Little Bear was at the playground yesterday, when a younger munchkin fell over and hurt her knee. The parent swooped up their little girl as the tears started rolling. Little Bear became transfixed by the hurting baby, giving a look that resembled a struggle with constipation. His little awkward anxious grin stared at the baby until she calmed down. A few awkward steps towards the baby: “Is it ok Pappa?” “Yes, Little Bear, the baby was sad but she’s had a cuddle and is ok now”. He then runs off to throw himself recklessly down the nearest slide.
On top of this, Little Bear’s started to hug his friends when they get upset. Given his repulsion to hugs and kisses from grown-ups until recently, this is a little surprising. True, his attempts to comfort his friends are not always welcomed, and he isn’t exactly over the moon when they try and hug him mid-melt-down (it interrupts his flow). But Little Bear has sussed that it’s not good when his friends are sad, and that he might be able to help them. Of course, most kids should start doing this at this age, but I’m pointing it out because with boys, we often miss it, or even accidentally discourage it.
I’ve noticed parents and grandparents use the phrase ‘Little Mummy’ on more than a few occasions. When little girls run over to Little Bear and try and help him up a ladder or show him how to push a trolley, us parents quietly sit back, smile and heap on praise for how careful and lovely she’s being. We do this to the point that when the occasional girl is actually just trying to quietly remove said trolley from Little Bear so she can play with it herself, we don’t notice because we assume that she’s being nurturing (when she’s clearly not).
But what about when a boy goes near Little Bear? My instincts put my back up, ready to step in and block the violent potential of these older toddlers towards my offspring. A few weeks ago I was convinced that a little boy was trying to take Little Bear’s toy hammer away from him so I swooped in closer, only to see that he was trying to teach my little troll how to hold and use it. Why was I assuming the worst, and why did I miss the little girl who was trying to steel Little Bear’s trolley?
Handing Little Bear a dolly at our local play group, he dragged it over to the play cot, but it down, patted it on the head and started saying “sleep baby” to it. I don’t think it’s possible to be prouder than I was at that moment. “Ah, you being a good daddy to the baby”. Cue a host of mums and grandmas to look up from what they’re doing in surprise at the sentence and smile at its novelty. I have no doubt that if I’d praised him for being a good mummy, no-one would have noticed.
Do boys care less?
Using the latest research, it is very difficult to suggest that there are innate differences between baby boys and girls, especially when it comes to nurturing behaviour. Babies of both sexes appear equally empathetic. It’s not until they start picking up gender cues that the need to be a ‘nice girl’ or that they’re being a ‘typical boy’ that they start to change their behaviour.
And this isn’t just parents telling girls to be gentle and cautious and encouraging boys to be rough and risky, kids pick up gender from every aspect of their increasingly social lives. They start recognising that they’re one sex or the other since they pick up that it’s the most obvious social difference they have to work with. So we’re expecting little girls to play mum, even when they’re not, and we’re surprised when little boys show empathetic, nurturing and caring behaviour because we think of it as ‘girly’.
Plenty of times I’ve seen a parent step in to stop her daughter throwing a doll on the floor, then explain (rightly) that she should be nice to the baby and take care of it. I’ve not seen a parent do this to their sons yet. They normally laugh and point out he’s being a ‘typical boy’.
Yes empathy, like language, requires a lot of things that are innate in us, that are ‘biological’. But empathy, like language, also needs to be taught. We’re doing our sons a big disservice when we don’t step in to praise and encourage their nurturing behaviour, and gently nudge them away from being pushy or mean to kids who are younger than them.
A month ago, a boy, around 6, ran up to Little Bear, and pretended to punch him, all the while looking at his little friend smiling. It’s easy to call the 6 year old a little s*it and scare him off. But he was just trying to perform ‘like a boy’ to show off to his mate. Instead, a gentle reminder that that’s not what we do to babies, and that in fact us boys need to look after babies, changed this little kids whole demeanour. I then watched as the 6 year old took Little Bear by the hand, and happily started taking him around the playground helping him on the play equipment. All the while looking at me for approval. “Is this what us boys are meant to do?” Yes, that’s exactly what boys and men are meant to do.
Unfortunately after only 3 minutes of him being kind to Little Bear his mum woke up and ran over to him to tell him off for ‘bothering the baby’, and that he needed to ‘stay away from the babies’. Without a doubt had the kid been a girl, the parent would have encouraged her to carry on playing with Little Bear.
The sad thing is, that the lack of real difference in empathy between girls and boys starts to wane the more sensitive they get to what is expected of them as ‘boys’. They start to lose their caring side at school age as they try to prove how ‘non-girl’ they are. Not in the womb, not by some accident of their chromosomes, but when they pick up the idea that boys shouldn’t be caring so much.
Kids a looking for cues from us not just about who they are, but about what they should do. Putting extra effort into teaching boys the same way we teach girls about caring and nurturing will change the way they view the world.
Of course, kids don’t just listen to what we say. In fact, the stronger influence on them is what we do. They watch us, all the time. Like cameras in the Big Brother house, there is no escaping their gaze. And all this watching adds up to them trying to learn and copy our behaviour. Men being more empathetic and nurturing around boys is going to change what boys and girls expect of the male sex for the better.
It’s not that boys will become socio-paths because we don’t praise them for caring behaviour. The hormones men get when they bond with their baby can make them into good and empathetic parents. The danger is that we’re inadvertently telling boys that nurturing and caring, especially for babies, is not something they’re ‘meant’ to do as men. It’s only for girls.
Teaching boys that will limit what they expect of themselves as kids and later on as adults. It could even stop them from being able to nurture, care for and bond with their own kids properly, because they think that the empathy and nurturing stuff is for their partners and not them. I want Little Bear to realise that if one day he becomes a dad, it’s his role to care and be responsible for looking after the baby. I want him to have no barriers when bonding with his kid and other people in his life.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots