“Daddy, are you a GIRL? Daddy, are those MUMMY’S trousers? Daddy, why do you like PINK?” – the words of my 3 year old boy, the little shit, trolling me out of the house a few weeks ago for wearing pink trousers. All this at the same time as my eldest started chanting “Girls in the BIN, boys WIN!”.
I’d kind of forgotten about it to be honest, laughed it off. But then this week happened.
A week that’s seen International Day of the Girl, World Mental Health Awareness Day and the Weinstein Day of Reckoning. A week that taught us that there are 130m girls prevented from going to school every day, that it’s customary for many to get their genitals cut before they reach puberty, that the leading cause of death in 25-50 y/o men is suicide and that a Powerful Man has been (allegedly, I guess) exchanging starring roles for sex with starlets (for over three DECADES).
Whichever way you look at it, there’s something pretty fucked up with boys & girls. Call me a bleeding heart liberal, but all the work I’ve done on this (with the UN, Emma Watson, Everywoman, the G8, as you ask) and Robert Webb’s excellent ‘How Not to Be A Boy’ (read it) confirms that it is really (directly or indirectly) a boy problem.
Women prevented from being in education? A boy problem. FGM? A boy problem. A Predatory Man in a Powerful Position? Er. A boy problem. Men killing themselves because of the pressures on them to act in a certain way? A boy problem. As the witty & incisive Emma Thompson said yesterday, masculinity is in crisis (as much as, if not more than femininity). And if it’s a masculinity problem, the buck stops with dads of boys.
Which brings me back to the Pink Trousers and Girls in the Bin. We’re not a household that actively promotes this kind of chat. I’m a bit of a feminist. And my wife makes Pankhurst look like Rees-Mogg so, even if I wanted to be sexist, I’d be strung up by the balls before I’d got to the ‘Up’ in ‘Man up’.
So I asked myself where they were getting it from. And then I realised. It’s the little off-hand, instinctive things we do (the ones we likely got from our own parents) that most affect our kids. The ‘Man Up’ that leaks out here, the ‘Let’s go to Digger World’ there, the ‘girls don’t really like mud’ here. The accidental asides. Those myths perpetuated by our (Victorian) parents that are so part of our own DNA that they infiltrate our own words.
So, as a Dad of Boys, I’ve set myself some goals, packaged up in a naff acronym – LADS.
Let boys be girls (& vice versa). Robert Southey (English Poet, 1774-1843, writer of “Slugs & Snails”) has a lot to answer for. He basically codified the Difference between Boys & Girls. Such bullshit. Of the 8 children playing with a bucket of mud in my garden at the weekend, 6 were girls. And the one who came up and said ‘We’re making a potion THAT WE CAN DROWN ANTS IN!!” with a cute (but maniacal) grin was a…girl. Let’s not kid ourselves that girls don’t like getting dirty. I shared a flat with 5 of them when I was a student and it was the most disgusting place I’ve ever lived (the conversations they had when they forgot I was in the room will live with me forever but that’s a different post). Equally, let’s not assume that boys don’t have some sugar & spice. My youngest looks VERY cute in a dress, and my eldest sings (and cries at) Frozen. Let girls embrace the mud. And let boys, well, embrace. And cry. And wear what the fuck they want.
Alpha male is no longer the default. I’ve always hated the phrase ‘nice guys come last’. What the fuck is that all about? I think I’m nice and I’m doing OK as are most of my friends (who are also nice). Yes, a sociopath can become POTUS and a Predator can rule Hollywood, but they’re complete fucking dinosaurs and we have the opportunity to rear a new breed of (Beta) boy that doesn’t see girls as either Trophies or Targets. To paraphrase a bunch of twenty-something men I talked to for the UN: “If women are the breadwinners now, what do I do with all that Alpha Male Baggage? The caveman in shining armour in my head that says ‘I’m here to PROTECT women’. Can I not still open doors? Is the future Dutch? Can I say she looks nice? What the fuck do I do HELP!?” As dads, we need to know this is happening and say it’s good to be nice, OK to be Beta.
Don’t generalise. Generalisation is the root of most evil. Generalisations about boys reinforce outdated perceptions that damage their self-esteem and their relationship with girls and I’m as guilty as the next man of perpetuating them. My worst is implying that boys are like dumb, bouncing Labradors who just need a run and some food. There’s a lot of truth in it. I mean what parent hasn’t had to have a pea surgically removed from their boy’s ear? Or had to dive like Drogba when their 5 year old jumps off a 10ft wall? They can be idiots. Hyperactive idiots, actually. You could put them on a treadmill all day, and they’d still find the energy to turn the house into Baghdad at bedtime and ask so many questions your brain bleeds. But (this is important) they’re not always hyperactive idiots. They can be creative. They can be sensitive. They can love books. They can be better than girls at school (the media needs to stop shaming them). Just as girls aren’t bookish, fragile wallflowers, boys aren’t brainless animals who want to chase balls.
Sport is universal. Lots has already been written about boys, girls & sport – Robert Webb writes eloquently about it in his book. And the BBC is doing its best, bless them. So I’ll not dwell. I coach football on Saturday mornings for Year 1s. Just one year into infant school, there’s just one girl out of about 30 kids – ONE girl, who is, incidentally, more focused and skillful than about 90% of the other kids. For all the ranting liberal angst about women in sport, not much is happening at real grassroots, on the touchline. We all need to do our bit, put aside assumptions of what we think boys & girls like and let them try stuff. I wanted the next Underwood brothers as sons but my eldest likes football in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever loved anything (so we took him to the Women’s FA Cup Final) and my youngest is looking like a good dancer or gymnast (so I’m going to show him Simone Biles and Strictly). If childhood isn’t for experimenting, what’s the hell is it for?
So there you have it – LADS. My Manifesto for Making Real Men. We will return to grumpier, ranting service next week. In the meantime, let’s all make men to be proud of.