Who Will Take Care of the Gravy Boat?

by Juliet Sorensen on May 6, 2015

In the past week, a mystifying series of sexist posts on parenting boys have proliferated online. For example, this week’s feature on The Week is “What It’s Like to be a Mother of Only Boys.” Last week’s ScaryMommy essay was entitled, “10 Things Moms of Boys Must Do.” Needlessly gendered, these articles hearken back to the era of Mad Men’s first season.

Take the ScaryMommy voice of authority. She advises women expecting boys to “love bathtime,” “think farts are funny,” “do battle with the toilet,” “rethink your standards of safety,” “be prepared for messes,” “rethink your standards of safety,” and more. I don’t question the truth in these statements; indeed, as the parent of a boy, I concur. Rather, I take issue with her basic assumption that none of these nuggets apply to girls. As the parent of two girls, I know firsthand that they all do.

“What It’s Like to be a Mother of Only Boys” assures its readers that mothering (note the verb; no “parenting” used here) boys “leads to a set of personality traits, namely that you’re not fussy and that you roll with the (actual) punches.” While the counterfactual is not provided, presumably mothers of girls are fussy and uptight. Mothers of only boys learn to buy lots of food; the inference is that mothers of girls do not, since their princesses subsist on air. The author “wonders about the future of her stuff,” including her “mother’s gravy boat.” I don’t own a gravy boat and am confident that my two daughters would show no interest in it whatsoever.

At its best, the Internet gives voice to the voiceless and speaks truth to power. At its worst, it reinforces age-old gender stereotypes that can now be broadcast worldwide with a single keystroke.



Lynne 05.06.15 at 9:41 pm

Juliet, you said much of what I could have said. GROANS! This stuff drives me nuts, and I am a mother of only boys. When mine were young, I got together regularly with three other women to let our children play. We each had two children; the other three had a girl and a boy each. Yet the gender stereotypes were alive and well for two of these women, who firmly believed boys were more difficult. For one of them, it was true her son was more of a handful than her daughter, but it was hilarious that the other mother thought so as her daughter was one of the most challenging children in the group. The three most challenging children in the group were two girls and a boy. Neither of mine was particularly challenging though no child is easy all the time, of course.

And this business of rolling with literal punches: our boys were not allowed to fight physically. If they did fight, I would ask whether it was a play fight or a real fight, and if it was a real fight, they had to stop and use their words. Good grief.


Bloix 05.06.15 at 10:32 pm

I am the father of two boys (and no girls), and one of three boys (and no girls) myself, and NONE of the stereotypical boy behavior described in the article applies to me, my brothers, or my sons.

Neither one of my boys were climbers or jumpers or shouters or fighters. They played Legos and Playmobil and Thomas the Tank Engine on the floor, they loved to read, and they spent hours with Pokemon and magic cards when they got older. They never stuffed their faces – both are skinny as sticks, and my older son made a high art out of picky eating (Mon: No turkey for lunch! I want peanut butter and jelly! Tues: Jelly, yuck! I want peanut butter! Wed: This bread is gross!)

They were not particularly dirty, they had no trouble with the toilet, and they didn’t grab their penises or make fart jokes. They thought Captain Underpants was hilarious, but that was about as naughty as they got.

Both are healthy and fit, both played competitive sports all through school – one had two letters in high school and played on a varsity team at college – and both have moved easily into adulthood. And no, neither one is gay.

I’ve known lots of boys who fit the stereotype in the article, more or less, but it’s not universal and there’s nothing unusual about boys who don’t fit it.


LizardBreath 05.06.15 at 11:14 pm

And I’m the mother of a girl and a boy, and neither on the tendency to engage in casual violence (a fair amount) nor on the tendency to create disorder (lots) are they strongly distinguishable. (She is more interested in clothes than he is. Not in hanging them up or putting them in drawers, but in clothes in general, sure.)


Lynne 05.06.15 at 11:17 pm

Bloix, your boys sound a lot like mine here: “Neither one of my boys were climbers or jumpers or shouters or fighters. They played Legos and Playmobil and Thomas the Tank Engine on the floor, they loved to read, and they spent hours with Pokemon and magic cards when they got older.” Both mine played some sports but neither loved team sports. One was on the debate team and the other played some chess.


Helen 05.06.15 at 11:45 pm

Cordelia Fine is wonderful on this kind of “neurosexism”. It’s very popular, and won’t be going away soon, sadly.
The other thing about Fine is that she is a very funny read. One of my favourite quotes, from a review of the book:

“In 2002, Hines and Alexander studied the play of vervet monkeys. They gave them two boy toys, two girl toys, and two neutral toys. Impressive, yes? But wait, one of the girl toys was a pan. To quote Fine, “Although it it true that primatologists regularly uncover hitherto unknown skills in our nonhuman cousins, the art of heated cuisine is not yet one of them.” (http://www.cordeliafine.com/AWM.pdf)


Helen 05.06.15 at 11:45 pm

Sorry, “the book” = “Delusions of Gender”


Matt 05.06.15 at 11:51 pm

The author “wonders about the future of her stuff,” including her “mother’s gravy boat.”

One of my favorite commercials of all time, which, sadly, I cannot find on youtube, was a commercial for major league baseball featuring then in his prime Cecil Fielder and his then 12 year old or so son (and current major leaguer) Prince Fielder, having dinner. At one point, Prince says something like, “Dad, can you pass me the lucky gravy boat”, and Cecil says, “I told you not to mention the lucky gravy boat! Now it’s jinxed!” (I suppose the joke was supposed to be that both of them were (and are), er, not so slim, but still, it shows that boys, too, might have interest in gravy boats, at least if they are lucky ones.)


James Wimberley 05.07.15 at 12:14 am

I tell you, this printing thing will be the end of civilisation.


js. 05.07.15 at 1:13 am

Honest question: what is the gender (or cultural) significance of a gravy boat? This is making no sense to me at all. (Not a point against the OP, just not getting the cultural reference.)


js. 05.07.15 at 1:19 am

Oh, wait. Is the point that it’s a “kitchen thing”, so the boys would take no interest in it? Like, she could just have said, “blender”? That’s completely idiotic.


