Hours after I gave birth to my first child, my husband cradled all five pounds of our boy and said, gently, “Hi, Sweetpea.” Not “Buddy” or “Little Man.” Sweetpea. The word filled me with unanticipated comfort. Like most parents, we knew what we’d name our son but never discussed how we’d speak to him. I was witnessing my husband’s commitment to raising a sweet boy.
Because this is what the world needs now, urgently: sweet boys and people who grow them.
There are so many angry men among us. There are angry women, too, but they’re only beginning to claim this emotion that has long been denied them. Women’s public anger delivers deliberate messages—it’s pussy hats, reclaiming our time, and #MeToo. It’s the kind of anger that gives girls voices. Men’s anger tries to shut down the voices of others. Today’s angriest women galvanize; today’s angriest men murder.
A man uses his car to assassinate an anti-Nazi protestor. A man shoots a congressman at his baseball practice. A man commits mass murder at a Vegas concert. A man massacres worshippers in their church. A police officer slaughters his own family. The headlines blur, but they invariably seem to feature men whom the media informs us felt lonely or powerless. And a significant number of American men who actually possess power — but are not murderously angry — are pridefully aggressive. The President tweets furiously, with violently bad syntax, spastic punctuation and apoplectic capitalization, venially attacking not only swaths of people but individual citizens of the country he has vowed to protect and defend.
The world has turned so upside down that the most public displays of masculine vulnerability have come lately from late-night comedy host Jimmy Kimmel, who’s shed tears talking about children’s healthcare and gun control. It feels like another century when President Obama wept while remembering the victims of Sandy Hook — a Brigadoon of political empathy not to return during the current administration.
My son is now 5, and I’m also the mother of a 3-year-old girl. I’m thrilled that my daughter is growing up in a time where American girls are encouraged to be both fierce and kind, simultaneously strong and compassionate. The t-shirts that declare “Girls Rule the World” offer an empirical falsehood, but at least the aspiration is there. My daughter recently delighted me when she deemed her makeshift “kite” — a rainbow scarf tied to a stick — a fencing foil and ran about the woods parrying and proclaiming, “En garde!” But I delighted even more in my son when, at a birthday party where the balloon artist presumptuously twisted pneumatic swords for all the boys, my boy asked for a balloon heart.
Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger. Now they can feel what they want and be what they want.
There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth. Walk into any baby store, and you’re greeted immediately in the boys’ department by brown and neon green layettes festooned with sharks, trucks, and footballs. Onesies for newborns declare, “TOUGH LIKE DADDY.” The boy taught from infancy to be tough is emotionally doomed. (Mind you, I’m all for a onesie for any gender that announces, “RESILIENT LIKE MOMMY.”)
The clothes marketed to my daughter feature unicorns, rainbows, rockets, dinosaurs, and sequins in every color imaginable. They are whimsical and sparkly. My son recently asked me, “Mom, why are girls’ clothes more interesting and beautiful than boys’ clothes, and was the person who decided that a man or a woman?”
I didn’t have a good answer.
Yes, they’re merely clothes, but they’re the material in which we wrap our children. A society bombarding boys with symbolism about being tough, self-contained, non-sparkly and unmagical says, “Boys will be boys, but girls can be anything.”
Our boys absorb messages about what they cannot be or do or feel.
The message comes from the man in the lobby of our building who says to my son, upon seeing him joyfully pushing his play baby stroller, “What are you doing? That’s supposed to be your sister’s!” The message: Caregiving is for girls, not boys. It’s served by the waitress who presents my kids with pictures to color — a dinosaur for my son and a butterfly for my daughter — before the kids wordlessly switch pictures. Message: big/scary is for boys; fragile/beautiful is for girls. It’s delivered by the dad in the elevator whom I watch chastise his 4-year-old son with, “Stop crying! Do you want your friends to think you’re a little baby?” Despite your lack of executive function, shut down your feelings, because kids make fun of a boy who cries. It’s emailed from the mother in my daughter’s nursery school class organizing a book swap, asking for “gender-neutral books” because some 3-year-old boys “wouldn’t be crazy about princess books.” All books aren’t for everyone; boys don’t like stories that might involve an XX protagonist. The message is loud and clear from the couple who ask my son to switch trucks at an amusement park, because they don’t want to take a photo of their 2-year-old boy in a magenta truck. Boys are blue. (No matter that, until the mid-20th century, the color conventionally associated with baby boys was, in fact, pink—signaling the muted vitality of red—while girls were clad in the placid blue of the Virgin Mary’s robes.)
We don’t need to raise kids with gender neutrality or deny intrinsic differences between boys and girls. We do need to recognize that children, regardless of gender, harbor innate sweetness that we, as a society, would do well to foster and preserve.
Sweet boys grow up to be men who recognize the strength in being vulnerable and empathetic. Men who aren’t threatened by criticism or perceived competition from people whom they deem “Other” — be it skin color or sexual orientation or religion or education or whatever. Sweet boys are children who’ve been given, by their parents and wider society, the permission to feel everything and to express those emotions without shame.
At a young age, this should be done explicitly, in organized forums for discussions at school. It must be done relentlessly and organically, in our family homes. Parents must invite their sons to be sad, afraid, hurt, silly and affectionate, and must embrace them as often as they snuggle their daughters. Sweet boys learn early on that they can defend themselves against loneliness by reaching out and asking for support rather than turning into people who, literally, grab for power. Sweet boys evolve into open-hearted men who aren’t confused about consent and sexual boundaries, because they experience women as equals. A man raised with access to the same gamut of emotions and choices as women does not say, “Women are special,” as Donald Trump recently averred after disbelieving Roy Moore’s accusers; he does not delegate sugar and spice and humility and gentleness to the ladies, while defining himself through anger, lust, and pride. Boys will not be merely boys. If we let them, boys will be human.
Nearly a century ago, the poet Louis Untermeyer painted a powerful portrait of the “large and quiet kindness” of his father with:
Your sweetness was your strength, your strength a sweetness
That drew all men, and made reluctant hands
Rest long upon your shoulder.
Firm, but never proud…
It was, like victory rising from defeat,
The world made well again and strong—and sweet.
If we’re lucky, the sweet boys and the fierce girls will grow up to save us all.
Salie is a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and appears on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! She’s the author of Approval Junkie: My Heartfelt (and Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone, and Ultimately Myself.