Wednesday, October 28, 2009


We were at the dentist the other day, where Joris waited very patiently for the dental assistant to finish scraping the layers of plaque off my teeth before it would be his turn. He was playing with some cars on the floor, being a surprisingly cooperative, charming version of himself when the dental assistant asked him, rather out of the blue, if he has a girlfriend. With that insinuating tone of voice that is just a heartbeat away from a chuckle. Joris looked up at her and told her yes, he has a girlfriend.

"What's her name?"


"Avery? Oh! Is she pretty?"

"Avery is my friend."

This conversation, or really, the question and insinuation, immediately made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and when I thought about it over the following few days, I realized why.

When I was little, my mom would arrange play dates for me with a small collection of similarly aged kids. I remember playing with a little boy called Gijs. We had similar temperaments and I liked playing at his house with him, his two sisters and his toy train. And one of my earliest memories is of that same insinuating tone of voice, used by my dad, when he'd question me about playing with Gijs. We were 4 or 5 years old. The words "boyfriend" and "being in love" were being thrown around. I remember the confusion about that tone of voice, wondering why us playing together was so funny to him.

From what I can gather, my dad, like probably most people of his generation, never did get raised with the proper skill set to express emotions and his way of dealing with, well, basically everything, has been with humor - or poking fun at things (Funnily enough, the last 10 - 15 years or so he has gotten much more comfortable with expressing emotions and I wonder if that just has to do with the fact that Americans wear their emotions on their sleeves compared to their Dutch counterparts or that he just finally feels confident enough to do so). Not that he meant badly, of course, but the message that I inevitably received was that playing with a boy is somehow shameful. The expectation being that if you were playing with someone of the opposite sex, you must be in love with them.

The same was true for my brother. He was friends with a pretty little girl called Vanessa and endured our dad's relentless teasing about his "girlfriend". The only difference being that Dirk-Jan agreed to and reinforced the idea that they were in love, whereas I would rather have been swallowed whole by a giant earthworm than repeating anything like that.

So I said I did not want to play with Gijs anymore. He ended up being a classmate all through elementary school and although I admired his ability to draw the most detailed pictures of ships from afar, we never did exchange more than a handful of words through those years. And I never had boys for friends again (unless associated through my brother) until well after high school.

I know most kids go through a boys/girls are yucky phase and it would have probably been unlikely to have nurtured a friendship with someone of the opposite sex through grade school, but I do feel like with all the shame (from home and from much of society - or at least ours - at large) heaped onto the idea, I have missed out on some good conversations, other perspectives and some much needed confidence around boys. I ended up having a couple of boyfriends who I was really only interested in as friends, but because of the expectation that boys are for dating, not for just hanging out with, I mistook my interest for love.

Over the last few years, from the safety of my marriage, I have finally found the confidence to successfully developed friendships with men; some as mutual friends of Jacob and I, and a few all on my own. And I enjoy the variety it brings to my circle of friends and the conversations and discussions that I have.

Joris has formed close friendships with both Avery and Isla and I hope he will always feel confident enough to nurture those friendships (and with other girls he enjoys playing with). Neither Jacob or I have ever mentioned anything about being in love, having a girlfriend or have used that mocking, insinuating tone of voice. I'm enjoying the fact that Joris talks about the girls and his classmates at school, as his friends and treats them as such. I also enjoy the fact that he prefers to eat his cereal out of the pink bowl. That he has no qualms about wearing a pink diaper with Dora the explorer on it. (One of my pet peeves is that EVERYTHING marketed for babies and kids is completely separated by gender; diapers have either cars or princesses, cups either feature pink flowers of sports playing dinosaurs and it is nearly impossible to find gender neutral tea sets or similar pretend play toys. And don't even get me started on the low-rise fit pants for toddler girls!)

All too soon he will have to start dealing with comments, insinuations and attitudes from the 'outside' world which, being as sensitive as he is, I have no doubt he will quickly pick up on, so I'm trying to enjoy this time where I can still mostly shield him and he can go on playing oblivious to what he is 'supposed to' like for a little while longer...


Christine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...

(sorry about the previous deleting comment. It just said that I loved this post, but I felt like I wanted to say more, since you put so much into it).

I love this. Most people probably don't give credit to how perceptive kids are: you learned quickly from your dad's comments (and more likely, his tone) what boys were "for." It makes me feel a bit powerless to think of what Joris will pick up on from the world at large. Even though he's not my kid, I totally want to protect him.

Anonymous said...

We are not happy reading this.
Dad feels sorry that his little joking had such a big inpact on you.He only thought your friendschip with Gijs was cute.
But you putting this on Internet for everybody to read,makes him very unhappy.
Mam and a very sad Pap

Jacob said...

I know that this is a parenting concern that you're very sensitive about, and I'm glad you've consistently made me aware of it. I hope you didn't just marry me because that's what boys are for! :) Love you!

Sarah B said...

Great post!

I think it's REALLY hard to avoid gender messages and stereotyping, and it's great you seek out gender neutral toys and think about this stuff. Sometimes I notice Paul steering his choices for Miles' products towards the more masculine (as opposed to gender neutral), but think he is just trying to protect him. It's OK for girls to try more traditional "boy stuff," but not so much the other way around. Anyway, you gave me something to think about.

And God knows what other messages we are passing down to our kids that we don't even know about. All we can do is try to be aware and talk about this stuff with our kids, and hope for the best, right?