The Last Page

About a Boy

By Michael Kimmel '72

The questions started as soon as the sonogram revealed pretty conclusively that our baby was going to be a boy. They were challenges, really. "Aha!" cackled one friend. "Now you'll see it's all biological!"

As a gender scholar who's written and edited a dozen books about men and masculinity, and as a pro-feminist male activist who lectures on perhaps two dozen campuses every year, I'm constantly asked if having a son has forced me to change my views about gender - and especially about masculinity.

What new parent can resist the temptation to generalize from an unrepresentative sample of one, with no comparative group? Suddenly, every parent is an instant expert on gender identity, assuming somehow that their children are everybody's children, and that the differences that they might see between a son and daughter somehow reflect what I have come to call the Interplanetary Theory of Gender (that men are from Mars and women from Venus).

If anything, watching my four-year-old-son Zachary grow has only increased my awareness of the constant daily barrage of messages that children receive from the world around them about what is appropriate behavior for boys and girls. If difference was so "natural," I'm continually thinking, why does it need to be so methodically and continuously forced on children, and why would it have to be so coercively reinforced at every turn?

Don't believe me? Take a field trip to Toys "R" Us sometime. The gulf between His and Her sides looms like the parted Red Sea, and woe to him who strolls inadvertently into Barbie-land from Land of the Action Figures. It's not simply those cute blue and pink blankets anymore; everything is coded. And so I'm more convinced than ever that gender difference must be produced, even when it is hardly there, because the entire system of gender inequality depends on it.

But I also now believe it's equally true that children are born with certain personalities — that they are oriented toward different styles of expression and have different abilities and interests. Perhaps we should resurrect that old anthropological term "temperament" to describe it. Zachary seemed to have a particular temperament from birth, and his first four years have only made him more, well, Zacharylike.

What seems most marked in his temperament is the range of affective expression that he has. He certainly loves rough and tumble play, whether it's wrestling with me, or playing with various superheroes. (When he recently asked his grandparents for a Barbie, I was somewhat surprised, since his choices until then had been Buzz Lightyear and Batman. But Barbie has simply become another superhero, and she flies around, apparently happily, with Spiderman and the gang.) And he also seems remarkably attuned to others' feelings, compassionate and caring. When a child in his preschool is crying, Zachary will offer a hug, comfort, or ask what's wrong.

It is this "other" side of boys' lives — the compassion, caring, and love that comes so naturally and is so obviously hard-wired — that we often watch being systematically excised from boys' lives. The demands of boyhood, which have nothing whatever to do with evolutionary imperatives or brain chemistry, cripple boys, forcing them to renounce those feelings and suppress and deny the instinct to care. And those who deviate will be savagely punished.

And is there not a parallel process at work for the girls who love to run with him in the playground, who can out-swing him on the monkey bars, who are fearless adventurers in their play? Do not the demands of girlhood require the cultivation of physical helplessness, the loss of voice?

It seems to me then, four years into the adventure of parenthood, that the task of caregivers and parents of girls, as so many wise and rigorous scholars have demonstrated, is to empower them to retain their voice, to remain as fully confident and competent as they already are. For boys, it is to hold open the opportunity to remain whole, to retain the natural, biological capacity for compassion and empathy, and to enable him to draw on a full — and fully human — emotional palette.

Such a child-rearing protocol will inevitably confront gender inequality — which, I believe, the foundation on which the edifice of gender difference is built. But adopting that protocol will enable our children to be so much more fully human.

Personally, I'm optimistic. Not long ago, Zachary and I were playing a game we call "opposites." You know the game. I say a word, and he tells me the opposite. They're simple and fun, and we have a great time playing it. One evening, my mother was visiting, and the three of us were walking in our neighborhood park playing opposites. Scratchy/smooth, tall/short, high/low, fast/slow. Then my mother asked, "Zachary, what's the opposite of boy?"

My whole body tensed. Here it comes, I thought, Mars and Venus, gender binary opposition, all the things I have been trying so hard to avoid in child-rearing.

Zachary looked up at his grandmother and said, "Man."

Here, at last, on planet Earth, there's one small voice that knows we're not from Mars and Venus, after all.

Michael Kimmel '72 is professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, and author of Manhood in America and The Gendered Society, among other books.