When my son, Charlie, was two, I was futilely attempting to lay down the law with him in matters pertaining to manners—more specifically, screaming at top volume when it’s not appropriate (in the middle of the night, at a restaurant, when the wind has made a leaf move three blocks away). Faced with his unrelenting need to never back down, the realization that I was sprouting a new grey hair with every passing minute and the sight of his trembling lower lip, I found myself face-to-face with that most surprising of life moments: an epiphany. I realized I was treating him more roughly than I did my now-five-year-old daughter, Josie, when she was his age. My voice was tighter, my fuse was shorter, and this wasn’t because Josie was easy and Charlie was a handful. No, it’s because he’s a dude. And I’m a dude. And dudes communicate in gruff ways.
Theoretically I know this is crap. A two-year-old is a two-year-old: an adorable, screaming, crying maniac who knows no limits, be it male or female. Maybe because he was our second, I was a bit more at the end of my rope and had less patience for him. But the weird, embarrassing truth is that I thought he should be tougher because he’s a boy.
I realize that unless I treat my son like a girl and my daughter like a boy I’m going to be a horrible, stereotype-perpetuating monster. But what can I say? Charlie gravitated toward toy trucks without anyone telling him to, and Josie likes making pink hearts out of pieces of paper. It’s not me propagating this stuff, but in my family, it just seems it’s a boy instinct to point at a garbage truck and scream, “A GARBAGE TRUCK!” (OK, maybe he learned that from me...seeing one of those things never gets old!) and a girl instinct to paint Daddy’s fingernails and toenails with sparkly pink-and-red nail polish.
Those stereotypes don’t bother me, but treating your boy more harshly than your girl is a fathering cliché I’d like to leave in the past. I grew up in an all-boy household in a different era; the images we saw on TV and in the movies—and the prevailing thinking—dictated that boys are strong, boys can handle it, boys should stop those trembling lips and “be men.” And as a college-educated, progressive, modern parent, I should know better. I don’t want my kid to fall into the old societal trap of men being emotionless tough guys who feel no pain. Now, and as he gets older, he needs to realize that it’s all right for guys to be capable of more than aggression and quietly harbouring the sensation of stifled feelings. Still, there’s a part of me that thinks my boy needs to get his love harder than my girl does, and it’s a difficult feeling to shake. But I’m trying. Both my kids hear a whole lot of nos; it’s just that his used to come a lot quicker and harsher. But not anymore.
These days I don’t automatically react to the sound of Charlie’s whining with a faster and louder “that’s enough!” than I do to Josie. I don’t assume he can handle discipline better, and I try and check myself when I slip into sternness as my default father-son mode of communication. Recently, when Charlie was having a screaming fit because I wouldn’t give him a cookie, instead of giving into my instinct to bark at him to be quiet, I asked if he needed a hug. When he came over, squeezed me, and quickly calmed down, I knew I was on the right track. Baby steps, but I think I’m turning it around.
It’s funny: You never really know what your kids are going to teach you. Even when you think you’re in the midst of giving them a lesson about behaviour, it turns out that the one who’s really getting schooled is you.
A version of this article appeared in our June 2014 issue with the headline "Father Fear-est," p.30.
Greg Pratt is an editor, journalist and teacher living in Victoria.