It happened on Christmas Day this year. My son was showing everyone the Wonder Woman Pez dispenser he’d just unwrapped, when one of my (female!) relatives scoffed, “That’s for girls.” Thankfully, there were plenty of us on-hand to refute that claim, but the statement was out there. And my four-year-old’s brain is like a sponge. It seems like a little thing, but raising a child is all about little things, which can sometimes turn into bigger things later on.
We’ve all seen the statistics: that only three mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by women, that men commit more than ninety per cent of all murders, and are more likely to drink to excess, to suffer from anger disorders and undiagnosed mental illness, and to commit suicide. We’ve read about (and, all-too-often, experienced first-hand) the denigration and harassment and assault from men who feel entitled to women’s bodies and/or compelled to assert their dominance. And by now, we’ve all heard the term to describe what many (including this author) consider the root of this crisis: toxic masculinity. Just as there are social constructs that limit girls and women, boys and men face their own lifelong struggle. They’re taught not to show emotion, to solve conflicts with violence, to devalue authentic friendships, to refuse help, to view women as objects and conquests. And above all, to not appear or act feminine. (For more information on this issue, the documentary “The Mask You Live In” is a must-see.)
So, what can we do? As a writer, I’m trying to examine and dispel gender stereotypes in my work; my chapter book series, THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, addresses a different aspect of toxic masculinity in each story: the first is about the façade of male toughness; the second, The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, is about admitting fears and different definitions of bravery; the third will be about personal connection and empathy; and the fourth will be about accepting help. While the main goal in my writing is always to entertain, I’m hoping these stories also encourage further thought and even discussion.
As parents, my husband and I are committed to raising our son without gender limitations, and while we champion equality, we are honest with him that our world has a long way to go. We encourage his interests, which are currently cars, butterflies, reading, music, cooking, geography, the weather, rainbows, glitter…and yes, Pez. We remind him that everyone’s body is their own territory — and while we love that he’s affectionate, we also remind him to ask before hugging someone, and that everyone has a right to say no. We praise him when he expresses his feelings in a healthy way and makes other “good choices” in his behaviors, and we make sure we model those behaviors, too, including solving conflicts peacefully (well, as peacefully as we can!) and apologizing and admitting when we are wrong. And we foster empathy — particularly through the books he reads. In honor of #WomensHistoryMonth, here are just a few of our current woman-powered favorites:
The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill
Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis
Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
Windows by Julia Denos, illustrated by E.B. Goodale
The Duck, Duck, Porcupine books by Salina Yoon
The Charlie and Mouse books by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes
I Am Enough by Grace Byers, illustrated by Ketara A. Bobo
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
Why Am I Me by Paige Britt, illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls
Please feel free to comment with other titles (even books for older readers, as I am starting to collect those for him, too) you think might further this cause. And of course, I welcome any other suggestions you might have for raising healthy, empathetic boys. As my husband and I tell our son, none of us is perfect, and we all need help sometimes — even (and especially!) grownups.
(The photo above is of my son, enjoying a gentle moment with one of his butterfly friends.)