a guest blog by Craig Pomranz (@MadebyRaffi), author of Made By Raffi, a children's picture book addressing the common issue of feeling feeling different
Since writing my children's book about a little boy who likes to knit and sew, I have been thinking a lot about gender issues. On one hand, our generation has shaped a more tolerant society, but has anyone else noticed that we are also seeing more pressure to conform? I don’t particularly like the word tolerance. It holds a negative idea for me. Is it our discomfort or the fear of our children being teased and bullied? I see even the moderate eccentricity that makes life interesting frowned on as parents seem to gravitate to pink princesses for girls and macho sports for boys. With these mixed messages, no wonder our kids seem more self-conscious, and anxious.
How much misery and wasted talent is caused by the projection of these artificial ideas about what are appropriate activities for boys and girls? Being considered a tomboy is not such a bad thing in our male-centered society, but if a boy participates in an activity that is considered "feminine," horrors! And what about the terrible message we are sending to girls? Why is feminine a negative idea? Why is it that a girl wanting to engage in male activity is cheered on (or at least receives sympathy for trying), but if a boy wants to display what is perceived as “girl” behavior, he is put down. The message: why on earth would a boy want to emulate female behaviors? The misogyny is depressing.
Add to that, with all the best intentions, we give our kids very little time on their own to explore, "try on" new identities that are all part of healthy growing up. With all this close observation, they become self-conscious and more fearful. How can we help a child manage in this world? Can we help a child be comfortable enough in their own skin to be able to face the world and embrace their individuality, thereby reducing their stress? How can we bridge these differences and rid ourselves of society’s stereotypes? It’s a complicated issue.
Now boys and girls exhibiting nontraditional behaviors seem to have a new thing to worry about -- do people think I am gay? The fact that the LGBT community is more a part of the national conversation and has more acceptance is obviously a good thing, but it has become another thing to be self-conscious about. In the past, it would not have been a worry because homosexuality wasn't even thought about regarding children. Not that keeping that “secret” or question doesn’t have its own anxieties.
The solution? Separate behavior from sexual identity.
There is nothing inherently gay about yarn and knitting needles, of course. A preference for listening to classical music over watching football doesn’t hint that a child is gay. Even curiosity about what it would be like to dress as a member of the opposite sex reveals nothing other than, well, curiosity. If these truths could be accepted among children and parents, stress would be reduced.
The “Like a Girl” campaign (linked here) demonstrates that children have to be taught gender behavior – it is not inherent. The “Be a Man” link here https://youtu.be/KYvWhzSKoc4 shows the pressure we put on our children to behave in certain ways.
Exploring many interests is the best way to find oneself and become a whole person. I hope kids will discover that being a boy or girl is not a sharply defined role, but can encompass many activities. I hope parents will leave their kids alone and when they feel pressure don't panic and call in the National Guard (or the teacher), but teach children strategies to focus on their own exploration, ignore idle chatter, and above all remind them that they are loved unconditionally. This is one way we can bring self-assuredness to children so as not to become victims.
When my godson started knitting, his classmates could not understand why he was participating in a “girl’s hobby." But undaunted he stuck with it, showed his serious interest in being creative and eventually his classmates came to appreciate him for his talent. Those who once teased him look to him with respect. When he “coined” the term TomGirl I immediately felt the need to write about it. My humorous book based on the incident, Made by Raffi, seeks to both entertain and help children and adults become more comfortable with who they are in their own skin. Thusly avoiding peer pressure and victimization.