Leah McLaren: If I want my son to respect women, I need to teach him to embrace ‘girlish’ things

14. April 2016 Parenting Guide 10

The other day I was sitting in the park with James, 3, when I picked a dandelion and handed it to him as a present. “No way, Mummy,” he said, pushing away my gift. “Flowers are pretty and I’m a boy.”

And I thought: That’s it. I’m signing him up for ballet.

Until recently, I’ve been quite happy to be surrounded by boys in all their stereotypical boyishness. I don’t have to struggle with what most parents of girls I know refer to, shudderingly, as “the whole princess thing.” And frankly, from an aesthetic as well as political perspective, I have always been glad of it.

Thank god for boys, who just muck about in their saggy track pants, smashing up toys and teaching each other to belch the alphabet (Freddy, 7, can now get all the way up to “K” in one breath). Sure, they’ll destroy the furniture building forts, but at least they won’t fill your house with plastic engagement rings and insist on wearing hideously flammable poly-blend prom dresses for five years straight.

Boys loathe that stuff, and as a feminist mom so do I – so we’re on the same page then, right?


As James gets older and begins to discover himself, I realize that he is being guided just as much by what he vehemently rejects as what he genuinely loves (zombies, magic, ice cream, dogs and dancing). Some of the things he now pushes away he truly seems to dislike (yogurt, itchy sweaters, going to bed), but other things he is starting to turn on for reasons of obvious cultural conditioning.

James isn’t entirely sure who he is yet, but he definitely knows what he’s not, and that’s 1) a baby or 2) a girl. Lately, anything that falls into either of those two categories is verboten to him.

When his older brother complained about having to watch Frozen because it was “girlish,” James instantly struck it off his list of favourite movies and now refuses to play Elsa and Anna even when his best nursery school girlfriends insist.

You might think this is no big deal, that my son is just behaving “naturally,” but I’m automatically wary of notions of biological determinism. When he hands me back a flower because pretty things are for girls, I think, what’s next? Kindness? Decency? Dancing?

Jerramy Fine is an American expat in London and what you might call a professional princess advocate. She’s a royalist by trade and nature and her latest book, In Defense of the Princess, is an unapologetic argument in favour of letting your daughter drown herself in plastic tiaras and fairy-tale fantasies.

In her view, “second wave princesses are headstrong and independent. They engineer their own fates and believe that respect is a precursor to love. And if there is one thing any of the modern princesses are not doing, it’s sitting around waiting to be rescued.”

I’ve known Fine for years, and the whole time she has been trying to convince me of the inherent value of princess culture and all things pretty, sparkly and “feminine” (her term – and one I automatically reject). She even dragged me to the Princess Diana biopic after I made her come with me to see Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher.

Both movies were pretty bad, but if I had to pick a role model, I’d still choose the Iron Lady over the people’s princess (subtract the union busting of course).

But as I watch my son reject flowers and dolls and even pink Popsicles – all things that until, very recently, he adored – on the grounds that they are “girlish,” I have come to see Fine’s point. There is something inherently sexist, even covertly misogynist, in the way we discourage boys away from pretty things while telling girls they can have it all.

This sort of messaging is a bad thing for boys because it’s culturally limiting, but in the broader sense it’s even worse for girls. Because what it is saying is this: Boy stuff is universally cool and girl stuff is silly and worthless.

“Encouraging boys to reject princess culture is dangerous because what other traditionally feminine concepts are they in turn going to reject later on?,” Fine pointed out the other day. “Will they see romantic love as abhorrent? What about parenting and housework? Or even just being polite?”

Much as I dislike the idea of anything being categorized as inherently feminine or masculine, it’s hard to explain poststructuralist gender theory to a three-year old. For James, the world is pretty much binary at the moment, and trying to shift that perspective – little by little – has become my pet project. It’s also a window into what a strange place the world must be for transgender or gender-non-conforming kids.

If I want my son to love and respect women, I am going to have to teach him to embrace – and ideally appreciate – “girlish” things. That’s why I’m weaving him a dandelion crown and signing him up for ballet.

I’m going to turn the little alphabet belcher into a proud princess whether he likes it or not.

