I’m not sure that we talked about gender when I was growing up, we just called it sex, which we all now know is not the right term at all. And, come to think of it, if we spoke about sex it was in hushed terms.
When I was growing up boys were expected to be boys, while girls were pretty much meant to be, well pretty I suppose.
When I walked to school from Kenilworth to Wynberg in Cape Town my mother’s only cautionary advice was that if anyone asked me where I lived I was to point to the nearest house and say, ‘there’ and go inside and ask the nice mommy who would be at home to phone my mommy to come and fetch me.
I have one son and two daughters and I often wonder if I have parented them differently along gender lines. I think, feminist though I most certainly am, that I probably have.
I would still advise my girls to turn to a woman in times of threat or trouble, although I have enough experience of the world to know that there are woman around who are not safe havens.
I have baulked from calling my son the man of the house, and am proud that he can bake and cook and knows how to clean the kitchen. I am thrilled that, aged 14, he still asks me to kiss him goodnight.
But I have laid a general trip on him in terms of his behaviour with girls. A case in point his first school social, hear the mother from the dark ages, ‘Do you understand that you can only hold hands, if you want to kiss her you ask her first, no putting your hands up her top, and if she says ‘stop’ she means “stop”’.
See bemused son who had probably not thought anymore of looking at a girl from a distance go crimson and yell at me to ‘stop being gross’. But it wasn’t about trying to make him embarrassed. The overshare from me came from a deeper place: a place that knows that 1 in 4 men will rape or sexually assault a woman and that I want my son to be one of the heroic 3 out of 4 who don’t.
I don’t expect my son to be invincible. I know that he isn’t, given that he was mugged and had his bike and cellphone taken off him. I don’t expect my girls to be vulnerable, I am teaching them to be strong women. I think that I am, but again I am aware that this is with caveats that I never expected to utter. Yes, the genders are different
In the end I suppose that deep down I do believe that there are some different rules for each gender. I think they are equal but different. Girls face the advent of puberty with blood and pain, boys face the pain of having to shower in open cubicles their bodies being watched and judged by their peers.
Girls are allowed to cry, but boys crying? Not so much. When my son had reason to cry recently I panicked so I told him to stop, over and over again. I had got the gender thing wrong again, he was crying because of a tremendous loss and it was right that he should cry. When my girls cried for the same reason I was proud of them they were expressing emotion.
Am I gender confused? On many levels I am. I want my children to know their place in the world as people, but understand that there will be times when gender stereotyping will bring them grief.
And on a daily basis I find myself hoping that I am being a good watchwoman at the gate by biting my tongue on phrases like ‘be a man’ or ‘don’t be such a girl’.
The best I hope for is that I will raise children who are sensitive to the differences and likenesses between the genders. Hopefully they will go into the battle that still exists knowing how to recognise a good human being, man or woman, and know how to be the best people they can be - whether they are girls or boys.
Are boys and girls raised differently? Should they be?