Several months ago, I found my son in my closet. When I asked him what he was doing, he looked at me and said, "Mom it's time to clean up in here. You have such nice things but it's so messy that you can't find anything."
I'm embarrassed to admit he was right. For the next two hours he diligently organized my mess. The end result was breathtaking.
He is my 13-year-old middle child. He was born on a cold spring day in 2003. From the minute I looked into his eyes, I knew he was special.
He is very demonstrative, a great listener and a wonderful friend.
He's not a "man's man." He's soft-spoken, creative, warm, demonstrative and sensitive teen. He's not rugged or tough and he doesn't excel at sports. He is extraordinarily artistic with an amazing flare for fashion and design.
In his free time, he's not interested in playing Xbox or shooting hoops on the driveway. He'd much prefer to reconfigure our backyard space, set our dining room table with elite sophistication or hang out with me and talk about life.
He's not a sweatshirt and sweatpants kind of kid. He rocks colored denim, button downs and Adidas with style.
While some boys get a thrill from watching hockey during the playoffs, he prefers snuggling on the sofa with a bowl of gummy bears and browsing through his boards on Pinterest.
While some boys are consumed with competition and winning, he is a giver; an old soul. He is very aware of others' feelings to a fault, often sacrificing his own needs. He is very demonstrative, a great listener and a wonderful friend.
He's not a typical seventh grader. He's unique -- and I think he's amazing.
Sometimes I worry about the people who won't understand or appreciate him, or devalue the very sweet, creative, loving human being he is.
No one shows enthusiasm like him. He's always willing to lend a helping hand. He gives bear hug accompanied by warm, sloppy kisses and a pat on the back. He wakes up with a smile and conquers the day with enthusiasm and gusto. He doesn't just put his stuff away, he reorganizes the entire family room!
He truly embraces life to its fullest. His energy makes me smile. His passion makes me feel energized. His warmth makes me feel loved.
Having him as a son has makes me a better mom. He challenges me to look at things with intensity, joy and acceptance. He pushes me to embrace uniqueness and not care about the judgment or scrutiny of others. He pushes me to be a leader and pave the way for differences to be the norm and not the exception. He truly lives outside the box
Sometimes I worry about the people who won't understand or appreciate him, or devalue the very sweet, creative, loving human being he is. The adults who will try to break his spirit or make him tougher. But instead of wasting my time on the unknown and what ifs, I prefer to enjoy today with pride and appreciate my son for the amazing man I know he is destined to become.
E, I love you. xo
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Try to focus less on gender differences in general, Brown said. One way is to remove gendered speech from your language as much as you can. Constantly referring to people by their sex or gender labels it to children as something that matters very much, she said, and therefore tells them that it's an important part of who they are -- perhaps more important than factors like their personality or strengths. “I try to just make it not something that really comes up much,” she advised.
“There's a lot of individual differences among children that don't follow gender lines,” Brown said. It's far more productive to focus on the things about our children that have nothing to do with sex or gender: their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and personality traits. “The reality is that gender is pretty irrelevant for predicting what kids are like,” she said. Moving away from a focus on what boys are like and what girls are like allows us to instead discover what is actually unique about our child.
“It's important to know the facts,” Brown said. “[Parents] should know that there's no differences whether they have boys or girls in terms of academic differences, personality, etc.” In fact, when studying infants and young children, the research shows very few inherent differences based on sex, she said. Boys tend to have a bit less inhibitory control at birth and girls tend to talk earlier, though this does even out as male and female children age. In general, Brown said, research tends to match what we know about development in general -- as in, differences that show up between boys and girls as they get older are related to how we treat male and female children differently, not due to any inherent differences between the sexes.
While studies show only slight differences based on sex, they do illustrate that a strong focus on gender norms can be harmful, Brown said. For girls, the negative effects can include poor body image due to the universal value placed on appearance, specifically, a very narrow definition of acceptable appearance for females. For example, Brown said, “By the time they're 12 years old more than 70 percent of girls aren't happy with how they look.” In addition, we've seen that girls stay away from careers in science and math (STEM careers) because they perceive themselves as weaker in those subjects, even when research shows that their actual abilities are the same as for boys.
But gender stereotypes can hurt boys too. “One of the most disturbing outcomes of stereotypes for boys is that we really tell boys that you shouldn't cry, and parents worry if they're son is very sensitive,” Brown said. Parents can focus too much on trying to avoid introversion and push assertiveness on boys who just don't fit that personality type. But studies don't show any differences between boys and girls tending towards being natural introverts, she said. At the same time as we could be preventing boys from expressing their feelings, we give them aggressive outlets like violent toys. “We shouldn't be surprised that boys grow up and don't know how to handle sadness and feelings well and show a lot more aggression,” she said.
Many new parents are surprised by how quickly the focus on gender begins. For example, have you ever tried to find a shirt with a cat on it for a boy? Somewhere along the line it was decided that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and cats are for girls and dogs are for boys, and clothing and toys for even the youngest children often falls strictly on these arbitrary divisions. This can extend to our behaviour towards boy and girl children as well. Brown mentioned research that shows that people tend to read and speak more to female babies, using more complicated vocabulary, and other studies show that the number and quality of words young children hear can affect their educational success later.
Toys are not just fun for kids; they're also a learning tool. When selecting playthings for your child, break away from thinking in terms of gender or a particular section of the toy store. Instead, choose toys that foster traits you want to encourage in your children, or help them learn particular skills you value. Do you want your child to be nurturing and empathetic? Then provide baby dolls, for boys and girls. Lego and blocks help all children develop spatial skills, and ball play improves hand-eye coordination whether your child is male or female. “We want to make sure we teach the traits that are important,” Brown said, “not the toys that fit ‘their’ half of the toy store.”
Are you working on busting gender stereotypes in your own home only to feel undermined when grandma or grandpa says that dolls are only for little girls, or that all boys like to play rough? It can be tricky to get family members on board, but it's worth trying. This will ensure your children are hearing messages that matter to you and to make your family values clear. Brown said that a discussion can often avoid problems. Even if your parents or in-laws don't agree with your decision to keep your children from playing with guns or fashion dolls, they may still respect it. Barring that, she suggested, there's always the donation bin at your local thrift store. “I think it's alright to say ‘These are my kids, and I can decide what they have and how they dress,’” she said.
“Kids about three years old start to believe gender stereotypes,” Brown said. That's why it's important to consistently correct stereotypes about gender and sex when your child hears them or uses them, even if they seem harmless or silly. But it doesn't need to be a lecture or something that requires a deep discussion each time. For example, you can say things like, “Boys and girls both like to play with trucks. Your friend Jenny likes trucks a lot, doesn't she?” The key factor is making those corrections every time you hear a stereotype, Brown said, providing your children with the language they need to do it on their own when they're older and coming across stereotypes in the media or outside their homes.
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