JanieM 05.07.15 at 1:32 am

Oh, wait. Is the point that it’s a “kitchen thing”, so the boys would take no interest in it? Like, she could just have said, “blender”? That’s completely idiotic.

I think it’s more than just that it’s a kitchen thing, it’s a precious heirloom kind of kitchen thing, or she wouldn’t have said “my mother’s.” Who do you pass your stuff down to if there’s no one of the proper gender to inherit it? I mean, really…..

At the recommendation of (I think) Bruce Baugh on a gender-related thread a while back, I recently finished “What Becomes You,” by Aaron Raz Link and his mother, Hilda Raz. Aaron was once Sarah, and there’s a whole poignant complicated thread of story in the book about what Hilda is going to do with her own mother’s (and maybe grandmother’s? I forget) wedding ring now that Sarah is no more.


Val 05.07.15 at 1:35 am

The scary mommy link doesn’t seem to work for me, keeps messing up my system (ha ha).

As a mother of three girls and now grandmother to four boys (I know, weird, nature balancing I suppose), I have very complicated thoughts on this. I think there is a lot of similarity, and some differences, but how much of those differences are ‘natural’ and how much created by us (family/society) I find it hard to tell. I do think that my grandsons are more spontaneously interested, on the whole, in cars and lego than my daughters were, though one of my daughters was pretty interested in cars, etc.

(Hope I’m not repeating myself, but I gave her – via ‘father christmas’ – a toy car at the cricket club’s christmas do one year, and the looks from some of the other mothers there were – interesting.)

As a family, we’re within the bounds of what is ‘normal’ for our society I suppose (apart from giving little girls toy cars for Christmas anyway) but certainly not heavily into gender stereotypes, so I tend to think there is something real in the differences I observe between my grandsons and my daughters. Those differences not a big deal though, compared with how generally loveable and interesting and intriguing and occasionally infuriating they all are/were as little children.

This stuff (what’s discussed in the OP) is such a drag, and it seems to be getting worse in some ways – certainly gender stereotyping of clothes and toys is worse now than when my kids were little.

I read some interesting research once – when ultrasounds were relatively new, there was some research on perceptions of unborn babies depending whether their sex was known or not, and as I recall, women who knew they were expecting boys tended to perceive their pregnancy as more difficult (don’t know if I can find it again, but I think there was a control group where the sex was known by ultrasound but the mothers had chosen not know it, and this didn’t happen with them). There seems to be a deeply embedded perception that boys are more ‘difficult’.

Two of my sisters had only boys and they used to drive me nuts with their continual suggestions that I sat around all day eating chocolates while they worked so hard. ‘But boys are just so much more difficult, Val’. My girls may have been a little less ‘physical’ than my grandsons (or nephews) in some ways, but they sure knew how to make a mess. They were fabulous at it. The grandsons haven’t begun to compete on that one yet.


JanieM 05.07.15 at 1:51 am

Val’s mention of perceptions reminds me of a phenomenon that bemuses me in a different way. I don’t have any grandchildren (so far), but I have two nephews who each have two daughters. Everyone in the lives of those children refers to them as “the girls” every single time a reference is made. I’ve heard this in other families as well, and I’m always wondering: how does it change their perception of themselves from what it might be if they were referred to in a gender-neutral way instead. I had a boy and a girl, and they were always “the kids” or “the children” if we weren’t using their names.

Among my children’s childhood friends there were four families within reach with all boys. Three of those families had two boys, and I don’t ever remember hearing about “the boys” — their parents referred to them by their names. The other family had three boys and they were sometimes “the boys.” Of course, this is too small a sample to mean much — it might be idiosyncratic, it might be generational, whatever. But I do wonder whether being referred to constantly according to your gender, as my great-nieces are, has a different effect from being referred to in a gender-neutral way.


Val 05.07.15 at 1:53 am

And when I think about it, even the ‘less physical’ stuff is only true in some ways. Looking back, the leaders in grabbing stuff off shelves in the supermarket, or turning somersaults on grandma’s bed (one boy cousin through the window), or leaping from the window sill (one daughter broken bone in foot), or deciding they really could walk back to the camp site by themselves (one daughter and one boy cousin frighteningly lost, thankfully not for long) or knocking one’s self out on a ski trip – were either definitely, or most likely, the girls.

Maybe I’m just a crap parent!


Val 05.07.15 at 2:08 am

@13 Ha ha and here I am referring to them as “the girls”. I think possibly when you have three the same gender you do maybe do that more, however it is context dependent – in this case I am calling them “the girls” rather than eg “the kids” because we are talking about gender.

I can’t say anecdotally whether people are more or less likely to refer girls or boys as the girls or the boys, haven’t really noticed if so.


Tom West 05.07.15 at 2:25 am

The point of articles like these is to foster a sense of recognition of common sufferance by women who are not particularly positively inclined towards the sort of behaviour cited in these articles. By making boys the “other”, it allows them to more easily accept behaviour that they would otherwise find troubling.

As such, it probably makes life slightly easier for these women and their children.

The obvious question is the whether the good that articles like this do in in making mothers more accepting of childhood behaviour outweigh the harm they cause by reinforcing stereotypes (“but my daughter acts like this, what’s wrong with her?”).

More interestingly, I wonder whether such articles could be rewritten to use “child as alien” rather than “boy as alien” and still retain its effectiveness. It would certainly be more challenging to write, which is why you likely see far fewer such articles. Certainly, articles that I occasionally read that are about parenting children that are fundamentally different from you usually don’t have a breezy tone of commiseration.


delagar 05.07.15 at 2:29 am

I think the point of the gravy boat thing is that boys are such noble savages that they don’t even use dishes (unless forced by mom) so why would they even know what a gravy boat is, much less want to inherit one?

That’s the point of the follow-up bit, about them wanting to eat Thanksgiving dinner out of the basting pan, standing in the kitchen (presumably naked, and with their bare hands, and grunting).

Meanwhile: I have one kid, a daughter, who hates to shop; wears nothing but jeans; never hit anyone in her life; swears like a sailor; has put (so far) three separate holes through my drywall; eats like a field hand; and wouldn’t know a gravy boat from a fishing boat.

I refute her thus.


ZM 05.07.15 at 2:54 am

I feel I have to say a word in favour of gravy boats – I do not have a gravy boat but generally if you like china the gravy boat is a very good piece, often prettily decorated and turned plus it especially reminds you of special shared family or extended family roast meals. Even if you don’t eat meat you can make a delicious vegetable gravy to go with a lovely nut roast. The platter is also a similar nice piece of china to go with the gravy boat.

Helen : “To quote Fine, “Although it it true that primatologists regularly uncover hitherto unknown skills in our nonhuman cousins, the art of heated cuisine is not yet one of them.” ”
In anthropology I think Levi Strauss makes cooking food one of the foundations of something being culture rather than nature.


Tom West 05.07.15 at 3:20 am

Who do you pass your stuff down to if there’s no one of the proper gender to inherit it?

I read this as a mourning for the fact that none of her children give any evidence of sharing any interest in an artifact of personal significance for her. Now realistically, there’d be a fairly high chance that her daughter would not either, but by relating this lack of interest as ‘boy’ thing, it becomes far easier for her deal with the lack of deeper personal connection that she had hoped for with her children.


Peter T 05.07.15 at 3:22 am

I’ve raised one boy and three girls. Gender stood out much less than personality – as Fine documents, the overlaps are much larger than the differences.

One thing relevant with the current teenage girl is that the “what gender/sexual preference am I?” thing is much more prominent (friends with similar age children tell me the same, but the sample is restricted to middle-class liberal-minded Australians) . It’s not so much that any particular flavour is a problem, as that there is so much more on offer and so, absent any strong preference, the choice is prolonged.


Rakesh 05.07.15 at 3:28 am

Yes, I find Cordelia Fine more persuasive than Melvin Konner


Val 05.07.15 at 3:36 am

Tom West @ 19
You seem to be reading all this in a way which is superficially kind of nice and generous, but more deeply seems to be minimising or ignoring all the real and complex problems of gender to which women here are testifying.

Not mansplaining exactly but something which maybe needs its own word? There was a nice article by a man I read somewhere the other day in which he said that basically he (and a lot of other men) find it hard to take it seriously when women/their female partners get upset about issues. Their initial (even if unspoken) response is ‘it’s not that serious/you’re reading too much into/worrying too much about it’ sort of thing.

Which is not to say there isn’t maybe some truth in your reading. Just not all of it.


Val 05.07.15 at 3:50 am

Actually! – more research – we had a visiting professor from Ireland here the other day, and she was talking (based on a lot of research) about how as Irish family farms become more dependent on the external income provided mainly by women, the women themselves, in their ‘caring’ role, seem inclined to reinforce the traditional masculine farmer identity of their husbands: ‘of course he’s the one who knows about the farm’ kind of stuff.

I think maybe this worrying social trend of exaggerating sex/gender difference of children should also be read in the context of social anxiety about the decline of the traditional masculine/breadwinner and feminine/supportive roles?


Dr. Hilarius 05.07.15 at 3:55 am

No need for my mother’s gravy boat but do wish I’d caught the gravy train.


Marshall 05.07.15 at 4:44 am

Sometimes a gravy boat is just a gravy boat.


Helen 05.07.15 at 4:55 am

But I do wonder whether being referred to constantly according to your gender, as my great-nieces are, has a different effect from being referred to in a gender-neutral way.

You’re not the only one, JanieM; Google “stereotype threat”.


Tom West 05.07.15 at 4:58 am

Val #22, my apologies. I did not intend for my attempts to understand the thinking of the authors of the two cited pieces to be mistaken for a dismissal of the concerns of Ms. Sorenson. Ms. Sorenson and others were quite eloquent about the problems of the cited articles.

More to the point, I hope no-one here conflates (my presumed) understanding of thought process and motivation with approval.


Val 05.07.15 at 5:20 am

@ 27 – thanks Tom, I didn’t read what you said as offensive and I agree there is an underlying way in which many of these concerns can be seen independently of gender – a mother or a father might feel sad that their children don’t relate to them in the way they expected or hoped, and I guess your earlier comment @ 16 was suggesting one way of making sense of this is to say ‘oh it’s because they’re a different sex to me’, but even if so, that still just doesn’t capture so many of the complexities around gender.

To take a few questions – the OP, some anecdotes here and the research I discussed all suggest women may be inclined to see boys as ‘difficult’ – is this just because of ‘difference’, or because of patriarchy, say?

I knew one woman once who had a boy and then had a baby girl, and she almost became hostile towards the little boy. It’s quite common for parents to feel I guess more strongly affectionate towards the baby and get a bit impatient with the older sibling, but hostility is different. This woman’s husband was dominating and impatient and she ended up leaving him for someone else some years later.

I think in general women in patriarchal or male dominated societies or relationships might put up with it, but might also have a lot of unresolved anger about it, and that can perhaps come out towards little boys – as well as exaggerated valuing of little boys, or even at the same time, because people are complex.

There seems to be a social trend at present towards exaggerated gender differentiation eg as in the OP but also in kids’ toys and clothes – is this a reactive thing, or is a protective thing due to social change – ie there is significant material and political movement towards equality in certain ways and it makes people uneasy – or even, it is particularly threatening to men and women are in some way trying to protect men by exaggerating masculine identity?


magistra 05.07.15 at 6:21 am


I’m inclined to see it as a protective thing – the classic example for me is the pink rugby ball for girls I saw in a shop a few years ago. You can decry the pinkification of everything these days, but while you might not have had colour-coding of sports equipment when I was growing up in the 1970s, the idea that girls might play rugby was unthinkable. And although children’s clothing was far more unisex in colour in the 1970s, I remember the sexual stereotypes about career choice and subjects one could do were far stronger. So I think children’s toys and clothes may be an attempt to re-create difference in a society where there’s far less of it than there once was.

And could you let us know the name of the researcher you heard speaking on Irish farms? It sounds interesting work.


