One night my godson seeming anxious came to me and asked if there was such a thing as a “TomGirl”? He coined a term that addresses so many issues of our time. Questions about gender stereotypes and the negative idea of the word feminine. A few years back, based on this incident, I wrote a picture book about a little boy who likes to knit and sew. It is based on a real incident with my godson. He is teased at first but forging ahead and supported by his family and some adults, he earns the respect of others including his classmates, simply by being himself. The book is currently available in 12 countries and eight languages, thus implying the ideas and messages in the book span many cultures.
As a young boy, I got a lot of attention because I could sing and dance. I started working professionally around age 11. Coming from an observant religious background also set me apart from others. The support and joy it brought to those really close to me was immeasurable and certainly helped me to let anything negative roll off my back. But in our religious community, and the school I went to, these were unusual talents for boys to explore.
Because I loved working as a child performer, there wasn’t time to participate in sports as many young boys do. I didn’t feel particularly self-conscious because I was focused on what I was doing, but it appeared I wasn’t a part of the popular groups like “the jocks.” In retrospect, although I didn’t feel particularly lonely, there was a loneliness or isolation being so fixated on my work. I began to understand that everyone has felt different — at odds with what is perceived to be normal at points in their life.
If we start to understand and support that we are all individuals with our own special interests and personalities, we can find ways to not become victims to bullying or bad behavior which is usually an act of fear of the unknown.
We have heard a lot in recent years about boys and men needing to be in touch with their feminine side. But what does that mean? Narrow expectations of gender are crushing both boys and girls.
One of the interesting things I have found is that even the most progressive parent sometimes loses common sense. They may encourage their kids to follow an unorthodox path in the privacy of their home, but in public encourage them to conform. They don’t recognize how a child might be confused by this. For example, I know parents who let their little boy wear high heels in the house but stop him from wearing them outside. What does this say to a child? How sad to imply that a child’s casual interests should be explored in secret. This does not prepare anyone for a life outside the home. Instead, we need to give them the tools to handle any issues that may come their way.
Our job is to free our kids to be true to themselves. It is a process, and along the way, kids should be able to try on many different skins. Didn’t we all go through a growth period, stoner period, jock period, theatre kid period, or even the newly popular geek-nerd period? It’s why we squirm when we see old photos of ourselves. That’s why some get nervous about a school reunion – our style and persona change over time. Will anyone remember me as I was or want to know me as the person I have become? By constantly commenting to kids on how they should act, what they wear and what their interests should be, we make it harder for them to develop.
Play is where you dream and imagine different identities! We cannot protect kids from everything, nor should we. Of course, we should protect them from danger and violence, but they need life experiences to learn empathy and coexist in the world. If a child is sheltered in this way, they can become closed-minded and entitled; they are unable to relate to others, let alone those who are perceived as different.
The secure child is permitted to explore and learn, to navigate a world in which they might be teased or bullied. I believe that bullying is part of our nature and will never be stopped. However, self-assurance will help a child, and adult, for that matter, fend off teasing or at the least help to let it roll off their back while they continue on their quest to becoming a whole person.
Finally, I ask myself why is it that the idea of feminine is negative. As Gloria Steinem said, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons … but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”
A tomboy is praised for being assertive and strong, but a boy perceived as acting like a girl is a problem. When you tell your son not to be “girly,” what does that mean to his sister? What are little girls supposed to think when their activities or interests are publicly delegitimized?
There is a huge difference between letting a girl play sports and pushing her to do something she has little interest in. I’m not specifically identifying sports as a problem; it’s just an example. Similarly, one shouldn’t quash the idea of a boy interested in ballet classes.
How do we create a world where all of us can express our unique selves the way we choose without derisiveness and shame? I am not here to criticize the wonderful parents and caregivers who are reading this – they only love their children. Common sense must prevail. I only ask with respect that parents and caregivers let their kids explore freely so we all can find a way to live together with our differences celebrated.
What a wonderful day that will be.
Craig Pomranz is a vocalist and actor.
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