Messages That Are Not Mixed

A friend of mine sent me this blog post on HuffPostParents knowing I would find it interesting since I’m constantly questioning and testing gender norms and my role in portraying them and explaining them to my daughter. The mother writing the piece, Lyz Lenz, explains how her toddler, a girl, was roughhousing with some older children, boys, when the mother of the boys stepped in because “we don’t play wild with girls.” Lenz’s daughter wasn’t crying, wasn’t being harmed, was having fun. Lenz is saddened by the idea that her daughter might be left out of…well, of anything simply by virtue of her status as female. And I feel that, I get that, I relate completely.

As with anything on the internet, however, the really interesting bits lie within the comments section. This batch of comments isn’t particularly upsetting, as far as messed up anonymous internet commenting can go, but there is a fair amount of grammatically incorrect anger within them. A few commenters agree wholeheartedly with the writer, some think the writer is oversensitive, some even postulate that the mother of the boys in question has been herself victimized by men and therefore is especially worried about her male children roughing up female children. Oh anonymous people of the internet, you know so much! And how!?

I actually agree with the commenters who say they suspect the mother who intervened on her sons was trying to do the right thing by the author’s daughter. She wasn’t trying to be sexist or exclusionary. In my internet imagination, Lenz would probably concede this point as well. Some commenters said that one or both of the mothers in that scenario were being overprotective. I say, find me a mother who isn’t! But there was one theme among the pages and pages of comments that rubbed me the wrong way.

One example of that theme is here:

“I think that the mother of the boy was trying to teach him to be gentle with girls, and that hitting girls is not OK. This is a good thing to teach boys from a young age because of the increase in violence against women.”

And here:

“I think society sends mixed messages…We teach our sons and grandsons to be loving, gentle and respectful to women and then we tell them to roughhouse with them??? If that roughhousing happened in their teenage years, those young men might be accused of abusing a woman or worse assaulting!”

{{ sidenote: so assaulting a woman is worse than abusing a woman? thanks for clearing this up internet peeps! }}

And this one that isn’t really relevant to anything but would have given me a good chuckle if I were the author of this post…get some other vagina-challenged, brittled boned friends for your girl-spawn!:

“lady, you are a jerk. find something more important to stress over.  get your daughter girl friends. the mother was proper”

Here is the problem with the general thesis of “we have to teach boys to be gentle with girls, because if not this is a mixed message and later in life he will not know he can’t be violent against women.”

First of all, roughhousing as children is not the same as violence between adults. Kids who play ‘wild’ do not all turn into adults who swing fists, if they did we’d basically be blocking punches all day long. If this weird logic were in any way real, we would/should be stopping ALL children from playing boisterously. Because it means that boys who play rough with girls will not know how to stop being violent to women, thereby boys who play rough with boys will not know how to stop being violent to men. Then we all descend into violent chaos. That is neither how it works nor logical in any sense.

Secondly, as parents/caretakers I think our rules about roughhousing should be thus: If a child you are playing with seems upset by the way you are playing (cries, says ‘no’, runs away, etc.) stop playing that way with them. This is not gender specific. And, by the way, it’s not NON-specific because I’m a free loving peace hippie socialist feminist, it’s non-specific because all kids are different and the level of wildness that they feel comfortable with won’t always be aligned with their gender. We might try to teach our kids to be, in the words of the wise commenter, “loving, gentle and respectful” to other people irrespective of gender. And when you find a pal who wants to play crazy wild rowdy with you, go to town.

If a woman says ‘no, don’t touch me’ or ‘I don’t want to play rough’ or ‘do not hit me’ a man does not stand there thinking now, when I was a 3-years old I was allowed to roughhouse with girls so this girl probably wants me to beat the shit out of her. Violence against women is a real, complex issue that we need to deal with as parents and human beings across all genders. To simplify it like this is laughable.

Allowing boy children who like to roughhouse to play with girl children who like to roughhouse is not a conflicting message about violence. A parent can tell their child to respect the limits of other kids but have fun while doing so and also tell their child WE DO NOT HURT PEOPLE. WE DO NOT EXPRESS ANGER WITH VIOLENCE. YOU CAN TELL SOMEONE TO STOP PLAYING IF THE WAY THEY ARE PLAYING HURTS/SCARES/UPSETS YOU. These messages are clearly not mixed. Kids want to be kids. Want to run and leap and wrestle and whatever else weird stuff they do. I don’t think we need to live in a padded world of saftey toys, but I do think teaching our kids about their agency over their bodies and the way their playmates also have that agency is crucial. Balance: struck.

We don’t need to live in a world where either all girls playing quietly on the rug with tea sets and boys can do whatever they want OR chaos and violence against women erupts. This way of thinking underestimates children, demeans parents and does not address the true problem of violence in our society at all. Anonymous commenters of the internet, TAKE THAT!

7 thoughts on “Messages That Are Not Mixed

  1. Nice post Lane, i totally agree! Peter and Lucy roughhouse all the time, i wouldn’t ever think to stop them because of the issues raised that boys could become violent against girls later in life, its natural for them to play like that. if that were true men who have sisters would be at the top of that list.

  2. Word.
    I find Dutch kids mild-tempered on average and have noticed that any kind of rough playing is gently discouraged which makes me sad. And of course, especially for girls. I teach Una that she shouldn’t do to another child anything they don’t want but she loves to roughhouse and I don’t discourage it. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that she is not a girl enough because she likes to wrestle.
    And really, must.stop.reading.comments.

  3. I can totally relate to this. There was a time this summer where a friend told his son, while playing with Lila, “no, we do not hit girls!” I kind of raised my eyebrows, but after before I said anything Malcolm said to me, “wow, that was weird, shouldn’t you teach your kid, we don’t hit anyone?” Some men get it thank God!

  4. Allow me a tangentially related mind dump.

    For a while I’ve thought that I was so lucky to have a boy; that I wouldn’t have to deal with pink-n-girly or how to be a woman who can do anything boys can do. My husband cooks, so my son likes to cook. He also has motorcycles so my son likes motorcycles. Mama is an athlete, so we’ve got that covered. Free and clear, right? Well rounded, gender neutral, etc. And then my mother decided that a good gift for my 7 year old fashion obsessed niece would be Vogue. She asked me to leaf through it and remove anything that might be inappropriate. I wanted to remove all of it!! And then I started thinking that maybe having a boy was harder…that I’ve got to figure out how to teach him that all the messages we see about women (thin, submissive, sex object, attractive because of the package) are nonsense. And now I realize I’ve got fight other parents (and my own parents) who want to reinforce those messages.

    1. I love this mind dump! 🙂 I always do a mental “hmmmm…really?!?!” when someone tells me how having a boy is so much easier because you don’t have to worry about any of this gender stuff. I haven’t had one, but I have to strongly disagree. A man raised by a strong woman who teaches him to think critically about gender roles and be himself is a powerful being! Good luck!

      1. the only thing easier will not be dealing with tampons–i saw a lady with 5 daughters and all i could think in my head was ‘shes gonna be buying a whole lot of tampons’.

  5. Fantastic timing for us right now! We’ve been dealing with an increased amount of rough housing from William, since starting school. While I dont’ want to come down too harshly on him, so we’ve been focusing on ‘no means no’ with his friends and especially matilda. It’s a difficulgt balance and one we will be struggling with for a while. But I hope that focusing on empathy and kindness will stand us in good stead.

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