Belle Waring 05.07.15 at 6:51 am

Even if this woman clung to the most dated gender-stereotypes in the world her gravy-boat should still come out OK as long as the boys grow up able to work and love, right? Her future daughter-in-laws could care about the gravy boat. Or son-in-laws? My sister-in-law is not a person who is interested in such a piece of china. Not merely because she’s a vegetarian; it’s just not her thing, also, to have unneeded stuff lying around. Whereas I have expressed (and I swear this is true) actual interest in an actual gravy boat, which forms part of my mother-in-law’s china. And all the china generally. This pleases her. Yay family china, who doesn’t want it? Other people, apparently. All the more china for me then. Not in my family, though; it my family it will be round-robin choosing of china with possible arguments. That’s how you ever get any really old china to begin with, isn’t it? Not the bickering, per se, the keeping. I assure you my brother will probably have first dibs on the gravy boat because he makes an excellent gravy. The magnificent bastard! It’s too excellent! Only now do I see through his years-long, caramelized roasting-pan-deglazing schemes! Yet may any such day of reckoning be far off…


Emma in Sydney 05.07.15 at 7:29 am

Great post and discussion. Having raised 5, 3 boys and 2 girls, I agree with the poster up thread that personality is far more salient than gender. Having a set of male twins can be clarifying ( as well as exhausting). There is also something in the idea of a desperate tightening of gender presentation as real differences diminish. But my hunch is that some of it as the dwindling in family size. When you only have two, you see much less variation within gender. All differences get attributed to gender, where in a family of five or six, mousy little Alice’s interests might be seen in connection with the quietest of her brothers. Or sporty tough Susan might be a role model for her youngest of four brothers. If you see what I mean.
Sounds like lots of you have great kids!


reason 05.07.15 at 7:35 am

Tom West @19
OP “I don’t own a gravy boat and am confident that my two daughters would show no interest in it whatsoever.”

“I read this as a mourning for the fact that none of her children give any evidence of sharing any interest in an artifact of personal significance for her.”

She mourned about not being able to pass on a non-existent gravy boat?

Personal note, when my great aunt died I inherited a frying pan.


reason 05.07.15 at 7:40 am

I would have thought the big issue with being the mother of only boys, was not the boys themselves, but being the odd one out in the nuclear family. There are experiences that are gendered – and you don’t get to pass them on (maybe the gravy boat IS a symbol for that).


reason 05.07.15 at 7:40 am

As the father of only girls, I get the experience the other way around.


Belle Waring 05.07.15 at 8:34 am

John lives as the lone man in a female-majority household. We have a live-in helper as I have mentioned before, and she is…a she. Then there are our two daughters, our cat, and me. I actually count for two normal women due to my uppity behavior.
reason, a frying pan is an AWESOME thing to inherit. Again, in my dad’s household, one of the main things we’ll hypothetically fight over after my dad dies (long off, insh’allah) is the cast-iron cookware, much of it inherited from my step-mom’s mom and step-dad and her father, all of them superlative cooks. There is a flat griddle pan for hoecakes that makes the best grilled-cheese sandwiches in the world. I’m not sure whether we fight about the art first or the frying pans. My dad has a steel omelette pan seasoned to non-stick type perfection simply through years of use. So beautiful; you tip it up and the omelette fairly rolls itself onto the plate.
I get grief about my reproductive choices not infrequently from Singaporean cab-drivers who say I’m still young and should be trying to have a boy. I have thought it would be nice to have a boy because John is such a good dad and I know a lot of men who never learned how to be a grown, kind, dependable man because they only had shitty models. But it’s not like having a great dad isn’t good for girls! My second pregnancy was so awful I made everyone promise to tell me I said I would never, EVER do this again (good idea on my part apparently, because like 2 years later I started saying, “hey what about another baby” and everyone in the family looked at me like “you can’t be serious.” I think my brain decided to overwrite the contents of that file with a diaper ad or something.) So girls we have and girls we love!


Philip 05.07.15 at 8:53 am

The boys are more difficult trope along with other such as: ‘man-flu’, ‘men can’t multi task’, ‘male brain’, ‘all men are somewhere on the spectrum’, ‘lazy chauvinist pigs’, ‘all men are bastards’, and ‘boys develop/mature less quickly than boys’ are all negative stereotypes often made by women against men. This used to annoy me as I didn’t want these assumptions made about me, the last one particularly got on my nerves when I was at school. Then I realised all they were doing was serving to excuse bad or unreasonable behaviour by men, as they were said with the implication of ‘well boys will be boys’, so it now it annoys me even more and it’s good to hear these views being challenged.

Neither me nor my two older sisters have a particular interest in china so I feel that I have an equal claim to any gravy boats. I have always enjoyed cooking with my mam so I should have a good claim to a share of pans, utensils and miscellaneous cookware.


Val 05.07.15 at 9:04 am

I in fact have a very old family gravy boat and two platters, and I love them even though being vegetarian. I don’t know if my girls/kids will want them, they sort of like that kind of thing but they don’t love it, like I do.

Professor Sally Shortall, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast, is the person who spoke about the farmers and gender. She’s been studying this for a long time, so lots of interesting stuff about change.


Lynne 05.07.15 at 12:47 pm

“There seems to be a social trend at present towards exaggerated gender differentiation eg as in the OP but also in kids’ toys and clothes”

Yes, I’ve seen that too. I think the worst thing about parents exaggerating perceived gender differences is the effect it must have on the children. How many boys hear their mothers yapping away like the women in the articles quoted and tell themselves they are not like that, so something must be wrong with them? The rise in people questioning their gender doesn’t seem like a coincidence, as I said in Belle’s safe thread.

My boys liked some boyish things like toy cars and transformers, but they also played with the Little Tikes dollhouse at playgroup. We deliberately referred to them as “the kids” rather than “the boys”. I did this more as a discipline to myself, really, to keep front and centre that they were children first, so my own sex-role conditioning wouldn’t crowd in. However, because they had no sisters there were very few girl-designated toys in the house. I bought a tea set and gave each child a cuddly (blue-dressed) doll when he was small, and tried to follow their lead in other presents.

