Do you think your child knows he is a boy? Or has he just learned to call himself that because he learned it from those who are around him? Generally, children recognize the differences between men and women by ages one to two and can identify themselves as being male or female by the time they are three. By four, it is thought that children know that being male or female is permanent.
You aren’t aware of having done anything to teach your child that he is a boy, but many experts agree that you have subtly influenced your son’s gender identity through the clothes you select for him, the toys you provide, and the behavior that you expect from him. You smile when he picks up a truck and frown or offer another toy when he picks up his sister’s doll. After all, say the experts, which toy a child selects should be arbitrary and it is just society that tells him if the toy is appropriate.
There is research, however, that indicates otherwise. A study by Gerianne Alexander offered baby Rhesus monkeys a selection of toys. The males were more likely to pick up traditional male toys such as those with wheels and the females more likely to pick up dolls. Alexander’s point is that no one taught these little monkeys which toys to pick up. She then did a similar experiment with human infants who were under eight months of age. The interest of the children in the toys was determined by how long the infants looked at the toys. She found similar results to the work with the baby monkeys; baby boys were more interested in the stereotypical male toys and baby girls more interested in toys generally thought to interest girls.
Other research by Melissa Hines with girls who received excess androgens (male hormones) while they were developing before birth indicates that these girls are more likely to play with boys’ toys and are more likely to select male playmates. They will grow up to be normal girls, but while they are young, prefer to associate with boys. These findings mean that gender stereotypical behavior may begin with the individual and that society simply mirrors what the behavior that is driven by something inside of us.
All of this information indicates that you may have less influence over how your son develops than you may have thought. Some part of children’s gender preferences may be inborn rather than learned; exactly which behaviors or to what degree behaviors are expressed, we do not know. Some of how your child expresses his gender is probably learned, however. For example, in some cultures, men express their masculinity by wearing very elaborate clothes and focus on how their hair is worn. In other cultures, such ostentatious dress is seen as the opposite of masculinity; in those areas, real men would wear baggy jeans and unkempt hair.
The important thing is to make sure that your son has good role models in confident and successful men. The life of little children is primarily shaped by women – mothers, teachers, baby sitters, and the like – so girls have the opportunity to observe many different types of women. Boys, on the other hand, may not have the opportunity to interact with an adult male at all and only see being male as “not female.” So if females are tidy, compliant, and sweet, he will be messy, obnoxious, and difficult. If a little boy is not around adult men, he may not have the opportunity to learn what behavior is acceptable for men. One issue is that very few men choose to teach in elementary school. Most men who work in primary education can be found in the front office, the athletic field, or the maintenance department.
So where can you find good men to provide your son with role models? Don’t forget that a high school student looks like an adult to a child in kindergarten so encourage your son’s school to invite students from the local schools in to read to the children. Yes, you can find good men who will coach soccer teams, but please make sure that those coaches understand the needs of little children. Your son and his friends will thrive on a program that focuses on team building and working together and less on individual skill building. We have talked about this before.
Even with good role models, your son may not choose to follow a stereotypical masculine role model. No amount of pressure on your part will change him, you will simply make him believe that there is something wrong with him because you don’t approve of his behavior. The more support you give your son for his choices, the more confident he will become and that is the real key to raising a good man.