If they were sons

It is early on  a weekday morning and my 8-year-old comes into our room and jumps in bed with me and with  our two year old who has been sleeping next to me. We move over to make room for her and we hug each other. We cuddle each other. We tickle. We roll over each other. We make “sandwiches” where one child is the “cheese” and the other child and I are the “bread”. There are horsey rides and human sculptures. There are squishy group hugs. Despite my desperate desires for more personal space and more sleep, this is the “hug time” that my daughters treasure and that I am sure I will miss when it ends. (We have already lost my 13 year old, who, understandably and typically for her age, wants to sleep and needs the physical disctance. She still cuddles and tickles with the younger ones, just not at “hug time” with me).

But this weekend as I was engagingly our usual wild and unselfconscious hugging, tickling and playing, I thought to myself, “If I had sons instead of daughters would I be doing this exactly the way I am? Would my eight year old son be here in the same very physical way?”  And the fact that I could not quickly and easily say “Yes, of course” stopped me cold.

Those of you who know me or my blog know how hard I work to reduce the effects that gender stereotypes have on how I interact with the world in general and especially how I interact with  my children. But I couldn’t honestly and quickly say yes to my own question.

In the wake of the recent Jian Ghomeshi scandal  (a famous CBC radio host is accused of physical and sexual assault of numerous women), I have had a lot of conversations with people about how our culture enables sexual assault.  People mentioned the pervasive cultural objectionable of women  and the linking of sexuality to violence. We focus on how bad it is for boys to grow up in this culture of violent pornography and the constant  social messages they get about women, sexuality and consent, and rape culture .  The local paper had an essay by Gabor Maté on  the problem of narcissistic male rage  where he writes

We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.

Ghomeshi’s reported behaviours arise from a misogynistic culture that degrades and confuses people of all genders. Few men enact extreme hostility, but few are those who do not harbour anti-feminine aggression somewhere in their psyche.

When we are talking about confusing physical affection with aggression, of getting physical affection wrong, I can’t help wondering, how many boys who aren’t very small get “hug time”? How many real, unperfunctory, unselfconscious hugs does a boy get in week?

And what does that do to them?



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6 Responses to If they were sons

  1. Koren says:

    Our boys get hug time, from both of us 🙂

    • I wasn’t saying I wouldn’t give my boys if I had any hug time, I was saying I could not swear in an instant it would be exactly the same. And it made me sad. I have no doubt you give your boys hug time- but how many parents do?

  2. jkshapiro says:

    I have one of each and am constantly vigilant. When talking to my daughter I think, “how would I say this if she were a boy?”; when talking to my son, “…a girl?”. Mostly, of course, they’re just themselves.

    • I know that your heart and your efforts are in the right place, but I do not think anyone can be constantly vigilant in the effort of fighting cultural norms and stereotypes. If we were to do that fully it would consume huge parts of each day. We all get tired or busy or are focused on some other important and pressing parenting concern. We cannot erase the cultural biases that we absorb willingly or unwillingly- we can only do our best which is an approximation of constant vigilance. There is also no way that our kids, growing up in our society can be made immune to gender stereotypes ( only better insulated from them). In a sense, as much as we would wish it no kid is “just a kid” in the sense that their identity and how we relate to them is not influenced to some degree by gender.

  3. Anonymous says:

    My son has said that he feels comfortable with me posting my response to your post if I remain anonymous (to some degree). And that sums up the problem.

    My fourteen year-old boy requires – insists upon and begs for – cuddle time first thing in the morning while still in bed and last thing before sleep. Cuddles, or ‘shnugs’, as we call them, last at least 15 minutes (our mornings start early to accommodate this ritual). Hugs are constant – all day long. We initiate and he initiates. And when we sit together in the evenings, we shnug on the sofa, too, legs wrapped together.

    My husband and I continually discuss these interactions. At what point does it feel ‘wrong’ to cuddle and snuggle in pyjamas with a boy who is taller than us? Why does it feel wrong? Are we succumbing to societal pressure or are we sensing that parents should not be too close with our growing children; that somehow this could be experienced as sexualized? We discuss our fleeting discomfort and societal demands on parents in general. And then we cuddle with our son, because that is what he needs.

    I work with boys who are rarely touched at all. And even though it is discouraged in the school system, I reach out and touch those boys; I hold their hands; I touch their heads or faces; I hug them.* And I work with their parents, encouraging them to engage in physical and emotional connection with their sons.

    My brother was not hugged by our parents from the time that he reached puberty until well into adulthood. I cannot imagine what my son would suffer if he did not have his daily shnugs. It would be akin to denying him food or water or a winter jacket in the cold weather.

    Of course there is incredible pressure on boys to toughen up as they get older. Different cultures seem to express that developmental expectation in different ways. In this mainstream North American society, my son has learned that his need for cuddles is to be hidden. And we as his parents have learned that we should question whether or not it might be somehow wrong or dangerous to physically interact with our son in an overtly loving way. Yet we all cuddle, pushing through the feeling that we might be doing something ‘wrong’.

    You quoted Gabor Mate who works closely with Gordon Neufeld – in part, they write about attachment in adolescence. They insist that parents should be the most important figures in our teens’ lives, meaning in part that we give our teens the physical contact that they need so that they do not require as much physical contact with peers. Though I do not agree with all of their work, I find it helpful to know that there are practitioners out there who recommend cuddling with young men.

    Bottom line – no, I don’t think it would be the same if we had a daughter. I think that we would not second guess the degree of physical closeness that our child demands. This is one more way that I feel lucky to have my son in my life; he teaches me about his need for physical closeness which is simultaneously idiosynchratic and representative of the needs of all young men.

    *With the door open, and with parental consent

    • thanks for sharing- I learned a lot from reading your post. And it is good to know that this struggle between what I think is right and what societal norms (entrenched in our own minds) tell is “wrong” because it does not meet gender expectations. And how sad it is that many would not give what you do.

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