I really don’t know what differences there would be between boys and girls in a completely non-sexist environment. Would there be some? I suspect there might be different preferences, in general: that more little boys than little girls would like to play with cars, for instance, but that there would be a lot of overlap. Lots of playing with building toys by both sexes, lots of reading of books….But whatever differences there were, in a non-sexist society they wouldn’t be _significant_ of anything bigger. They wouldn’t mean the child was normal or abnormal/unusual, they would just be part of the variety of humankind. That is what is so destructive about the kind of talk the OP is referencing. Boys are messy, dirty, difficult _because they are boys_. (So if a boy is not those things…..? Judgement ensues.)


parse 05.07.15 at 12:59 pm

The give-away for me that the “mother of only boys” article exists only to reinforce gender stereotypes is that it isn’t required to even attempt to make sense. Even if it were true that the behaviors Anabel Monaghan cites were uniquely found in boys, they would be familiar to mothers of mixed-gender families as well as to mothers who had only male children.

If you stop to think for two seconds, her claim that mothers of boys have time to buy and prepare the food to feed them only because they don’t need to spend time shopping for clothes suggests that mothers who have both boys and girls must leave their boys hungry or their girls naked, as there is not time to meet the stereotypical needs of all their children.


Shantanu 05.07.15 at 1:07 pm

I’m the father of a 4-year old boy who is described by most of the people we meet as “a lovely child”, “very respectful”, “well-behaved”, and many other laudable descriptions. His most annoying trait is the tendency to ask reams of questions, which get ever more detailed and insightful as you try to answer them (I mean, really answer them without brushing him off). His favorite toys are Legos/MegaBloks and wooden train sets of the Brio/Thomas kind, and he’s just discovered Minecraft, so he’s probably going to build things (he keeps telling us he wants to be an engineer when he grows up). His favorite Sunday morning pastime is helping me make waffles for the family. He insists on mixing the ingredients, mashing the blueberries or other fruit we mix in, and setting the table once the waffles start to come off the iron. In his play room are a toy workbench and a toy kitchen set; both get played equally frequently.

My sister’s youngest son, six months my son’s junior, is a scatter-brained child with the attention span of a gnat and impulse control issues that would make Keith Richards look like a paragon of virtue. He only plays stereotypical “boy” toys (preferably guns, superheroes, and the like), but generally only a few minutes at a time.

There is so much difference in their personalities that it is difficult to comprehend how anyone can come up with an omnibus treatise about how to raise boys that could apply to both of them. Yet my mother tries to do so with very little success when she babysits them both, with the inevitable result that my son gets walked all over by his cousin on a regular basis simply because he is so much more pleasant, agreeable, and (dare I say it) mature than his cousin.


TM 05.07.15 at 1:11 pm

Do we truly live in an age of regression or is that an optical illusion created by the internet?


Trader Joe 05.07.15 at 1:18 pm

I have a gravy boat (not heirloom quality) that I find is pretty handy for adding oil to the lawnmower and mixing up weed-killer for the sprayer. The tapered spout is quite handly for pouring into a small opening when a funnel isn’t handy. They are hardly gender neutral.

Just as anoying are the “What Dad’s of girls must understand” which usually find away to be both feminist (Dad’s are too dumb to get it ) and sexist (your little flower needs lots of sunshine) at the same time.

It seems like to me the point is to figure out how to have a constructive relationship with your kids whatever way they are. Regardless of sex there are going to be areas where a parent can form a natural and constructive bond and areas where there are going to be disconnects. Secondly, these articles always assume that the parent is the only actor in the formation of these bonds – the kid has a role to play too and will develop and interest, or not, in gravy boats, rugby or anything else according to their own disposition. If parenting were as easy as “do X and get Y” the world would be a quite different (and probably much duller) place.


Z 05.07.15 at 1:24 pm

I think it’s safe to say that in a completely non-sexist environment, or even in a mildly good approximation thereof, there would be statistically significant difference between boys and girls. However, it is very clear to me that, like Lynne says, these statistical differences would be swamped by individual differences. In fact, it seems clear to me that they already are for kids growing in middle-class western democratic environments and that denying so requires a certain dose of self-deception and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Like Lynne, I particularly resent the general and pervasive role-casting (“Boys are rowdy, messy etc.”) even, in fact especially, in the companion supposedly positive piece linked at the bottom of one of the pieces (“I’ve always preferred the company of men. Their unapologetic honesty, the crude minimalism of their communications, the lovely surprise of their sensitive sides. Maybe when they’re older, your sons won’t call you daily. But when they do, you’ll get right to the heart of the matter. You won’t have to read between the lines. Have boys. Not bullshit.” Unbelievable).

I do think that being the odd one out in a nuclear family can be a strain, but not so many real experiences are gendered when you go straight down to it: always dreamed of playing catch, reading Little Women, building an electric train, cooking a sumptuous cake, going to see Avengers, dressing in extravagant outfits and discussing gravy boats … with your child; I don’t see what’s stopping you, your child might not be into it but that will depend overwhelmingly more on who your child is and on your mutual interactions than on the composition of the 23rd chromosomes.


EmL 05.07.15 at 1:44 pm

It’s interesting to hear so many people being told “boys are so difficult!” I heard the opposite before having my first, “boys are so easy compared to girls,” and it made me a bit sad when I asked why. The implication was usually that boys don’t have rich and complex emotional lives, so phew, bullet dodged there!

I did have a lot of gender stereotypes to unpack though. I assumed that he would bond with his dad and leave me behind, and they’d spend ten or fifteen years playing video games together while I did “girl stuff” on my own, whereas a girl would be a little mini-me. It was good to remember that sharing a sex does not mean sharing a personality, which would eventually be a rude awakening with a girl, and that the the things I like to do (cook, read, run, hike) are things I would love to share with a child regardless of sex. Also, for babies it doesn’t matter! They say parents who don’t learn the sex in utero are more egalitarian, but I guess some of us who are unintentionally sexist can use that time to try to re-educate ourselves.


bianca steele 05.07.15 at 1:45 pm


I think you are taking a humorous essay awfully seriously.

As for what mothers of girls do if they don’t have time to shop for both food and clothes: I suppose they move to warm climates, where you buy clothes because they’ve outgrown them and not because it’s November and you have three weeks to buy snow boots that’ll last til April before they’re gone.

I do see a difference between boys and girls among my daughter’s classmates. I also see a difference between the three year olds who will have had a “diagnosis” by seven and the others (who are by no means consistently more affable than the other group). There are quiet girls and quiet boys. There are chatty girls and chatty boys.


