I don’t know how I might have parented daughters. I don’t have a daughter. Maybe it is very different from parenting sons, but I actually kind of doubt it. Humans like to find patterns in what are actually random events. The Virgin Mary in a piece of toast; Jesus on a potato chip; princess girls and rugged boys right out of the womb. Boys are wild and physical but emotionally simplistic. Girls just the opposite.
When I took my college students out into the woods this month on a drizzly evening, I plunged into a low, swampy area in pursuit of a frog. One student remarked, “Bet your parents couldn’t get you out of the woods at night, huh?” True. Gender norms were somewhat less rigidly divided in the 80s (for girls anyway), but I was clearly labeled a tomboy. Things are easier for a tomboy girl than for a “prissy” boy, to be sure though, and I know many a sensitive boy who’s had a really rough go of it. People like categories and boxes. They like clearly defined boy v. girl definitions, black and white in all things (including literally–my friend Christine recently brought to my attention the “Mahogany” line of Hallmark cards to help the apparently monolithic African-American population uniquely express themselves in a special way).
When my kids are dirt smeared and muddied to their knees and have sticks in their hair, people inevitably say, “They’re boys!” apparently oblivious to the fact that I, also dirt-caked, am not a boy, and never was, and I’m the one who led them into the muck to begin with. Being a boy isn’t what makes a kid like mucking in a swamp. Being a kid is. But if a mud-caked girl climbs out of a swamp with leeches dangling from her shins, no one’s smilingly saying, “Of course! She’s a girl!” Mud and leeches are not the girl default. Princess parties are!
It’s not all win for the boys either; I’ve seen abhorrent behavior passed off as normal. I’m not claiming that boys who beat frogs to death with sticks or catch butterflies just to pull their wings off are going to grow up to be serial killers, but they may in fact grow up to be like the guy I watched deliberately run over a painted turtle with his truck the other day. People seem to feel comforted by a predictable dynamic–boys fling a snake into the girls’ tea party; girls shriek and run. What I’ve found is that, if you give them the chance, boys and girls regress to the mean of simple curiosity and fascination. Fill a bucket with water and put a few bullfrog tadpoles in it. Boys swagger up with the bravado they’ve been taught, shove the tadpoles at the girls’ faces; girls squeal and recoil with the dainty revulsion they’ve been taught. Give them five minutes and they’re all quietly holding tadpoles, stroking their slimy skin and gently touching the tiny webbed feet emerging by the base of the tail. Girls and boys in uniformly hushed amazement, algae twined around their fingers. From the wrist down, you’d never tell them apart.