My four-year-old son was invited to a party. I went along and it was chaotic. There were jumping castles, toddlers, pre-schoolers and endless supplies of sugary snacks. The two dozen children were all on sugar highs, acting like monkeys on crack cocaine. It was exhausting to watch. I sat with other mothers watching our children play.
There was a mother who had the most adorable twins of about three years old: a boy and a girl. During the festivities the little boy came to the mother crying. He had fallen and grazed his knee. He limped over to her and there was blood oozing out. She kneeled down to inspect his knee and told him in a no-nonsense tone that it was just a little scrape and therefore nothing to cry about. She dabbed the knee with tissue paper while telling him that he was her big man and that he should not cry like a girl. She then patted him on his back and instructed him to go play with other children. He limped back to the chaos of the jumping castle and I caught him looking back wistfully at his mommy.
An hour later the twin sister came screaming that an older girl had pushed her. She declared that she was hurt. The mother knelt before her, inspecting her for injuries, and there were none. When asked to show where it hurt, she vaguely pointed to her right shoulder. Her mother then scooped the little girl up onto her lap and cuddled her, kissing her repeatedly, assuring her that the bully girl would be punished. The little girl presented her shoulder for kisses to make it better. The mother kissed her shoulder, gingerly dabbed hand cream on the “hurt” shoulder and cradled her until she fell asleep.
So different from how the little boy was treated.
This disparity happens in most homes. There are different rules for girls and boys. Women who are the nurturers treat their children differently based on solely on gender. Girl children are expected to be weak. In fact, I would even venture to say that fragility in female children is celebrated. Think of all the fairy tales we read to our children. All the female protagonist need saving. Cinderella is ill-treated in her own home and has to be saved by a prince, as does Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. All these women are fragile and these are the stories we put our daughters to sleep with. Female fragility is celebrated. All these women are rescued by males. Girls are discouraged from being assertive and displaying self-efficacy. They are often discouraged from getting into physical altercations, and they are not encouraged to learn the skills of physically protecting themselves. Female assertiveness is labelled as aggression.
However, for boys the ability to protect oneself physically is expected. Males who opt for dialogue instead of violence to resolve conflicts with other males are seen as weak. There is also a repression of male tears in most homes. Boys in pain are discouraged from crying. This has disastrous consequences in many ways. Crying is good for pain. It helps calm you down by releasing oxytocin which counters stress hormones. It shows other people how you are feeling. But little boys are taught to have stiff upper lips and to bear pain without flinching. This is inhumane. And if boys don’t know how to express pain and vulnerability, they will only have anger and violence as their outlets later on.
In most homes little girls are taught how to sit. They are encouraged to take up as little physical space as possible. I cannot count how many times I was told to put my legs together when sitting as a child. In contrast boys get to splay themselves and are allowed to take up as much space as possible. Girl children are also raised to cover up even in their own homes. A boy child may walk around topless in his house; for a girl child to do the same would be seen as immodest and as inviting male sexual touch. Such instructions can have undesired effects. It teaches young boys that women in short clothes are inviting the male gaze. Girls in shorter clothes are labelled and shamed. In worst cases they are sexually violated. Female nakedness is sexualised in homes, whereas the same is not done for male nakedness. For the most part girls have earlier curfews. They are expected to wake up earlier to do chores and are not allowed to be in the streets past sundown. In contrast boys get to roam at all hours and do less chores. So boys conclude that they deserve privileges of deciding what to wear, how to sit and how long to stay up late for, just because they are male. Such upbringing leads to chauvinism. Patriarchy is pervasive in how mothers raise their children.
There are so many other examples of how the world is an unequal place. A woman’s title is always determined by her relation to a man. She is Miss if not married and Mrs when wed. The same does not apply to men. A boy child is a Mr from birth to death, regardless of the relationship he has with women. This is because society has determined that there is social currency in women being married.
We as society need to change the way we raise our kids. There should not be different rules for boys and girls in the home. This would go a long way in erasing gender inequalities, and would be healthier for all of us.
Tell us: do you agree that mothers need to treat their children more equally?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.