Aimai 05.07.15 at 2:04 pm

I have two daughters. They are very different people, two years and three months apart.We are also very different parents to them. I am quite sure that if the second one had been male we would have been urged to see all the obvious personality differences between them as gendered, rather than just personality differences. Its impossible to run this experiment (child raising) without gender sterotypes interfering because they are the first way that people choose to interpret what they see. If your child bites (female) you get one interpretation and if your child bites (male) you get a different one. Moral meaning and emotional valence are ascribed to the same acts and parents (and society) show greater or lesser tolerance for the same acts when performed by people of different genders. What in girls is seen as a dangerous tendency to wander off is seen, in boys, as a natural and valorized form of courageous exploration. (For example).

I run a new mother’s group and I see people project on to literally helpless blobs of 3 week old babies a plethora of pre-existing gender sterotypes and wishes.


LizardBreath 05.07.15 at 2:08 pm

Everything Aimai says accords with my experience.


Val 05.07.15 at 2:26 pm

Well I’ve read both the linked pieces now, and the other scary momma one about the good things about having boys, and I’ve diagnosed the problem. These three women are deluded. None of the three of them have girls and they are living in some fantasy land where they think little girls are little sweet boring passive creatures who never make messes, get dirty, eat a lot or alternatively refuse food, etc etc etc …

My youngest was a slender angelic-looking little blonde child, no doubt the very image of the saccharine child these women think girls are. She also had a loud voice and the disconcerting habit of using it to yell four letter words in the street, on one well remembered occasion on a Sunday morning in a quiet seaside town when there were quite a few elderly people going to church, and so on.

I think these women just need to get out more.


LizardBreath 05.07.15 at 2:46 pm

You can maintain that sort of delusion while looking right at a little girl. My oldest looked roughly like this, except with better hair, when she was a toddler. And I had one of the funniest afternoons of my life chatting with the mother of a sweet, gentle, diffident little boy the same age, who was talking about how nice it must be for me not to have to deal with the rough and tumble craziness of raising a boy, as I was literally chasing Sally around trying to keep her from hitting Zeke with his own toys. The mother could not look past the stripy dress and mop of adorable curls to see that the gentle little girl she was talking about was literally being way, way too rough with her son. (She’s fifteen now, and much better socialized.)


parse 05.07.15 at 3:08 pm

bianca steele,

I think you are taking a humorous comment awfully seriously.

The jeune recitation of tired stereotypes is often the hallmark of lazy humorists.


CJColucci 05.07.15 at 3:39 pm

My wife was raised in an all-girls family. She and her sister used to gang up on, wrestle, and tickle their nephew, starting in his infancy. They were still doing it as adult women when I started dating my eventual wife-to-be and the nephew was a strapping 6’4″ 16 year-old.
I explained with, for me, unusual tact why this practice was probably no longer a good idea. The issue had never occurred to them, and they seemed genuinely shocked. But they stopped. I don’t think the nephew has ever forgiven me.


bianca steele 05.07.15 at 4:26 pm


Jeune?! Are you saying that’s jeune?

When my daughter was a toddler and pushed over a boy a few months younger than her at playgym, my response was to tell her father not to play the game where she shoves him in the chest and he pretends to fall over. If she’d been a boy, maybe I’d have said “be gentle around the babies” or “be gentle around the girls,” like other moms did. (In a few months, anyway, she realized that playing those games with kids more solidly built than her wasn’t fun anymore. In a few years, I think, some of those moms were also more likely to say “what’s this two year old girl doing in the way of my kid? push her aside and keep going!”)


delagar 05.07.15 at 4:27 pm

I’m also wondering if the whole “boys are so rough, tough, wild, and filled with energy! Such BOYS!” sort of essay is a way to provide cover to the writer (and to other like-minded moms?) for not actually parenting your wild boys?

I mean, energy and running about is one thing. Actually putting holes in walls and punching other kids until they bleed is quite another. The boys-will-be-boys for behavior that doesn’t (usually) get tolerated in girl-children can result in young men who are, to put it mildly, not very tolerable.

I don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, I only have a girl — who is high energy, but doesn’t hit other kids. (Mainly because when she did, as a toddler, I made her stop.)

I do have nephews, though, one of whom did (does) a lot of hitting, and one who didn’t (and doesn’t). Neither got much parenting for their behavior. Because boys.


Bloix 05.07.15 at 4:41 pm

#16 Tom West – I do think you’re on to something. One way to read the article is an admission: My God, I hate my sons – what they do, how they think, and all the boring, annoying work I have to do for them.


Barry 05.07.15 at 5:16 pm

Philip: ‘boys develop/mature less quickly than boys’ are all negative stereotypes often made by women against men. ”

I have never seen that accusation made :)


LizardBreath 05.07.15 at 6:23 pm

50: I wonder that specifically in the educational context — that there’s a vicious cycle of low behavioral expectations for boys leading to uncontrolled behavior leading to continued low expectations. The idea that boys are incapable of behaving appropriately in a school setting seems pretty new, and it’s unconvincing to me that it’s innate.


engels 05.07.15 at 6:47 pm

In Britain, at least, there’s also a class dimension to this:

That weekend was the first time I had come across public schoolboys in the mass and I was appalled. They were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy. Public school they might be but they were louts. Seated at long refectory tables beneath the mellow portraits of Tudor and Stuart grandees, neat, timorous and genteel we grammar school boys were the interlopers; these slobs, as they seemed to me, the party in possession.


Philip 05.07.15 at 6:47 pm

Barry, that should be less quickly than girls :-)


armando 05.07.15 at 7:07 pm

I thought that part of the point of the “boys will be boys” rhetoric is that male children, being all rough and tumble, rugged and spirited, therefore require less affection, care and physical comfort than female children. Certainly, I believe that male children receive those things less, and the “boys will be boys” stance is a good match for justifying that.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that boys are rougher. I am saying that parents probably want to convince themselves of that if they are subsequently going to treat them with less compassion. Which, on average, they do (lots of studies support this view).


