The Son Also Rises
Boys to Men, Outside the Stereotypes

By William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn

When our children were young, they attended a wonderful daycare center in New York City directed by an extraordinary and talented woman named B.J.  Richards. “B.J.’s Kids” was housed in a public school, and it became famous in those years among early childhood educators as a liberating and empowering environment for young children. B.J. had developed a dazzling collection of nonracist and nonsexist children’s books, for example, and inclusive posters sang out from the walls in the hallways and classrooms.  She was always willing to talk about fairness with the kids, and to encourage them to criticize whatever unfairness they witnessed in the world around them: “It’s unfair in this story that only the boys are doing fun things, while the girls just stand around watching” or “I don’t think it’s fair to have a bear dressed like a Native American and then call him ‘wild.’”

At B.J.’s Kids, parents and teachers struggled to free our language from the constraints of a sexist society, and it became natural to hear conversations laced with terms like “mail carrier,” “police officer,” “cowhand,” and “waitron” (waiter or waitress, an evolution from the clumsy “wait person”). Not only did “firefighter” replace “fireman,” but the center’s play area featured a poster of a black firefighter in action, and the toy block area had a unique collection of little figures and wedgies that included a white male nurse and an Asian woman firefighter.

B.J.’s Kids was across the street from the firehouse, where the firefighters, however, were exclusively white and male. The kids visited often, trying on the hats and ringing the bell, and of course, finding their nonsexist, nonracist world collided with some hard realities--such as the time one of the hosts told the visiting kids that he hoped there would never be any women working at the firehouse because they would never be as good as the men at fighting fires. Four-year-old Megan led the chorus in unison--“UNFAIR!”--and the kids wrote letters to the mayor.

But changing language is, after all, not the same thing as changing worlds. Neither is changing minds identical to changing institutions.  Raising children to be thoughtful, caring, engaged human beings is always a challenge. In a strict class society, stratified, too, along racial and gender lines, gone mad with money and now making a quasi-religion out of consumption, the challenges intensify. There is no way to effectively retreat from the world as it is, but there are sensible strategies that help parents encounter that world, provide some examples for our children of hope and resistance, and raise kids who are not only capable of working and loving, but who can engage the resistant world and name themselves freely and happily in opposition.

We have worked to find and implement these tools in our parenting as thoughtfully as B.J. searched for nonracist, nonsexist toy action figures.  Our son Zayd attended ballet class with his best friend as a young child, and when he wanted a tutu just like hers, Bernadine helped him sew a beautiful one. For one year, Chesa’s daily uniform was pink tights and a blue T-shirt, and that was just fine. And we remember Malik--who had a favorite T-shirt for many years that read “This Boy Is Different”--standing on the pitcher’s mound in his first all-star game, long hair flying as he mowed down batters, inning after inning. The announcer’s comment: “That girl sure can pitch”--went unchallenged by us. In fact, we loved it. We believed that there are many ways to be a boy, and we knew as well that manhood should be dense with possibilities and potential.

Parenting Outside the Gender Ethic
Parenting against the dominant gender ethic was an elusive goal. We could easily change the pronouns in children’s books, and the dress-up box had skirts and jewelry and long, silky scarves-as well as astronaut gear, hospital scrubs, and cowhand outfits. But deeper matters of boys’ emotional awareness were challenging.

A feminist friend, visiting us when the boys were little, watched Bernandine rushing to comfort Zayd, who was crying because our pet rabbit Phoebe had died in the clutches of the neighbor’s Doberman. Later, our friend gently commented that boys need to learn about and experience their own emotions. It was OK, she said, for Zayd to be sad about a loss, or have hurt feelings. Her observation hit a truth. Parents could name intense emotions like jealousy or loss, and acknowledge their universality, without rushing to change the subject, or sweep it away, or even cuddle our son into forgetfulness.

Our friend’s revelation gave us an opportunity to ponder some important issues about raising boys. Must boys grow up believing they require a woman (mother, lover, wife) to mediate their emotions, or can they live fully in their emotions as well as their intellect and spirit? Is anger the only intense emotion allowed boys? Are boys taught to look away when someone in the room is crying, do they fidget and find an excuse to promptly escape-or can they become comfortable with going up to the weeping person, touching them, and standing in companionship with an expression of feeling? The answers seemed largely up to the teaching we parents give them.

Parents have a special responsibility for self-awareness, clarity, and integrity in our relations with our children. In their innocence, kids ask us to explain the complicated world: Why is that man talking so loud? Why is she in a wheelchair? Why is your skin brown? Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk? Why do the boys and girls get in different lines? Our responses to these questions are a measure of our own discomfort, confusion, and limitations-or, on the other hand, our consciousness and our courage. Perhaps they signal both extremes at the same time. Certainly, they provide a clue about where we need to focus some of our own learning as adults.

Kids challenge us to know ourselves, to deepen and develop that knowledge, to keep learning and growing, and to act. Each of our sons had an ear pierced when he was first born. Over the years, people said the damnedest things to the boys about their earrings.  “Were they boys or girls?” Or sometimes people stumbled over themselves in apology for calling a boy a girl. Our sons noted that the apologies seemed to insinuate that it was somehow insulting for a boy to be mistaken for a girl. They also commented that gender determination seemed critical to strangers-as if they could not proceed in a conversation with a five year old until they knew whether Chesa was a girl or a boy.

This always struck Malik as particularly weird. With his long blond hair, Malik was a magnet for exposing people’s gender obsession, but from age four until 14, he always felt that the massive concern and frenzy about who he was, was someone else’s problem-not his. In line at an ice cream parlor near our house one day, we engaged in banter with a man who mistakenly thought Malik was a girl. The man was so befuddled he followed us into the parking lot, and was still explaining to Malik through the car window as we pulled away that, of course, it was obvious, now that he looked, that Malik was a boy, and would Malik please forgive him? Malik smiled at Bill through his French vanilla cone and ruefully shook his head.

Despite his deep self-confidence, Malik’s brothers were concerned the week that he was going to be batboy for the Chicago Cubs. From his first word (ball) forward, Malik has always been a baseball maniac. His uncle Juan even remarked that he feared eight-year-old Malik was peaking too soon, for nothing else in the rest of his life would ever match his experience in the dugout and on the field at Wrigley. We were concerned, not about everything being downhill from here on for him, but about what the players would say about Malik’s long hair. What if Andre Dawson or Ryne Sandberg were mean to him?

We sat down with Malik and explained his options: he could (a) cut his hair; (b) tie his hair up under his baseball cap; or (c) go as he was. He took a minute to think about it, anddecided he wanted to go as himself. It turned out that 33,000 fans thought he was the Cubs’ first batgirl, but-with the exception of one cruel future Cy Young winner-all the players told him stories in the dugout about when they had had long hair. Our picture of Malik, standing with his back to us in line with the team along the third base line during the national anthem, with then-coach Don Zimmer’s arm around him, is considered a family jewel.

Building a Culture at Home
Parents need to think hard about the environment they create for their kids because society itself is a powerful teacher. How could we build a home environment that would embody and foster safety, joy, fairness, cooperation, purposefulness, antisexism? Books are only one component of the total picture, but an interesting one to examine. We found ourselves carefully scrutinizing our children’s book collection. Was it good literature, work that was imaginative, engaging, clear, exciting, provocative, and well written? Did it invite children in, acting as both mirror and window to their imaginations? Did it deepen the reader’s perspective? Did the literature celebrate diversity, examining differences as well as similarities? Did the people do positive things, care for one another, solve problems, make important decisions, protect one another, enjoy their families and communities, and respect nature? Was it literature in which black and Third World people, women as well as men, think and work and act and organize?