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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

10 thoughts on “Leah McLaren: If I want my son to respect women, I need to teach him to embrace ‘girlish’ things”

  • 1
    DC Toronto on May 4, 2016 Reply

    holy geeze leah …. it’s pretty complicated for you huh?
    will you insist that your daughter plays with trucks? Goes fishing? Catches frogs and kills her own spiders? Do you do any of that?
    or are you practicing all of the stereotypes you seem to be complaining about?
    If you want him to teach him anything, teach him to respect ALL people. Including himself.

  • 2
    denglish4 on May 5, 2016 Reply

    I loved Frozen. However, I had to sympathize with my son’s antipathy toward the movie when he discovered Hans was a villain. He had identified with Hans up until that point. He insisted we see again the next day –at the cinema– so he could be sure there was no foreshadowing. There was none. He still finds Frozen a disturbing pleasure.

    Mind you, I raised him to embrace women as equals. As his father, I would always pick Princess Peach or Daisy when playing Mario Bros games. This was meant with guffaws at first, but he soon accepted them as viable choices in gaming. Particularly if I actually won.

    There are silly “girlish” things, just as there are stupid “guy” things. Indeed, one problem is that boys aren’t taught the virtues once promoted by the Boy Scouts. Empathy is a big problem with today’s Youth Culture. Princesses aren’t very empathetic either. Neither are Frat Boys.

    A boy might see a flower as “girlish”. But boys do like facts. Presenting a flower with the biological facts of why it is the way it is can change a boy’s perspective. Add to that the symbolism of flowers –that flowers can be coded messages– and another dimension is added.

    Frankly, I see the Princess phenomenon as a reaction to the kind of Feminism which tried to make women more like men. And Frat Boy culture is boys trying to redefine what it means to be male. Here we’ve failed to celebrate feminine and masculine traits by denying they exist. We’ve confused Equality with Sameness.

    Sadly, our nuclear families tend to be composed of only childs. Or the odds are that a family will have two boys or two girls. The result is that young children are not taught to accommodate. Nor do they learn the Yin & Yang of sexuality within themselves.

  • 3
    wysiwyg on May 6, 2016 Reply

    “If I want my son to love and respect women, I am going to have to teach him to embrace – and ideally appreciate – “girlish” things”

    Sounds fine on paper. Might you just be reinforcing the feminist dogma that women are the only true beings on the planet and the world must revolve around them?

  • 4
    Vote4Me on May 7, 2016 Reply

    So the author’s parenting style will now be dictated by the behavior of a three year old child.

  • 5
    apaterson9895 on May 8, 2016 Reply

    Leah, let this small stuff stuff go. If he has a self-respecting mother as a role model he will learn to respect women just fine.

  • 6
    BobTheBob on May 9, 2016 Reply

    How about embracing boyish too?

  • 7
    Richard Wright on May 10, 2016 Reply

    Does that go for daughters too? I too have noticed the problematic nature of discouraging girls from playing with traditional girly things – it devalues the entire gender IMO. There is nothing wrong with femininity or masculinity. The problem is people who are obsessed with one or the other.

    Let your 3 year old find his own path, don’t force it.

  • 8
    Unca C on May 10, 2016 Reply

    Today he may find all things “girlish” repulsive, tomorrow he may decide he wants to wear dresses. In either case, you aren’t really in control of his choices and you can’t force him down one path or another.

    All you can do is to try and teach him through example to be thoughtful, respectful and appreciative.

  • 9
    Snowrunner on May 11, 2016 Reply

    “James isn’t entirely sure who he is yet, but he definitely knows what he’s not, and that’s 1) a baby or 2) a girl. Lately, anything that falls into either of those two categories is verboten to him.”

    So your son is trying to develop is own identity and your solution is to try and make him more like a girl so he can “respect girls”? Yeah I can’t see anything going wrong with that approach at all.

  • 10
    alamogordo on May 11, 2016 Reply

    You want your son to love and respect women, teach him to embrace – and ideally appreciate – “girlish” things. Huh?


    Most boys will eventually learn to love and respect women as a matter of course as they mature, and yet few will ever embrace or appreciate “girlish things.”

    Making your son a dandelion crown and signing him up for ballet at his age would be like forcing him wear a dress. Stop the nonsense and let him just be a little boy.

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