On Raising Girls in a 'Boys Will Be Boys' World

girl at baseball gameFirst, a confession. I’m writing this angry and thus violating one of the rules by which I try to live my life: Speak when you're angry and you'll make the best speech you ever regret. So, I suppose I will eventually regret this. But not today.

Six words from my 5-year-old daughter brought me to the breaking point.


"I want to be a boy."

We’ve always told her and her younger sister that there is nothing that boys can do that she can't. Nothing. 

I suppose this is what all parents tell their children in some form or another. And, though most believe it, I don’t think many really practice it.

Consider just a sample of what I’ve observed over the past few weeks:

A pregnant colleague said that she wasn’t going to buy a white couch because she was going to have a boy. “And you know how boys are.”

Another colleague’s rambunctious toddler girl learned to climb over the fence to the neighbor’s house. The neighbor's response? "I guess she’s the boy of the family."

A birthday party invitation sent to just the kindergarten girls promised to celebrate "all things girly" including finger foods, nail art, and face paint.

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The simple fact is that parents of girls and boys don’t really have the same beliefs and expectations for their children. Researchers saw this when they asked parents of toddlers to estimate the slope their children could successfully climb. The parents of girls chose a significantly flatter slope than the parents of boys. In short, the parents of girls expected their children to be less physically capable -- or more risk averse -- than the boys. In reality, the girls were able to climb a slightly steeper slope than the boys.

This perception colors how we treat girls and boys, which leads me back to my daughter and her desire to be a boy.

Every day when I drop her off at school, she has a choice to make. The girls are on the left, quietly drawing butterflies, flowers, and princesses. The boys are on the right building towers, racing cars, and discussing the weekend’s football games.

Sometimes wearing a glittery shirt and sometimes wearing her Tom Brady jersey, my daughter stands in the middle, unsure of where to go. Her desire is to turn right, to build and to race, but the boys (some of them a grade or two older) intimidate her. Instead, she usually gives me one last tug and heads to the left, her head hung low and nary a hint of a smile on her face.

At first, I thought my daughter was the only one facing this quandary, but then I spoke with other parents. One after another told me that their sons would rather be drawing or their daughters would rather be building. It seems many of our children are living lives of quiet desperation.

That my daughter has company does not provide comfort. For it simply creates more questions: If other parents feel this way, why is this stereotyping happening? Why are so many children so early in life feeling such pressure to conform? I have too many questions and too few answers.

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I will continue to tell my daughter that there’s nothing boys can do that she can’t. But then she will step into the world and discover daily that nobody actually believes it.

She doesn't know that women earn 77 cents on the dollar for equal work as a man, but she certainly notices the lack of men buying groceries for their families in the supermarket.

She doesn't know that fewer than 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, but she certainly knows that all the shirts on the "girls' side" of the store have butterflies and hearts and cutesy sayings while the shirts on the “boys' side” have trucks and dinosaurs and sports themes.

She might not know her mom was asked repeatedly when pregnant whether she would go back to work, yet nobody once asked her dad. But she undoubtedly hears her male friends told they are strong and smart while her female friends are told they are pretty and sweet.

Some will say that these differences are genetic. I say that’s a crock. The fault is not in our genes, it is in ourselves.

We label our children from the day they are born -- sticking the girls in pink onesies that say "princess" and boys in blue onesies that say "troublemaker" or, even more troubling, "Dads, lock up your daughters." We tell our girls to sit quietly while allowing boys to roughhouse because “boys will be boys.” We treat our girls as delicate little flowers while barely acknowledging that boys might actually like flowers.

Instead of introducing our children to a world of options, we narrow their choices and show them daily how their sex should govern their perspectives, their actions, and their futures. This is damaging to boys and girls alike. And it is wrong.

Yeah, I’m angry. More importantly, why aren’t you?


Written by Michael Rodman, dad of two wonderful daughters, who along with his wife, tries to teach his children that they should be who they want to be, not who society tells them to be. During the day, he serves as assistant dean for communications and marketing at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Image via Michael Rodman

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