The Boys Are, in Fact, Okay
Heloise slams her bedroom door. She’s had a quarrel with a friend, and it has snowballed as these things will, and now other girls are involved and taking sides. My 12-and-a-half-year-old -- who is sometimes 23 and other times six -- feels persecuted and misunderstood, and her father and brother have nothing to salve her wounds.
“I want to be alone!” She yells when we knock at the door, and my nine-year-old David and I retreat to the apartment carport, where we toss the football. He pretends he’s the charismatic receiver Cooper Kupp; I pretend I’m Matthew Stafford, and together, we engineer a winning Rams drive against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVI. Bunny boy one-hands the touchdown catch, and we celebrate.
“I think it’s time I go to Nena,” David says.
(Nena -- “little girl” in Spanish -- was what we called his big sister when they both were small, and it remains his name for her.) I ask if he’s sure, but I already know the answer. My son has a plan.
David grabs a piece of paper and a pen, stretches out on the hardwood in front of his sister’s room, writes a short note, and slips it beneath the door. I watch from his mother’s couch. A moment later, the paper comes back. My son leaps to his feet, the door opens, and David disappears within. I wait for what I know is coming, and it does; he pokes his head back out. “Dad? Want to play family with us?”
“Family” involves dressing up Heloise’s substantial doll collection, and taking them all somewhere fantastic. Sometimes, we go to the Maldives for the weekend on our Gulfstream; other days, we go to Aspen to teach the little ones to ski. The dolls have a glorious mix of names informed by both popular culture and the Torah; I am particularly fond of the solemn brunette from the American Girl store, now christened “Alessia Jade Rivkah.” Alessia’s brother is “Eitan Colten” these days, and he looks smashing in the old onesie Heloise has cut up into a passable polo shirt.
The scenarios involve glamour, but also danger – David needs plenty of the latter to keep him engaged. Today, we are in South Beach, and kidnappers have come to seize Alessia and hold her for ransom. My son holds Eitan under his arm, brandishes a toy gun in the other, and declares himself to be the family’s hired bodyguard. While Heloise and I comfort the children, David shoots three of the kidnappers, sustains a gunshot wound to the abdomen, and yet somehow manages to tackle the remaining wretch and hold him in a headlock until the police, in the person of your narrator, arrive.
Heloise is cheered by the end, and there are rumblings about dinner.
The next morning, I read a much-discussed essay in the Times. Ruth Whippman, mother of three boys, writes:
“We talk about toxic masculinity as an extreme scenario — the #metoo monster, the school shooter — but it is more like a spectrum. We have normalized a kind of workaday sub-toxic masculinity, which is as much about what we don’t expose boys to as what we do.”
Whippman is writing a book about boys, we are told, and she’s not happy that despite her best efforts, her sons are, in her estimation, emotionally stunted. They read the wrong things, and play the wrong games. “There is a bizarre absence of fully realized human beings in my sons’ fictional worlds,” she laments, wishing that her sons would read more about what it’s like to be a teen girl trying to navigate invitations to two simultaneous birthday parties. Whippman is particularly harsh towards the books my son and his friends devour, like the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series and “Dog Man.” Whippman concedes that there is some small morsel of the human what her sons consume, but worries that the literature created for boys offers too little that is helpful and far too much that is dangerous. “If we follow these characters’ trajectory of resentment and self-loathing to its most extreme conclusion, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine one of them in 10 years’ time, trolling feminists online from his parents’ basement.”
My first thought, as a parent keenly worried about embarrassing his children, is that I should very much like to hear from these boys in a few years. I hope that they are not hurt by their mother’s disapproval of what she regards as their impoverished inner terrain. The parent who writes should remember their most important audience is the one who may be too young today to read what you’ve scribbled. It is a child’s right to tell harsh truths about their parents, but love is like water, and it flows downhill. A parent who chooses to humiliate their offspring in the press has done a dangerous thing. Ms. Whippman isn’t quite Thomas Markle, but she is a little too close for my liking.