Bernadine began a 12-year nightly tradition of reading books out loud to the boys when they were five, three, and two. We listened to traditional boy fare like Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer, the books of Gary Paulson and N. Scott Momaday, and three Dickens novels, which took months and left us waiting breathlessly for the next installment. But for one half-year, we read Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys--and they were a smashing success. Zayd identified with the writer Jo, Malik with the generous Beth, and Chesa with the spunky Amy.  None of us thought we were like Meg. We loved the Civil War setting and the politics of education explored by Louisa May Alcott. It both surprised and didn’t surprise us that three young boys could imagine themselves as Crazy Horse, as Jean Valjean, as Jim or Huck, or as Jo.

Parents need to be critical without carping, and we need to provide opportunities for our children to exercise judgment and criticism right from the start. Kids are acutely aware of fairness, and are capable of raising complex issues in deceptively modest ways. Parents should listen for those instances, and respond as directly and honestly as we can.  Ignoring difficult questions encourages a kind of moral obtuseness, but a forthright response engages children critically, and lays the basis for social literacy.

Putting Theory to the Test
An alleged date rape after a party at our kids’ high school became a huge focus of fear and anxiety, conversation, accusation, and contention. The adults, typically, knew almost nothing, but the kids were all abuzz. Would the young woman tell her parents? Would she file charges? Would the event and the aftershock become openly acknowledged?

We overheard Zayd, Malik, and Chesa talking about it and, as usual, butted in. When they seemed evasive and somewhat lighthearted about what we took to be a most serious act, we began to question them sharply: “Do you understand what a profound violation, what a disgusting and vile crime is being alleged?” “Don’t you see how badly she was hurt and how unjust and immoral it was?”

“Yo, Pops,” Malik replied, “We didn’t do anything, OK? You’re acting like we did it. We’re talking about something that happened out there. What the hell?”

When we were calmer, we talked more clearly about guilt and responsibility, assent and acceptance, desire and respect, boys and girls. The date rape helped us clarify several areas of agreement:

There were issues about which we struggled but never really found agreement. We argued, for example, that mutuality required honesty and openness, an authentic dialogue, a serious attempt at understanding and empathy. Zayd responded that all relationships had an element of deceit built in--“I give a girl a rose, but I’m not ready to tell her the things I’m thinking.” He said there would always be an element of duplicity in relationships, in part because you could never be entirely sure of your own motives.

We also argued that sex for teenage boys and teenage girls is, in our culture, fundamentally different, and that the difference matters. Girls need the tools to fight for themselves, for respect and choice and some autonomy. Boys need to learn to be generous and caring, to resist the role of rip-off artist. Sex should not be fraudulent or unequal. Our three boys listened, if somewhat blankly.

The girl never did tell her parents. Charges were never filed.

As important as understanding and wide-awakeness are, they are incomplete without practice and activity that reflects responsibility. Even if we don’t always know the best thing to do, if our children can at least see us acting for a better world, action becomes a stronger possibility.

When Zayd was two years old, we marched together in a demonstration in Times Square to oppose pornography. He felt powerful and happy, and only later asked why we were all chanting, “No more corn!” At a demonstration against the US war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Malik wore a T-shirt which said: “A boy of quality is not threatened by a girl for equality.”

Children and youth need us to talk with them about the most complicated issues we and they face. To grow up healthy and whole, it’s necessary to turn difficult experiences-a narrow-minded firefighter, a stranger’s gender confusion, teenage seduction gone terribly wrong--into teachable moments.  That’s what fair, and that’s what’s right.

For more information about healthy parenting, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering:

William Ayers is distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  His most recent book is A Kind and Just Parent. Bernadine Dohrn is director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, Legal Clinic. She is the author of  Look Out Kid, It’s Something You Did: Zero Tolerance for Children and the forthcoming Violence and Children’s Rights, edited by Valerie Polakow.  Together they have three sons.