My fellow columnist on yowoto, an author that I respect and have the honour of knowing personally, Kiran Manral, wrote in her column last week about how her son has learnt that crying like a girl was a bad thing. Well, last week, my son was told not to be shy like a girl. It reminded me of Kiran's column. But unlike her, I didn't know how to deal with the situation. My son is inherently shy. He doesn't know-or care-if being shy is a girl thing or a boy thing. It takes him time to get friendly with people, especially strangers.
As a father, I don't stress about it at all because kids are kids and it's okay if they take time to make friends. Heck, we do that even as adults. In all the tweet-ups I've attended, I've always seen people being reserved at first but opening up once they've gotten to know the other people better.
But my son's experience and Kiran's column set me thinking. How do I, as a father, deal with gender stereotyping when it comes to my son? Many thoughts and some ideas come to mind. But I will share them with you only after I've issued my standard disclaimer: I'm not a parenting expert. My thoughts and ideas are specifically from my experiences as the father of a 5-year-old boy. Yours could be the exact same or the polar opposite. Also, as of now, my son is an only child. Dealing with gender stereotyping is probably different for daughters. Things might also be different when there are siblings, particularly when you have both a son and a daughter.
Obviously, I have a lot to learn. I will grow as a father as my son grows up and throws new, unimaginable challenges and curve balls our way. Please take what I say as thoughts and ruminations for discussion, and not as rules and regulations. There's a reason this column is called Diaries of the Y-Chromosome and not How to be the Best Father ever.
Ideas about Gender Equality
My first question is: Do we, as parents, know what it means to be a man or a woman beyond the physical attributes? We have an idea that's been shaped by our parents, our education and the society at large. And this continues to evolve. Stay-at-home dads were unheard of when I was a kid in the 70s. To some extent, it's still not very common for the husband to stay home and care for the kids while his wife supports the family.
'Fathers earn money, mothers take care of the kids' is still, by and large, the standard template for society. So basically we've set benchmarks for what a man does (and doesn't) do, and what a woman does (or doesn't) do. Despite the fact that roles keep changing over time. Take, for example: a man getting up and offering his seat to a woman. I used to think this was chivalrous until a friend told me she found it sexist. The phrase 'walk like a man' has been around for ages. So here's the deal: How can we be so convinced that what we're teaching our kids is right, if the roles for men and women are still evolving?
Three things I follow
Now that I've spoken about ambiguity in our society, here are the three things I try to follow while laying down a framework for my son:
1. What my son sees when I'm around women:
I live with my mother and my wife, and my sister visits us once in a while. That's three women and three relationships for me and my son. How I talk to them, treat them and share feelings with them (happiness, sadness, anger, everything) is my son's first point of reference. Then there are my friends-male or female-when I meet them with my son accompanying me. For example, when we meet there's generally a warm hug involved (by the way, this wasn't even done back in my time. Now it's the norm). How I speak with them, my verbal and body language and my emotions all go a long way in shaping my son's thoughts.
2. Sharing activities at home:
This goes beyond sharing diaper duties and the susu-potty cleaning. Incidentally, I never shared this particular responsibility and I'm not sure that makes me a good or a bad father. But what I try now is to take my son out to buy vegetables and groceries. Just the two of us, without his mother. He gets to choose his vegetables and see that it's not only his mother that does this work. Similarly, once in a while I drop and pick him up from school or the various classes he goes to. Who knows, one day, I might even learn to cook and both of us can cook together.
3. Correcting biases:
In her column, Kiran spoke to her son after he told her that he thought crying like a girl was a bad thing. My son was told not to be shy like a girl. There will be more instances when you have to deal with such gender biases. And talking to your kid is still pretty much the best thing to do. Talk to him about what you feel is right. Men cry, women cry. Men are shy, women are shy. It's all okay and part of the game.
We are the templates for our kids when it comes to them understanding men (father) and women (mother). How we treat each other as partners, as husband and wife, will go a long, long way in them understanding role models and modelling their thoughts about what's right and wrong. Stereotypes exist in society whether we like it or not. Sometime we follow stereotypes without even realising it. As parents, we still want our sons to be tough and handsome, and daughters to be demure and beautiful. Maybe that's not stereotyping. Who knows? But we can at least teach our kids about equality because that idea will never change. Men and women are, and will always remain, equal.