My second thought is that boys who are close to their older sisters probably get a particularly lucky deal. In college, I noted that my male friends who had sisters – especially older ones – had an ease and a success with women that most of the rest of us lacked. The kind of “girl drama” that Whippman wishes were more present in boys’ lives is something little brothers of big sisters cannot escape. If they are like my David, little brothers can be immensely annoying to tween and teen girls – but also like David, little brothers can be soothers and jesters; omnipresent witnesses and loyal confidantes. Some boys, perhaps most boys, perform these services well, and they learn a lot of empathy in return. The mutual devotion between my kids is a thing to behold.
(My great-great aunt Margaret often remarked that men were good for only two things in our decidedly matriarchal family: “strong backs and entertainment.” A gentleman is quick to lift heavy things, defend a woman’s honor with a sharp riposte if not his fists, and defuse tension with quick and self-deprecating wit. It is best if he not make important decisions.)
Here’s the thing: contra Ms. Whippman, the boys are okay. It is fashionable to attribute to the “cage of toxic masculinity” what might be just as easily explained by some of the enduring differences between men and women. The research is compelling that at least some of women’s increased emotional acuity is by biological design rather than imposed cultural necessity. Many a feminist who has committed to raising boys and girls without rigid gender roles has discovered, to his or her chagrin and bemusement, that those gendered differences still show up despite a parent’s best efforts to keep them at bay. While it would be risible to attribute all these differences to biology alone, at some point it becomes equally silly to insist that every child is born a blank slate, and it is only culture that molds identity.
My son was two when he started organizing wrestling matches between his dolls – and no, he hadn’t seen WWE on television yet. When she was three, Heloise received a plastic six-shooter from a friend who felt that girls should play with toy guns too. Heloise named the gun “Prixely” (one has no clue), and put the weapon down for naps next to her own dolls. It stretches credulity to suggest that these behaviors were solely due to external environmental triggers.
My son loves football. He loves watching wrestling and reading Captain Underpants. He is a big, strong, boisterous kid, far more “typically male” than I was at his age. David is also devoted to animals, sporting a kennel’s worth of stuffed pups that in size, rivals his sister’s doll collection. With a father he only sees twice a week, he lives in a house with a headstrong big sister and a mother who describes herself as a “force of nature.” He has learned plenty about reading women and understanding their emotional lives – but he also has a robust inner life of his own.
And that’s the point I think Whippman is missing. So much of what disappoints and worries her about her own sons is, perhaps, a misapprehension of their depths. Just because a boy does not manifest social anxiety, or verbal dexterity, in quite the same way as a girl, it does not make him shallow or simple. When it comes to our children, the modern mind too easily mistakes gendered choices for imposed obligations: “He only refuses to read those books because they’re girly and he’s afraid of being shamed! He would be more social and verbal if boys weren’t mocked for that! He only likes football because it’s what the other boys like!” It is certainly true that the performance of gender roles is often a straitjacket – it is also true that sometimes, well-meaning and otherwise open-minded parents see feminine passions as both superior and more useful, and would rather attribute their son’s lack of interest in parties and friendship drama to enforced submission to performative masculinity, rather than to his own innate preferences.
As anyone who has been around kids and teens knows, gender is not a binary. It is a spectrum. Not all boys like “boy” things, and not all girls prefer “girl” things. A healthy society for kids embraces all points on that spectrum, allowing each child to grow and develop as he, or she, or they feel called. Some girls will like fashion and makeup and parties, and they are not vapid bores; some boys will like football and wrestling and fart jokes and guns, and they are not sociopaths in training. A tolerant and inclusive society recognizes that biology and culture interplay in ways that confound and surprise all of us; a tolerant and inclusive society makes room for both the kids who defy traditions and those who embrace them.
Above all, a tolerant and inclusive society recognizes that there are so many different ways to be fully human – and it does not assume that the way that one sex performs their humanity is superior.
The boys are fine.
Mike and the Moonpies are the sensation these days for folks who like their country on the traditional side; their brand-new record dropped this week and this is my favorite track from these South Texas fellas.