I was at the beach and there was a family on either side of me. On my left was a father and his four boys. On my right was a father and his four girls.
The four girls played quietly doing make believe and building sand castles. Their father listened to music and watched for their safety when they neared the water. It is an idealistic scene.
The four boys tormented each other and played wildly: Sand, seaweed, stones, and shells whirled over my head as I tried to relax. Dad was asleep on a log. There was chaos.
One could sit back and assume that is the difference between boys and girls, but I think it had more to do with boundaries. Girls can play rough and tumble, and boys can play quiet and imaginative games.
The child is who the child is — we do not parent to tame them, but to channel that spirit into a positive stream, give them reasonable boundaries, and encourage positive growth.
The boundary was crossed when the boys tore over and without cause, ruined the girls’ sand castles. This was a clear act of destruction and a violation of the girls’ space and creativity; it was not invited nor welcome. The boys’ father remained asleep on the log. The girls’ father offered them comfort.
There are greater questions behind gender energy here that we need to ask. Why is it that we accept a boy’s destructive behaviour as ‘boys just being boys’? What has evolved in our families to bring us to that point of acceptance? And why are girls not given the tools to defend against male aggression?
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I recall the horror of a young girl in her village in Fiji. The boys were ‘being boys’ and for sport were trying to pull her into the water and lift her dress. She was clearly frightened and did not welcome that attention. With a shrug, life went on (until I went to her aid). As she ages we can assume that as a teenager, the unchecked actions may become more pronounced. Those boys did not have a right to physical aggression — at any age.
An equal world starts at home — where boys and girls understand the boundaries of behaviour, and are taught respect and accountability. The boys in this story could have inquired about those sand castles (girls make great engineers) or offered to add a few extra to the kingdom (teamwork) or asked the girls to play catch (although they were throwing stones). There was a host of positive interactions that could have happened given the right culture of growth for boys and girls. Whatever the choice of engagement, those boys first needed to seek permission or invitation to walk into the space of those little girls.
Cultural norms can be deeply imbedded and influence how boys and girls act. On a street in Argentina with my male friends we encountered a soccer team of boys about age 10. We asked where the girls were as there were no girls playing on the team, in the park, or on the streets. The boy who answered said, “In the house where they belong.” We asked, “Do you not play soccer with the girls?” That child’s eyes just about popped out of his head and he backed away as though there was a bad odour. They were shocked to learn that I played soccer, and that other boys and girls could — and did — play soccer together.
The year before I was in India where the caste system is particularly hard on girls as they are born into a life of slavery and virtual non-existence. The lack of birth certificates is a problem but the way they are treated is shocking.
We walked into this dark, dirt floor hut where lower-caste girls were splitting coconuts. As is the case in most of my travels, the girls want to communicate with you. Approaching the first child I asked, “What is your name? How old are you?” Immediately her male employer put himself between us saying, “She has no name. She has no birth.”
These are not extreme examples but vignettes of reality that demonstrate that a lack of respect for a female can spread from the family to the community, and finally strangle the female gender of a nation.
Read carefully the plea from Canadian father Glen Canning who lost his daughter to suicide after being raped by teenage boys: “Speaking of accountability, thankfully four in five Canadians (79 per cent) feel ‘boys will be boys’ is an outdated attitude. So that means, from a young age, we must hold our boys accountable for their behaviour. Our boys can be shown how to embody empathy and compassion. We must make no excuse for toxic masculinity to get embedded in our next generation.”
I have a high regard for the persons of each gender and believe that gender equality is standing up for the excellence of the other so that both may contribute in the way in which they are gifted. This starts from the first breath of that baby. How we shape their world depends on our own examples of equality and our healthy respect of boundaries.