Tom West 05.07.15 at 7:29 pm

Val #28

There seems to be a social trend at present towards exaggerated gender differentiation eg as in the OP but also in kids’ toys and clothes – is this a reactive thing, or is a protective thing due to social change – ie there is significant material and political movement towards equality in certain ways and it makes people uneasy – or even, it is particularly threatening to men and women are in some way trying to protect men by exaggerating masculine identity?

My reading is that articles like this *are* push-back against progress in reducing stereotyping.

My meta-take is that the human brain has a difficult time coping with correlation that is *between* 0 and 1. Hence there’s strong instinctual pressure to see correlations of, say, 0.3 (number made up, but where gender differences are swamped by individual differences) as 1.0, where any deviation is seen as ‘weird’ or ‘unnatural’.

To combat this instinctive stereotyping (and to make a just society) requires constant social correctives. I think we’ll be fighting some level of sexism forever because our brains are essentially stereotyping engines, although I think we can (and have) pushed to reduce this instinct to a much lower level base level.

One necessary method of addressing sexism is to treat (legally and socially) the correlation as 0. Unfortunately, this strikes a number of people as at variance from their observations, and they push back. And often they push back with “since you’re wrong about correlation being 0, the correlation must be 1.” I think this is what’s at play in the more recent “boys are different” sentiment.

I don’t know how to address this, as I think any official acknowledgment of a correlation of > 0 becomes an general social assumption of correlation of 1. Our brains just don’t seem to want to deal with fractional correlations.

So I figure we just muddle through, acting and legislating as if correlation is 0, shoot down the most obvious examples of people yelling “correlation = 1” and push those we interact with personally into non-sexist behaviour.

Not perhaps the most optimistic take, and I may well be wrong, but it allows me a assume people’s good faith even as I think their opinions are utterly wrong.


Lynne 05.07.15 at 7:37 pm

LizardBreath, in our school district acting out is seen as one possible indicator of giftedness, which may help explain why twice as many boys as girls are identified as gifted. As has been pointed out, a certain amount of acting out by boys is accepted, tolerated, expected even, while it is not accepted, tolerated or expected in girls. One teacher explained the difference between our son, who had been identified as gifted after attending a program for this purpose, and a bright girl in the class who had attended the same program but was not so identified, by explaining her brightness as “teacher-pleasing.”

We had to do a fair amount of advocating for our sons in school, but we would have had to do much more if they had been daughters.


Emma in Sydney 05.07.15 at 9:54 pm

Not sure why my highly innocuous comment needed moderating. Could someone check?


TM 05.08.15 at 12:43 am

61: Shocking.

Maybe relevant in that context that there is a sort of movement towards recognizing boys as the disadvantaged gender, now that females have consistently better grades and outnumber males in higher education. I don’t know enough to comment on this trend, if it is a trend, maybe others have insights?


Tom West 05.08.15 at 2:53 am

Lynne, at least in our area, the gifted program was a branch of special education meant to address the awkward situation where the student was thriving academically, but had substantial deficits in other areas. The term “severely gifted” was used quite seriously.

(I remember the board looking for 95th percentile or higher in some areas and below 5th percentile in others as candidates for the gifted program.)

I have no idea if this is the case in your board (I gather being ‘gifted’ is a good thing in many US boards), but it’s one possible explanation as to why fewer girls show up in gifted classes in some areas.

As for “teacher pleasing”, conscientiousness is generally considered a far more valuable trait than intelligence, although not nearly as glamorous. Can’t see why on earth it would keep one from an enriched class. That seems idiotic. After all, a conscientious student is *far* more likely to succeed academically.


js. 05.08.15 at 3:05 am

JanieM @11,

Thanks. That makes a lot of sense.


Lynne 05.08.15 at 12:35 pm

@49 I can so see this!


Lynne 05.08.15 at 12:36 pm

@63 My sons are in their 20s now. Even when they were in elementary school there was talk of boys being disadvantaged in school, but I never saw it.


Lynne 05.08.15 at 12:40 pm

Tom West, I am in Ontario, Canada. I believe these programs vary from one school board to another within the province. Yes, it was meant to be a good thing for a child to be identified as gifted. A child might be thriving academically, or not. S/he might have other deficits, or not. Children’s IQs weren’t measured. The people in charge of the program were quite coy about what it meant to be gifted and need enrichment, and there was no consensus among regular teachers on what purpose was served by enrichment, which at any rate only went to grade 8. Nor was there any effort to make a good transition to high school for kids who’d been in the enrichment class.


bianca steele 05.08.15 at 1:26 pm

Gifted in the U.S., I believe, is more like what Lynne describes for Ontario: high IQ, in theory not especially excellent school achievement, partly justified on statistics showing high drop-out rates, etc., for high-IQ students. In practice, good grades end up being required, and high test scores all round, which keeps out some: in my school there should probably have been more recent immigrants, more attitude problems. And there were in fact dutiful kids, boys and girls, who got high grades but weren’t in the program. And those who “didn’t test well.” In big urban districts they probably serve a different purpose than in affluent suburbs. I suspect there’s a blind men and elephant aspect to how the programs are viewed by different parts of the system; there are Internet rumors that the rise in special-ed diagnoses these days is causing suggestions like “your kid has ADHD, so I think that rules out a gifted diagnosis.” Statements like the one Tom W. quotes, I think, do suggest that “gifted” is the same kind of diagnosis as those, and therefore mutually exclusive.

Also, doesn’t everyone buy crew socks in bulk? They come in packages of ten!


Tom West 05.08.15 at 4:22 pm

believe these programs vary from one school board to another within the province.

I didn’t realize that! No wonder one hears conflicting reports. And yes, my information comes from one of the few teachers who was willing to lay out what the “gifted” program was used for (at the time). Also got to hear what happened when a few academically-talented, highly socially-adept children got entrance into a gifted class. As might be expected, the results weren’t ideal for the rest of the somewhat socially hapless kids.

Although as you mentioned, they were facing integration in grade 7 or 9 anyway. Still a few more years respite would have been nice.

Bianca, my limited observation was that the gifted class had a lot of high-functioning autistic kids who were being eaten alive in their own schools.

