I know your big sister will be at school to look over you, but it turns out I love you one skillion too and I hope that after school next year you still have time to teach me great things like this.

Love always,


The Issues Our Boys Face

Benny Boy sharing his love of kittens with a new found interest in superheroes.

I asked the Facebook Community to share with us what challenges and stereotypes their sons face. My own concerns are echoed in their comments. A Cliff Notes version would read something like allowing boys to feel and express their emotions, play with dolls and enjoy fancy things like dress up and nail polish, balancing violence/weapon play, and doing away with phrases such as “He’s all boy” or “Boys will be boys”.

My hope is as we continue to move into a space that involves advocating for childhood for both boys and girls, we can support parents raising boys in a culture that doesn’t really allow them a boyhood. Whereas we’ve talked for years about girls being sexualized and stereotyped since birth, I think equally so our very little boys are rushed into a quasi-manhood they aren’t ready for.

Here are some quotes direct from our parents:

“Personally, I’d like to see the end of “boys will be boys.” No, gender is not an excuse for inappropriate behavior. It shouldn’t be reason to encourage such behavior either. I think a much better saying is, “Boys will be men.” We need to think about who we are raising in regards to both genders. We are not raising perpetual 8 year olds. We are raising men and women.”  -Michelle B

“I’ve got three boys each very different kids. My oldest loves his longer hair, despite the kids at school mocking it, luckily he has male family members with long hair to show him all the different ways to look. My middle is pretty rough and tough but he loves purses, babies and dress up. A typical kid experiencing the world. The baby is mostly happy go lucky but we get some comments for him wearing pink socks, or a pink swimsuit (his sister is the next youngest so we have lots of pink baby socks) I just wish my boys were allowed to be kids, like colours and activities without having genders assigned to them.”  -Crystal G

“The saying “He’s all boy” rubs me the wrong way. People always say it when my son is being super active/energetic or playing with sticks or something like that. No one ever says “he’s all boy” when he is carrying his beloved baby doll or tenderly wrapping her in a blanket. No one ever says he’s all boy when he is cooking me a pretend cake or when he drapes his sister’s purse over his shoulder. Does he suddenly become half boy/half girl when he does those things??! Why don’t we just say “He’s all kid!” or better yet just ask him what his baby’s name is or what flavor cake he’s making…*sigh*”  -Ruthann T

“Guns as toys. And violent play altogether. I recently looked for an action figure for a friend’s three year old son and couldn’t find anything without a gun. He got plenty of toy guns for his birthday, and the kids all ran around “killing” each other during the party. It was horrifying watching a kid put a shiny toy gun to my daughter’s head, yell “you’re dead!” and run away laughing. Kids, most often boys, are taught to play murder before they even know what death is. I worry that guns are so commonplace in our toys and entertainment that kids will stop being shocked when they encounter real ones.”  -Lisa Y

“I wish it was “okay” for a little boy to be masculine. There seems to be a pendulum swing from “no, you can’t like pink” to “you must like pink”. Our boys do need to be taught nurturing, it’s not just for girls, but just as we’ve started a movement for girls to be girly AND tough, it seems that we’re focusing on “sensitizing” our boys, and taking away their “tough”. It seems to me that boys have been stripped of their identity in an effort to groom them to be more sensitive, and the little boy who has no natural inclination to wear a pink tutu or play dolls, runs the risk of being labeled a caveman who grows up to beat his wife. (That’s a bit tongue-on-cheek.) There’s too much political correctness in childhood. Adults are projecting way too much on what should simply be child’s play.”  -Amanda J

“Boys get the “male role” installed on them beginning at a very young age. There are different phases presented throughout this male role installation. It starts with teaching boys that they are not who they think they are. They are not able to identify with certain emotions (i.e.; fear, sensitivity, etc.) and are made to realize that they are wrong for feeling what’s natural. Then they have no way to resolve the pain and hurt they face. This is where coping mechanisms enter the picture. It gets worse because then we start teaching boys that not only are they not supposed to do what’s natural (inherently true) but that they are ‘better than” other people. We teach them that they are superior to girls and gays and that girls and gays are “less than” boys. In doing this we introduce sexuality (i.e.; your gay, don’t be a girl) before boys even know what sexuality is.”  -Josh B

“What they need is the freedom to explore those interests, whether they are “gender-typical” or not. We have to get past the idea that there is only one way to be a boy.”  -Crystal Smith of Achilles Effect

and finally, I think this says it all…..

“We need a broader definition of boyhood.”  -Amanda B

Mentioned above, my friend and colleague Crystal Smith is a mother to two boys and the author of  “Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys About Masculinity”. It is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. Especially if you are new to looking at the stereotypes our boys face, it will be a real eye-opener.

Here is a post Crystal just wrote about boys and the expectation to be “tough”….Click HERE.

This post by our friend Sarah Jay of The Mauve Dinosaur does a great job of explaining why we’re all in this, together….Click HERE.