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Raising Trouble: Is My Four-year-old a Budding Hate Criminal?

"I want to shoot Iggy*," Ivan often tells me. He and his friends want to shoot Iggy, he says, because "we don't like princesses." Iggy is a boy in my son's preschool class who wears dresses to school – often bringing several, as he may want a new look by midday -- and likes to play princess with the girls.

Why does my son have violent fantasies about this kid? It's disturbing, to say the least, though his teacher assures me that he never bullies anyone in real life.

Ivan, age four, used to have an expansive view of his gender options. He would tell me he wanted to be a mommy when he grew up, but "a mommy who cooks and drives." (I don't do much of either -- his dad does both.) Later he decided he wanted to be "a daddy like Tommy," a butch lesbian friend with a daughter close to his age.

But since the beginning of this school year, masculinity has been a source of constant confusion and distress. After a classmate told my son that boys don't play with dolls, Ivan took to beating his baby doll –he'd always been quite nurturing with her, tucking her into bed and tending to her when she was sick -- yelling at her to "Shut Up!" and sometimes even reporting that he'd killed her.

None of this drama seems to afflict Ivan's friend Lee, a girl who wears Batman shirts and likes to play Transformers, Star Wars and other "bad guy" games with the boys. All the girls want to be her friend, but she's just not that into their (largely pink-hued) activities.
Apparently, Ivan's life mirrors that of many other boys today. A recent study by University of Illinois sociologist Barbara Risman found that while girls have made substantial progress in being able to transcend gender stereotypes – playing sports, no longer pretending to be dumb – boys, she says:

have gained fewer freedoms to explore their individual interests and talents from the gender revolution. Boys are still reluctant to admit to enjoying any activity, from gymnastics to dancing to knitting -- or even reading books -- that smacks of something girls do. And they now seem to be subjected to the same kind of teasing about supposedly 'gender inappropriate' activities or interests than girls used to face 45 years ago. Today it is young boys who are afraid of showing off how smart they are and who feel they have to pretend to be interested in certain activities and not others for fear of being taunted as 'gay.'

Before anyone accuses me – or the author of the study – of minimizing pressures on girls, let me assure you that Risman did mention that girls face increasing pressure to be "sexy" at younger ages – a problem that many other experts have also observed. But it is interesting that the pressure on boys to conform to gender norms may be even more intense than the pressure on girls.

Boys like Iggy can face teasing and even violence when they're older. But, at the moment, Iggy seems a lot more secure in his gender identity – and confident about himself -- than most boys. He exuberantly shows off his new ring to me: "Look, isn't it beautiful?" If you tell him he looks pretty, he agrees: "I know."

We should certainly be making the world safer for kids like Iggy. But I'm just as concerned about how children who are not obvious gender rebels learn not to be limited by stereotypes. Which is a rather primly P.C. way of saying, I don't want my sweet little kid to think he has to be a violent thug just because he has a penis.

His immediate social world is a good place to start. Ivan talks about Iggy a lot. I tell him there is no reason a boy can't be a princess. I also say, You don't have to be friends with everyone in your life, but you do have to respect everyone. Then again, maybe there are games that bad guys and princesses can play together, I venture with absurd relativism. Maybe there are things they both like to do.

But sometimes the suggestions that sound silliest coming out of one's grown-up mouth are the most convincing. A few days later, Ivan tells me, "If Iggy came to my house, I would show him Princess Leia!"

"Would you like Iggy to come to your house?" (If it seems like a dizzying leap from homicidal ideation to playdate planning, that is because you are not four years old.)
Ivan looks uncertain. But he's entertaining the idea.

*It seems ethical to change all names of children other than my own.

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Honestly this sounds better

Honestly this sounds better than it was in my childhood.

I think this is some of the fallout of the essentialist direction feminism took in the '70s. Making things better for girls was not just a priority, but efforts to change sexist expectations for boys simply didn't exist. Free to be You and Me had "William Wants a Doll", but that was the end of it.

The fact that Iggy gets to go to school and be a princess is a huge improvement over the beatings i took for playing with nail polish and talking to girls.

I'm not what to make of the surprised tone of this post and notion of this being a new phenomenon.

I enjoyed this post

It's my opinion that small children are just strange and savage creatures in many ways.... not that they aren't wonderful and full of creativity and potential too... One of my sisters, 12 years my junior, used to have a doll called "Bad Baby" when she was first talking whole-ish sentences (age 3-ish) her game was to rock Bad Baby, say "I love you, bad baby" and then grab Bad Baby by the feet and beat its head on something. If I asked her why she treated Bad Baby like that if she loved it, she said, "It's bad baby." This was definitely not a behavior she had learned from observing her family. However, now she has grown up into a decent, well adjusted (well, as well adjusted as a preteen ever is) preteen.

While the beginning of the

While the beginning of the post did certainly scares me, I love the way you react to your son's behaviours.

However, I do have to say that I'm scared about the masculine models boys are presented. It's really frightening, in my young adult and far from being a mother actual state, to see that some four years-old boys are associating the fact that "having a penis = violence toward those who are no respecting their masculinity" or just to violence in general.

I really have not idea how to react except fearing a bit the actual society we live in and the messages it sends to the individuals who are part of it. I'm not really close to any children in my entourage( heck, there are no children in my entourage) but it's definitely an issue I'll be tackling when I'll have the occasion or the responsibility.

It seems as if it always

It seems as if it always more socially acceptable for a women or girl to be tomboyish, than for a man or boy to be ???? we have no term for the flip side of tomboy. To personify the stereotypical traits/actions of the dominant group, well that just makes sense who wouldn't want to be more like a man right? But for a man/ boy to want to be more feminine well thats just abnormal and crazy, who would want to do that? I often wonder if this is a factor (one of many and by no means the most important) in our society being slightly more comfortable with lesbianism than with male homosexuality.

**I am not saying society is comfortable with either, or that lesbianism is accepted**

Eve Sedgewick

If you're interested in some of the scholarly work surrounding this issue, you might look into Eve Sedgewick's "Between Men." I've only had a chance to read the introduction, but she briefly theorizes that for men, the continuum between homosocial (men promoting the interests of men, platonic relationships etc) and homosexual "is radically disrupted," while for women this continuum is unbroken-that is to say, there a different sort of acceptance around the connection between women promoting the interests of women and women loving each other.

Though her overall focus is on "male homosocial desire," an oxymoronic term that attempts to re-establish the idea of there being a continuum for men, I think the text is interesting for thinking about feminine homosociality as well.

On a note more relevant to the blog, I agree that Liz's approach to Ivan's behavior was an excellent one. :)

awww

Iggy sounds awesome. Is it weird that I kind of really want to hang out with a 4-year-old? Whether or not he decides to keep wearing dresses as he gets older, I hope he keeps the same open mind he has now.