My son’s primary school was superlative in handling his challenges, so we didn’t see any reason to pursue the gifted program, although teachers often remarked on the difficulty of getting support for kids who weren’t failing everything. My favourite quote from a board rep: “If I allocate any support money to your son, they’ll put *me* in special ed.” Luckily, the schools principal and teachers were *amazing*. My son lucked out. Also, the school had a French immersion program that drained most of the social-adept alphas out of the English program where he was located (at least for that year).


LizardBreath 05.08.15 at 4:55 pm

My sons are in their 20s now. Even when they were in elementary school there was talk of boys being disadvantaged in school, but I never saw it.

It’s not nothing, I don’t think — I don’t know if I’d call what I’ve seen a net disadvantage for boys, but there are gender-role based differences in how the same behavior gets treated that can have negative impacts. My kids are a lot like each other, and they both tend to a sort of energetic helpfulness that can maybe be a little officious, and is definitely a sort of attention-seeking. My daughter, in grade school, on the basis of this trait, got adopted by most of her teachers as a pet/errand runner/best kid ever — she got the attention she was looking for and was rewarded for it. My son, on the other hand, got squelched for the same sort of behavior: when she saw something helpful to do and did it without being asked, she was adorably useful and such a good kid; when he did something similar, he was disobedient and out of his seat without permission. (Because, as we all know from first principles, girls are naturally well-behaved, and boys are out of control.)

I don’t think it did him much if any harm, but at least with my kids’ teachers, there were types of positive attention that were much easier for a girl to get than a boy.


bianca steele 05.08.15 at 5:38 pm


It sounds like your school’s program was quite different from ours, in a school where there was no overlap between good students and jocks, though the effects of parental money and education among the very few who had them (and for whatever reason had remained at a public school within the city limits) were obvious: only boys FWIW, as most “socially adept” middle-class girls didn’t want to be on AP track. In the seventies I doubt there was much awareness of autism, and from what my dad had said, the one LD/ED class had an enormous range of disabilities in it.

In our district gifted encompassed the top 13 percent nationally, not quite alpha range, and frankly was an alternate to offering more advanced classes, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, which was opposed on principle. It was an hour or two a week and didn’t offer significant academic work outside the arts and (later) the new computer terminal. There may have been autistic kids there, but thirty years ago, who would have known?


Lynne 05.08.15 at 6:35 pm

“I don’t know if I’d call what I’ve seen a net disadvantage for boys, but there are gender-role based differences in how the same behavior gets treated that can have negative impacts.”

Yes, those existed in my kids’ school, too, and sometimes had a negative impact on the girls, and sometimes on the boys.


JanieM 05.08.15 at 8:31 pm

Emma in Sydney: But my hunch is that some of it as the dwindling in family size. When you only have two, you see much less variation within gender.

Yes. And I think there’s a similar phenomenon from a different angle.

I once participated in a workshop world that started out as general conflict resolution and citizen diplomacy-type stuff and evolved into workshop variations that were ostensibly focused on gender. As one of the very few gay people in that world, I could see right away that a lot of what people were automatically attributing to gender wasn’t actually gender stuff, it was relationship stuff. I think people were making that mistake because almost everyone participating was heterosexual, including the people who designed and ran the workshops. Since people in relationships tend to polarize around various axes, and these people had only ever been in relationships with the opposite gender, they attributed all the polarizing to gender and essentialized it.

As someone who had (has) been in relationships with both men and women, I can testify to the fact that the way we polarize in relationships can be all over the map. Sometimes I was accused of being the cold-hearted rational one, sometimes the over-emotional one, while in each case the other person self-identified with the opposite pole.

Anyhow, as usual the topic is too big for a comment box. I do agree with whoever said, somewhere above, that maybe statistically we have stronger tendencies toward one or another quality because of our gender, but that’s a description; the problem comes when it turns — as it almost always does — into a prescription.


Tom West 05.09.15 at 12:48 pm

Emma, JanieM: Thanks for the insight. That’s a fascinating explanation that had never occurred to me that feels highly plausible.


Colin 05.09.15 at 7:29 pm

A somewhat trivial comment in this interesting discussion: there are gender-neutral words in common usage in English for most familial relationships, with the exception of nephew/niece and aunt/uncle (and derived forms). Is there something uniquely gendered about a person’s relationship with their parent’s sibling?


reason 05.11.15 at 7:12 am

Emma in Sydney,
yes diminishing family size has lots of effects, and that is probably one of them. (A big one is that smaller families mean that kids on average are much more intensively parented than they used to be. Maybe this means that parents used to care less about the possibility of differing parenting styles for different kids, gender based or otherwise.)


ZM 05.11.15 at 11:56 pm


It works in the opposite way too – that girls should not be out of control. I was reminiscing with a childhood friend’s mother the other day and she said she and my mother had talked about us being somewhat out of control as children. When friendships became more gender based I always felt like it was a great difficulty being polite like a girl when I was happy to be polite and like tea parties some of the time but not all of the time.

But this was in the era of Marmelade Atkins on children’s t.v. so there were other than polite role models for girls.

A high school friend said a while ago she thought I was rebellious because I had detention every day for a semester in year 8 for not wearing a uniform. This was because childhood friends had been suspended for not wearing a uniform – but our school did not have an official uniform policy so I just went in jeans each day until they went through the official process of making a schools uniform policy.

The teachers would have to remember to write my name each day in the detention book for not wearing uniform. Sometimes they would forget. Most of the teachers still made me have detention anyway even when they forgot the procedure – except for the teacher who was known as the strictest in the school who when my name wasn’t on the detention list said I was not to be in detention.


Emma in Sydney 05.12.15 at 12:51 am

@reason, I agree about more intense parenting in smaller families. It is also a factor that these fewer kids are generally very close together in age. Speaking from my own experience, when you have a baby and a toddler, the teenagers in the house get a lot more freedom and responsibility, out of necessity, and because it is obvious that they are capable of helping and managing their own lives, compared to the littlies. I am constantly amazed at my colleagues who drive 17 year olds everywhere, and generally expect infantile behaviour from them.
@JanieM, absolutely right! As a straight woman who self-presents fairly butch I have seen this also. I try not to use gender in constructing my mental shorthand stereotypes, but most people seem to.


Val 05.13.15 at 5:57 am

probably no-one’s reading any more, but I found the gravy boats

(actually sauce boats, but maybe they’ll do?)

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