The Harmful Things We Teach Our Boys
Stereotypes and prejudices are the result of nurture, not inbuilt but put into their minds by adults.
By J. Julian
For the last couple of months I’ve been proud to be teaching a little boy called Ben singing and guitar. He is eight years old and although he’s a very competent singer, and a big fan of musicals — his favorite is ‘The Greatest Showman’ — something he said in a lesson this weekend really surprised me.
I had already taught him the notes of the strings of his guitar as ‘Elephants And Dinosaurs Go Bowling Everyday’, which he found very funny. This lesson as about the notes on the stave, i.e. the notes in the spaces spelling ‘FACE’ and the notes on the lines, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Football’.
“But I don’t like football!” said Ben.
“OK,” I answered, ‘Can you think of something else which begins with an ‘F’?”
Ben became coy and blushed.
“I can, but it’s for girls,” he said.
“What is it then?” I prompted.
“Flowers”, he answered, giggling and blushing again.
Now, I hadn’t expected this from Ben. He seems so far away from what you might call ‘toxic masculinity’, with his love of singing, Disney and Broadway musicals, it seemed out of character for him to subscribe to such an outdated stereotype. But he did.
“Why are flowers for girls then, Ben?” I asked.
“I don’t know, they just are”.
“Alright, how about Every Good Boy Deserves Fish?”
This prompted another giggle.
“I don’t like fish either.”
Thinking about ‘boy stuff’ and what might appeal to him, I tried again.
“How about Every Good Boy Does Farts?”
“Noooo!” He exclaimed. “Farts are nasty! I call them pop-pops!”
He held his nose, and fanned his face with his hand.
“So what would you rather have then? Farts or flowers?”
He still seemed to be invested in the belief that only girls like flowers. I tried to explain to him what horticulture was, and how lots of men take great pride, not just in looking at flowers, but growing them and even entering them in competitions. I asked him if his mum liked Alan Titchmarsh, one of the most famous gardeners in the UK, who has written numerous books and hosted innumerable TV shows from the seminal “Gardener’s World” to the BBC’s coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show.
He had not heard of Mr. Titchmarsh, but found his name funny. I so wanted to sit Ben down in front of the TV and show him the venerable male gardeners discussing their hydrangeas, but I’m not sure even that would have changed his mind, because the stereotype is so entrenched.
Flowers are for girls, not boys.
I remembered the stately figure of Percy Thrower in the Blue Peter garden, showing us wide-eyed viewers the new variety of rose he’d cultivated, and wondering where Fred the tortoise might be hiding, something lost from today’s high pace TV and was sad for a moment. Kid’s TV has become regressive if it can’t provide something as simple and joyful as male role models who love gardening.
We settled on ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fish’, but it might get changed to football, farts or even, if I have my way, to flowers. Ben was happy that he’d had a good laugh in his lesson, and hopefully, he’s learned something, and by something, I don’t just mean the names of the notes on the lines of the stave, but that it is OK, absolutely OK for boys to like flowers.
Where do these ideas come from? A child, as famously described by John Locke, is a “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. The ideas and prejudices are therefore a result of ‘nurture’, not inbuilt but put into their minds by adults; adults who should know better than to do so much damage to young, impressionable minds. It’s sad to see children exhibit bigotry, and in this case, although it was fairly innocuous, it’s promoting stereotypical beliefs about gender, and the difference between boys and girls. Taken to its conclusion, what other bigoted attitudes get projected onto children, and where do they get them from?
I heard a similar thing come from a woman, a young mum, once in the shop. We sell a lot of ukuleles, and we had some funky colored ones discounted at the end of the summer, so we only had a few pink ones remaining. They were half price, so a real bargain, and I could see she was tempted.
“Do you have any other colors left?” She asked.
“No, sorry, just those two pink ones”.
“Oh.” She bit her lip. “I’ve got a little boy, so I think I’ll give it a miss. Thanks.”
Again, it’s the idea that boys can’t have pink, that creates a dangerous stereotype. I’m sure had we blue ukuleles, she would have happily paid full price instead of taking the discounted one. Maybe she had genuine concerns that her little boy might be bullied for liking ‘girl stuff’ like the child who was driven out of school by bullies in the US for having a Rainbow Dash backpack.
Maybe she’s worried what his father will think. It makes me frustrated; we live in 2019, people. We should have got over little boys playing pink ukuleles and liking flowers.
This isn’t about the ‘gay agenda’ or even gender-neutrality, a boy has just as much right to like My Little Pony as a girl does to like superheroes and dinosaurs. These things do not need to be gendered.