I came downstairs the other day and found my boys watching My Little Pony on Netflix. Instantly, I felt an internal struggle brewing, much like the one I felt a few weeks prior when I found them watching Strawberry Shortcake.
One internal voice told me to encourage my sons to watch something more boy-oriented. Bob the Builder? How It’s Made? Diego? Cars? Anything with strong male characters and/or large machines. The competing voice told me to keep my mouth shut and quit trying to impose artificial gender roles. They asked for My Little Pony. Mom set it up for them. They were happy. Why was this a problem?
Voice #2 won.
So, you’re a…dancer?
A similar struggle occurs sometimes at my mom’s house, where she has collected an assortment of costumes for them and my niece to play with. I wasn’t a big costume person as a preschooler, so for a while most of her costumes were my sister’s old dance uniforms and other dresses. Despite my efforts to be openminded and enlightened and all that, it was a tiny bit disturbing to see my 3 1/2 year old son walk out in my sister’s pink and gray mouse leotard from her first dance recital. But I didn’t say anything. Apparently, Grampy was a bit more disturbed. Grammy saved the day and bought the boys an assortment of superhero costumes, which they seem to prefer most of the time.
Will boys be boys?
Part of my quiet discomfort springs from the gender roles I’ve been taught and seen modeled throughout my life. You know the traditional mold. Boys are supposed to be active and rough-and-tumble, to like destroying things and making noise, to play with cars and superheros and army dudes. Girls are supposed to be sweet and quiet, to like reading and dancing and tea parties, to play with Barbie and My Little Pony and jewelry.
As a general rule, my boys and my niece fit those molds very well with minimal conscious direction from any of their parents. My boys are loud, love to run and climb and wrestle, and are fascinated by fire trucks and cars and airplanes. Reagan speaks softly, dances, loves dresses and purses and princesses, and wears as many bracelets as her little arms will hold.
Interestingly, on a few occasions, Brenden has turned down a cup of yogurt or a movie because it had princesses, saying it was “for girls”. So he has some rudimentary concept of gender roles and the idea that certain things are designed for one gender or the other. But in general, my boys they like what they like, which in their case also happens to include some “girly” things like My Little Pony and leotards. I’m not sure anyone’s ever told Brenden that he’s not “supposed” to like those things because he’s a boy. And I don’t plan to. There are certain elements of being a man that I want to teach them, but they involve qualities and actions, not likes and dislikes. Standing up for what’s right, treating people with love and respect, taking responsibility for one’s actions and the people who depend on you…those things are part of being a man. Liking cars or violence or sports is not a requirement. Neither is disliking tea parties or shoes or My Little Pony. When we buy them toys, we lean toward boy-oriented or neutral ones. We’re certainly not pushing them to cross genders. But neither do we freak out if they pick up a doll.
Born This Way?
Mixed in with the issue of gender roles is the issue of sexual orientation. They might not be as blatant or obnoxious as Homer, but I think some parents still wonder how their actions might influence their children’s sexuality and sexual orientation. Will watching My Little Pony and wearing dance leotards turn my sons gay? For some, that’s a stupid question. For others, it’s a perfectly legitimate one. Your answer depends mainly on whether you think sexual orientation is based primarily on nature, nurture, or personal choice.
In an Emmy-winning 1997 episode of The Simpsons called “Homer’s Phobia“, the Simpson family gets to know the local antiques dealer, a nice man named John. Everyone gets along great, and Bart starts emulating John’s crazy taste in shirts and dance moves. But when Homer figures out that John is gay and fears his “gayness” might be rubbing off on Bart, he starts a crusade to keep Bart on the straight and narrow, so to speak. He shows Bart “manly” cigarette ads, takes him to visit a steel mill, and takes him on a hunting trip. Surely shooting some unarmed animals will keep Bart straight. Finally, after John saves Homer and crew from the reindeer they were hunting, Homer reluctantly accepts John and then realizes that Bart still has no interest in either gender.
I’m certainly no expert, and I know some of you disagree, but I fall in the nature camp. I didn’t choose to be attracted to women; I just am. I can’t just make myself like guys. I can’t explain why I like girls. That’s just the way I am. And I find it ridiculous to assume that so many gay people, especially in past decades when society was less accepting, would willingly choose to “be gay” and invite so much abuse, hatred, and death from the straight community. People more knowledgeable than I have said that certain circumstances, such as abuse, can affect one’s sexual orientation, so I doubt nature is the only factor. But for most of us, I am convinced it’s the primary one.
Because of that view, I feel no obligation to “train” my boys to like girls. That’s the other reason I’m not freaking out like a “good American dad” when I see them watching a show aimed toward girls or trying to forcefeed them “manly” pursuits like fishing or hunting or football.
I want them to pursue their interests. Some might be more personally appealing to me than others, but part of my job as a parent is to help them discover their interests and talents, explore them, and possibly do something with them, whether they involve sports, drama, rock music, politics, science, religion, writing, or whatever else might grab their attention.
So I’m not stressing out whether they watch Bob the Builder or My Little Pony, dress like Superman or a pink mouse, or play with Lightning McQueen or Barbie. Brenden and Jonathan are who they are. I want them to become the young men God created them to be. And no matter how they turn out, I will love them with all my heart for as long as I have breath.