Meher Marfatia: Boys need not be boys

Meher MarfatiaI wasn't raised by any avowed feminists. I simply had buzzing around me several spirited, wonderful women, an assortment of aunts and a grandmother. The latter, like many of her vintage, quizzed me about the kind of husband I wanted to marry. "Suppose you fall in love with two nice boys?" was her test question. Before giving me a moment to think about what constituted "nice", she put out pondering — "Choose the one with a sister." Then my amused brother would butt in, teasing, "And if both boys have sisters or neither has one?" He was silenced by her ready reply: "Go with the kinder man. Kindness outlasts everything else."

Years later, my son has a sister to understand and a father worth emulating. Yet, it's been a challenge to keep kids in feminist form amid a culture that indulgently believes boys will be boys.


Illustration/Uday Mhote

In her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neuroscience professor Lise Eliot, shares that between the ages of three and five, vague gender notions solidify into firmer opinions. Preschoolers start absorbing critical ideas about the sexes this early. Parents preening they're liberal tout the "You can be whatever you want to be" line to girls allowed to pick up anything they want to play with. But, it's not as kosher for boys who turn to traditionally "girl toys".

I too confess to a scene that got me almost 20 years ago while tucking the kids into bed — the daughter clasping a figure of Batman between pudgy fingers made me smile just a jaw wider than the sight of the son with one of her dolls near his head.

I relaxed, learning to embrace a big bunch of basic truths as the children grew. First off, how it can never stay a single-sex effort. We need to rear feminist sons as well as feminist daughters. Women aren't the only ones impacted by gender inequity, we all are.

Young brothers and boyfriends out there, these are my top 12 of "25 Rules for Raising Feminist Boys" listed on the Scary Mommy portal:
1. Feminism doesn't mean feminine. It means equality.
2. It's OK to cry; it's unnatural and bad not to.
3. The phrases "like a man" and "like a girl" mean nothing. Ignore them.
4. Be friends with women, be a buddy, be a rock.
5. To be strong AND sensitive are not mutually exclusive or incompatible.
6. Your penis gives you no special privileges; it's a regular part of anatomy. It makes you human, with all of the pleasures and obligations the human experience offers.
7. Respect body language and spoken language. "No" means no. Silence means no. Even "Maybe" means no. Only "Yes" means yes.
8. Your gender does not define you. Neither does your job, car, club or bank account. Show courage and compassion, qualities that make you stand out.
9. Though most ad commercials and sitcoms send contrary messages, men make beds, do laundry, cook, change diapers and tend to any household or child-rearing task.
10. Don't be afraid to apologise. It's not a sign of weakness but a brave act of strength.
11. Giving girls a safe place is not anti-male. Each time the world knocks them down they seek more airspace to right themselves. You help bring some balance.
12. There are differences between the sexes just as there are between people. They're built into DNA and into society. Instead of damning differences, celebrate them.

To this dozen, I dare add for the generation above: Practise what you preach. The feminist mantras you "teach" can come undone in a blink, while what boys and girls watch mums and dads do, will stick forever.

As always, books hold amazing cues. Classics like Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince awe us with their small boys' gentle, egoless ways. An 11-year-old tells me he's a Potter fan for the fact that "Harry hangs with Hermione and Ginny not because they're pretty but they're so smart." His other favourite, Eragon from the pen of Christopher Paolini, is "a nice guy who asks the opinion of women".

My own children enjoyed The Little Prince, French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery's novella gem. Its loveliest line hugs humanism — feminism at its best. Cheers to the words of the fox to the eponymous hero: 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.'

Write in to Meher at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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