Sunday, July 13, 2008

Boys will be boys?

Yesterday evening, I had dinner with my group of au pairs. We meet once a month - an opportunity for me to make sure they're all okay, and an opportunity for them to all be in the same place at the same time - and they usually go out afterward as a group.

These young women have a unique perspective about children, since they are full-time (for the most part) caregivers for children ranging in age from toddler to teenager. They entered the program with more childcare experience than many first-time parents have had. Individual au pairs have different motivations for joining the program (lack of jobs in their home country, a desire to improve their English, a desire to study in America, or, yes, the desire to marry an American), but they definitely all learn at least one thing while they're here: kids are a lot of work. Sort of like the show "The Baby Borrowers" but in a much more real-world setting.

When we get together, we talk about their lives - how they're getting along with host families, if they're experiencing homesickness, how school is going - but they often move the conversation to my life. Most of my au pairs have met my family at least once or twice (the kids have joined me for more than one monthly meeting), and they ask about the kids. I try to share one or two interesting stories and leave it at that.

Yesterday, my son became the topic of conversation quite unintentionally. We'd been talking about kids' movies, and one woman mentioned "Prince Caspian," which she'd loved (I did too). I told her about Alex's response to the movie, and the whole group was really intrigued.

See, Alex isn't one of those boys who loves violent movies and games. He's a gentle kid. His taste in video games is dominated by games that emphasize interpersonal relationships, especially the Sims games. He hasn't shown much interest in fighting games, and when he plays with friends, he's not the kid who instigates games based around violence.

And when we saw "Prince Caspian," he was weary of the battle scenes long before the movie was over. I remember sitting next to him and seeing him begin to squirm and look uncomfortable with what was going on onscreen.

Weeks later, just to drive the point home, all four of us saw the new American Girl movie about my daughter's favorite fictional character, Kit Kittredge. The movie was smart, interesting, and didn't include violence (although it definitely did include difficult subject matter, based as it was in the Great Depression). We knew Susie would love it, but we were pleased to hear Alex's review: "It was the best movie I've ever seen!"

He starts his week at summer camp today. It's his third year at this camp, and he thrives there, with the guitar and campfires and cooperative play. It's a gentle place, and it's good for his gentle spirit.

Since we've been in our house for three years now, I've started to get a little restless with some of the design choices we made. The children's bedrooms are the most recent focus of my dissatisfaction. We helped Susie's room grow up a little bit by swapping out her old, white furniture with the furniture we've been using in our bedroom (which was in my grandmother's bedroom since the middle of the last century). Making those changes for her, however, just pushed the point home that Alex's room was in need of even more drastic changes.

I consulted with him to see what he wanted for his room. When we originally moved into the house, he was really fascinated by maps, so we had chosen fabrics that emphasized geography.

This time, he wants a Hollywood theme. We have some decorations that we use for our annual Oscar party; those will work well in his room. And I have ideas for the window treatments that will emulate the curtains around a movie screen.

This weekend, Craig and I took a spin through a few different stores, looking for items that might work in Alex's room. A quick glance through the aisles of children's furnishings at Target showed us that the world of retail still thinks there are only a few things that boys need: sports, cowboys, and camoflauge. (And the "girl" side of the aisle was no better, with its emphasis on pink and flowers - none of which I eschew, but it seems awfully limiting.)

I had the same frustration when I was buying clothes for my children when they were little. Boys' clothes had the same motifs as the bedding: bugs and sports. Items for girls were decidedly pretty, with precious florals or ladybugs, and predominately pink. (And those were the ones without Disney or other characters.)

Raising a child who doesn't quite fit within the culturally-dictated norms is interesting. It takes creativity. And I wouldn't trade it for anything.

edited to add: I found the most fantastic curtains at IKEA a few weeks later...they're red velvet! I bought four panels, two of which I'll turn into valances, thus leaving two panels to curtain his windows, and the valances to bridge the wallspace between, thereby creating a "movie screen" between the two windows. He was THRILLED when he saw them. Now I just need to get to sewing and finding adequate curtain rods.


Scott Gerard Prinster said...

Bless you for being such a source of unconditional support for your gentle son. My parents did their best, but I remember every unintentionally disapproving message, even dozens of years later. I suspect that it's an uphill struggle to raise a son not steeped in violent behaviors, but I hope that someday he'll be able to thank you for your great parenting.

Rae Pica said...

Unfortunately, children are bombarded early with images promoting gender stereotyping and inequality. Television shows the "norm" as boys playing with cars, trucks, and action figures and girls playing with dolls. "Pink" aisles in the toy stores feature dolls, makeup, and miniature appliances, while "blue" aisles offer vehicles and war toys. "Boys'" toys tend to promote problem solving and exploration, which in turn help develop confidence and competence. "Girls'" toys, by contrast, limit exploration and discourage independence and problem solving.

Sadly, it doesn't take long for young children to catch on. Children as young as 4 have said that playing with dolls, picking flowers, dressing up, skipping, and dancing are what girls do. Boys are supposed to be fighting and playing football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and karate.

Ilina said...

I have two boys who are both very gentle and creative by nature. They love their super heroes and wrestle each other all the time, but deep down they are gentle, kind souls who would rather read and do art projects or hit tennis balls than run amok with laser guns. And boy does that make me proud.

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