Teaching Boys: things I want my son, and all boys, to know about girls

By Cayt Mirra

My son Max is two and has recently become fascinated with girls. Whenever we go to the playground he will pick one girl, usually a bit older than him, and follow her around in a way that I describe as aggressively friendly. But when it comes time to say goodbye he can always be counted on to say the same thing: ‘Bye-bye doll!’

Oh dear. Why does my son think that little girls are dolls? It was this question that led me to think about all of the things in my son’s world that are already, at such an early age, constructing his ideas about gender. This got me thinking about the way I teach my male students and the types of messages they are receiving about girls and women. I have decided that there are some things about women that I am determined to teach my son, and I believe these lessons are important for all boys.

Stories about girls are not just for girls

My son currently loves watching Strawberry Shortcake and reading Meg and Mog, but I worry about a time when he will avoid books and shows that are ‘for girls’. Even in the adult world, women’s stories are too easily classified as ‘Women’s Literature’ (what even is that?) or chic flicks. But women’s stories are important, not just for women but for men. And likewise, young boys need to see girls as protagonists in the stories they consume, not just as sidekicks, if they are to understand that girls do not exist just for them.

I have sat in staff meetings and defended keeping a text on the booklist because of its strong female protagonist. I have always done this because of my belief that girls need to see themselves in the stories they consume. But I now realise that teenage boys, who are often starting to navigate relationships with their female peers, need to explore complex texts about complex women, and have the opportunity to deconstruct depictions of women in a classroom setting.

Girls are people and are therefore all different

It amazes me how differently people already speak about and to my two month old daughter, compared to how they spoke about my son at that age. They are given different toys and different clothes. Their futures are imagined in completely different ways. Their future interests, hobbies and careers are planned and predicted by family and friends based almost entirely on assumptions about their gender. But they are both unique kids who can do whatever they want. Just like everybody else. I want my son to understand this important truth about girls. They are not a puzzle to be understood. They are not a prize to be won. They are not all the same. There are not certain types of girls or typical girls. They are individual human people.

I think it is important that when we come across stereotypes in the classroom, we address them. This means discussing stereotypes in films and novels, it means being aware of the language we use and the assumptions we make about students, and it means challenging other teachers when they stereotype students.

He is allowed to do things that other people say are girly

I don’t want my son to be put off things because they are ‘for girls’. He can play with dolls if he wants. He can wear pink if he wants. He can do dance classes if he wants. Etcetera. He should follow his passions and never be limited by what he thinks he should be interested in. When I let him choose his own pyjamas, he always chooses the pink Minnie Mouse ones. Because he is two years old and doesn’t yet realise that he isn’t ‘supposed’ to. How sad that he might one day stop liking things in an attempt to conform to arbitrary standards of gender preference. Likewise, girls are allowed to do things that have traditionally been seen as ‘for boys’. And he should welcome them into those spaces.

I have heard of primary schools that split their PE classes by gender, teaching the boys basketball and the girls netball. Teaching the boys footy and the girls hockey. Because of their gender, they are receiving a different education because someone decided which sports they would like, or would be better at. This seems ridiculous. We should be educating the individual.

The world is sometimes sexist

There is no point trying to shelter my son from sexism. I’d love to just stick with a nice simple message like ‘girls and boys are equal end of story’, but denying the existence of sexism does nothing to combat it. My son will grow up with many privileges and I want him to understand that. I want him to be aware of gendered language, and to know that he should never use ‘like a girl’ as an insult. When he is older, I want him to understand rape culture and the importance of affirmative consent. I want him to recognise sexism and call it out. Loudly.

The same is true of my male students. I have seen the male students I teach make judgements about girls in the class. I have heard slut shaming, I have heard blatant objectification. I have seen female teachers be sexualised and disrespected while trying to do their jobs. And I have seen all of this from boys who I truly like. They are lovely kids, who are behaving in gross ways, because these attitudes have been normalised. They will go into the world as adult citizens with these same sexist views if they are not challenged, and I see that as my responsibility.

Ultimately, I want my son to treat all people with respect and consideration, and I want him to be exactly who he wants to be, and not be constrained by others’ ideas about gender roles. I will want these same things for him when he is a teenager, just like I want them for every teenage boy in my classroom.