Your dad and I are pretty sure that you’ll be popular in high school. I don’t say that to brag. I just see you running through the hallways at church every Sunday with a whole gaggle of peers following you. Or overhear a youth group kid (a legitimate teenaged person who usually hates everything) say how “cool” my three-year-old is. Or notice on your teacher’s notes from preschool the ever-growing list of kids you’ve been playing with on the playground. These things, evidence of your natural, easy charm, coupled with the knowledge that you are predisposed—through genetics and, so far, interest—to become an athlete, lead us to believe that you’re not going to be an outcast if high school in your day is anything like high school in my day. As your mother, I find you pretty handsome, too, and that shouldn’t hurt.
Right now, you play with Thomas Trains and Cars Cars and with golf clubs that you’ve never used to golf with but only as swords. You have one toe that is painted hot pink, two that are red, and one that you describe as “golden.” You ask to help me cook dinner almost every night. We try to keep you away from violence (which is why you must sub-in golf clubs for weaponry), we try to keep you active (even though I am not “outdoorsy” and must force myself sometimes for your sake), we don’t make fun of you or discourage you if you ask to watch the Princess Mousie Ballerina Extravaganza of Pink Sparkles and Cupcake Dreams, or whatever that stupid show is called.
There are people who have opinions about letting little boys watch princess shows or paint their nails, but we tend to think these opinions are unfair. If your sister were to pick up a football, no one would think twice, so why should I care if you want to try on a necklace or two?
This doesn’t mean you spend half of your time with the girly stuff, though. On the contrary, you’re much more often pummeling me with pillows and jumping off the couch and making up games with balls and turning things into bombs—bombs I never taught you about. Where do you learn all of this boy-language, anyway? Is there a secret class at preschool that teaches you to “pew pew pew” with your finger-gun and fart at the table? I don’t know—and to be honest, this is not stuff that keeps me up at night. I’m glad you have this rambunctious energy and playful competitiveness. I hope you never feel that we held you back from being as much “boy” as you want to be.
The feminist movement has done a wonderful job of helping women and girls cultivate traits that used to be considered primarily masculine: we girls are encouraged to be brave, capable, in charge, confident, sometimes even aggressive. All that’s good about what is—or perhaps sometimes what our culture has decided is—“masculine” is now not quite so reserved for those with a penis. We are better for it. (Heck, even our Disney princesses are better for it! Think of movies like Tangled, Brave, Enchanted. Those princesses don’t sit around waiting for someone to save the day—they do a significant amount of saving themselves.)
It bothers me that the opposite doesn’t seem to be true for boys. The culture doesn’t urge—at least not with the same vehemence—boys to take up feminine qualities. On the contrary, I used to sit through teacher’s education courses, in classes full of women, and wonder why there weren’t more men in the field. The same is true in fields like nursing and social work. It makes me worry about you. I want you to have a slew of options in regard to what might become your vocation. “The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions,” Hanna Rosin writes in The Atlantic, “in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt.”
Nurturing professions, she calls them. Interesting that she uses a word that usually tops the “feminine” side when we play the INNATE GENDER DIFFERENCES game.
It’s been noted that boys are having a hard time finding a “way to be” in our culture right now, and part of me believes this is because we haven’t fully let boys embrace all that’s good about what is—or perhaps sometimes what our culture decides is—“feminine.” It’s done sneakily—just like how we’d accept a little blue in a girl’s room but no pink in a boy’s room. Or how we consistently adopt male names for female babies (Micah? Noah? Taylor? Evelyn?), but not the other way around. We celebrate a girl who learns how to lead, but I’d argue that we don’t celebrate to the same extent when a boy learns how to nurture. This, my son, is a bit of bullshit.
So while we try our best to not limit the ways you play to just those that scream “BOY,” I want to do more. I want to make sure I’m instilling in you virtues, qualities, personality traits, that will help you to “be” in the world.
Starting with two.
First, I want you to be nurturing. The word, defined, means, “to care for and protect (someone or something) while they are growing.” Even moms—the people who are expected and supposedly “wired” to be this way—sometimes feel like the ability to nurture is a quality that is underappreciated in our world; Daphne de Marneffe says it’s “treated as background noise or unspoken assumption rather than as something explicit, valuable, and important.” But I want you to know that nurturing other people is part of your responsibility—whether you ever become a father or not. In the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, one character—the teacher—says that the most important thing she can teach her students is “that y’all learn to take care of the things that are smaller and sweeter than you.” I like that, but I’d suggest that it’s important to take care of things that are uglier and meaner than you, too. Everybody needs some taking care of sometimes, and if you can do this, you’ll be imaging God in the process.
I also want you to be hospitable. This doesn’t mean that I’d like you to take out a subscription to Martha Stewart: Living or something. I don’t have a burning passion that you become a master chef, or learn to keep house like a pro. It has nothing, really, to do with a house. Jesus, notes Barbara Brown Taylor, didn’t have a house and he was known not only for his practice of hospitality, but his insistence that his disciples learn it, too. The word comes up often in his teachings, and it is usually translated from the Greek word philoxenia. As Taylor explains, “Take the word apart and you get philo, from one of the four Greek words for love, and xenia, for stranger. Love of the stranger, in other words.” This is related to nurturing, I think, because it is another way of caring for people. It means that you should be mindful about the way your actions and your words affect the people around you. It means that you should be a careful driver, a respectful student, a courteous host, an empathetic passer-by, a concerned pillow-pummeler. Be kind even when it’s difficult, even when it’s to a person you have never met or will never meet again, even when you really, really, really want to win the game.
You are lucky, because you have a wonderful role model in your dad. On the day it first dawned on us that you would be popular in high school, his first concern was that we teach you about the responsibility that comes with being looked up to.
“We’ve got to teach him how to be the popular kid who looks out for the unpopular kids,” he said. So go crash, bang, boom with the rest of them, but try not to forget to be nurturing and hospitable in the process. Even if it is a little girly.