Her son loved playing with the shiniest, highest heeled shoes he could reach. She didn’t care. Her husband felt differently.
My husband and I are raising two boys. We each have brought our lifetime of experiences, baggage, and ideas to the table. There are times when what he or I believe bump heads with the other. Those are hard times; sometimes hard conversations are had. Sometimes those conversations make one of us address that baggage we have stored in our mental closet. Raising two boys will do that. Shit, raising two dogs together will do that!
It’s at those times where our differences create a fork in the road that we sensitively sort through our views and do our best to come out on the other side in agreement, with a healthy compromise on how we will move forward in parenting. We’re almost eight years into these discussions, and they happen much less frequently now than they did in the first few years. Back then, parenting was new and vulnerabilities abounded, so navigating differences could touch unforseen insecurities. Early on, we weren’t used to the emotional tax that the exhaustion of parenting adds to your life. We now know to make considerations for stuff like that so discussions are quick, effective, and efficient.
One such discussion we had before our first son was even conceived was such a convoluted, deeply cultural, and philosophical one that it took two years into parenthood for us to come to an agreement. That was the topic of what masculinity would include for our son.
That was the topic of what masculinity would include for our son.
It all started with a baby doll stroller. I made a comment that IF we ever had a son, I would absolutely allow him to own a doll and stroller. I believed that domestic roles should be practiced by all who would one day share those roles in adulthood. My husband agreed that playing with one was fine but OWNING ONE? He struggled to reconcile how his future Black son would measure against some definitions of “Black manhood” if he strolled the streets with a Baby Alive in a pink stroller. What type of backlash would both the father and son face? I understood the struggle he foresaw. I just felt like it didn’t matter.
Children spend their lives imitating the behaviors and thoughts of their parents. It comes out most readily through play in the first seven years of life, at least. Children process and explore their experiences, express feelings, and test limitations through the tools they understand best, which is behavior or play. And because language is not their strongest tool yet, how they communicate using play has layers.
Of course, play is mostly just play— nothing deep. But there are times where something happens or comes out in playtime that makes us adults take a step back and think of what layers lie beneath that behavior.
When necessary, I’ve seen that it’s best to observe and try to understand the child’s experience or message that comes out through play BEFORE applying the jaded, limiting, socially-constructed definitions we adults have to explain what the meanings are.
Take the stroller example that we talked about for years. What might a child, boy or girl, be imitating while pushing a stroller? What’s so wrong about a little boy imitating that behavior? Won’t that boy grow into a man who might be a father, uncle, godfather, or helpful man who might want to know how to push a stroller? So why are most strollers pink? Why are they taboo for a little boy to own? We make babies with men and therefore expect them to be stroller pushing, diaper changing, back-patting, baby-bathing daddies, right? And right there, we see how early on in development, masculinity receives mixed messaging about what manhood means.
Fatherhood and motherhood require a softening of the things adulting has calloused. The same aggression that many of us attack careers, education, and social-moving with has no place in parenting and would be maladaptive in most respects of being a parent. There’s nothing that will break down your walls like the smell and sweetness of holding a baby you made with the one you love most. When you think of that being the healthy future your son is practicing for, I’d think we would run out and buy him any stroller and doll he chooses, with the same fervor that we do with little girls. How do you reconcile the future you want for your son with the present judgment he would face for his current desire to pretend to be a great daddy?
After all those conversations, the stroller thing never materialized as our son simply wasn’t a stroller aficionado — go figure. But when he was two-and-a-half or so, he LOVED playing in my high heels. He would stand in front of my shoe rack and ogle my shoes before choosing the highest, sometimes shiniest heels he could reach.
He would stand in front of my shoe rack and ogle my shoes before choosing the highest, sometimes shiniest heels he could reach.
This one day he was rolling around on the floor, heels in the air, lost in his own world of playing. I watched him and wondered what the uncles and grandfathers would think. I already knew what his father thought: It was a difficult thing for my husband to see, and he would lovingly redirect our son to another activity if this started to happen in his presence.I kind of think he would have happily given our son a stroller to distract him from the high heels, LOL! Anyway, this one day, our son was rolling around and walking in these high-heeled, patent leather booties. Out of nowhere, he declared, “I LOVE these tall shoes! They make me a big man like Daddy!”
And right there, I laughed. All the adult definitions and limitations were thrown away — in his mind, these shoes, these heels, were tools to be big and tall like his father.
Times like that, and many more that have happened over the years, are times when we could have imposed ourselves on his play and negatively changed what it meant to him as a future, healthy partner and man. In situations like those, the best thing we can do for our own children, the children of those we love and strangers alike, is keep our eyes on the bigger picture.
We can think beyond the limitations of our adult imaginations and be receptive to ways that play reflects what our children understand about examples the adults in their lives are modeling. We can realize that as parents, or as part of a parent’s village, we will be challenged to reconsider what defines manhood from an early age.
We will have to think of things from the child’s perspective and do our best to remove the fetters of adult definitions from that innocent truth, in order to let the babies flourish and express themselves.
We can realize that as parents, or as part of a parent’s village, that we will be challenged to reconsider what defines manhood from an early age.
That’s one of the best ways we can do to combat the toxicity that creeps into some aspects of the social, and sometimes cultural, definition of manhood. We have enough to worry about and watch out for. Let the kids play healthy games and be open to what healthy manhood truly means. Ask them open-ended questions, talk with them, pick their brain or just wait and listen. They will talk and share, and you will learn that children are powerful, brilliant, and excellent teachers for adultsthat think we have it all figured out.