What We Teach Children About Masculinity: Observations from the Beach Towel
Masculinity and Sons
It was my first glorious day on a beautiful, yet busy beach. The waves were gently splashing against the surf, the brilliant sun was anointing me with its golden rays. My midwestern winter-white, eager toes dug into the soft, warm sand as I gazed out among the humanity also enjoying this January day in the tropics. I am a person who enjoys expanding my social science astuteness by observing human interaction, and this setting was perfect. (Okay, I like people-watching.)
My ears perked as I heard the petulant cry of “no!” just a few feet from me. I peered through my dark sunglasses. I glanced over at a cute but frustrated little boy, about 2-3 years old. His dad was hastily packing up a variety of beach implements, most of which had not been implemented on the beach.
His indignant son, about five feet away from him and the enormous pile of beach supplies, was standing directly next to the towels of two sun-bathing young women in their early-20s. One of the sun worshippers noticed the little boy, whose arms were angrily folded across his chest and whose lower lip had emerged outwardly in defiance. She greeted the boy with a cheerful “Hello!”. He grunted and turned his body away while still staring at the woman. The two women looked at each other with a look of confused amusement and giggled.
It’s what happened next that threw me. The harried dad looked up, saw his obviously angry son, and asked him, “Are you flirting with those girls?”
It took me a hot minute to process what I’d just heard. (There may have been a Mai Tai involved in the delayed reaction.) This grown dad is asking his toddler son if he is flirting with two 20-something young women at the beach? I sarcastically rolled my hidden eyeballs like a preteen, pulled out my festive beach bag, and with great gesture, whipped out my Boys And Sex book by Peggy Orenstein.
There is so much to unpack with this situation.
Masculinity and Culture
First, kudos to Beach Dad for taking his son to the beach. It is not easy to haul all that beach stuff and remember to bring the kid. In my Mai Tai haze, it did not look fun at all.
Second, I don’t fault the youngster with his petulant attitude. As the saying goes, you never know what people are dealing with so give them a break. Who knows what his little mind was grappling with. Admit it, aren’t there days you want to stick your lip out and grumble at the world?
But here is what caused my eyes to spontaneously rotate. At such a young age, a very, very impressionable age, this cutie-pie was indirectly taught a couple of things that can be easily internalized.
- My feelings don’t matter. I get that the dad was hurrying along and didn’t have time to talk to his son then and there, so I’ll give him a pass on this particular instance. However, I think it is important to acknowledge and talk about feelings to our young boys. If we want to change the conversation about masculinity, this is a great place to start.
- Women/girls are there for us to view as sex objects. Okay, the little guy doesn’t know what sex is yet, but he was taught that females are there to talk to as potential sexual conquests rather than fellow humans. Perhaps the better comment would have been, “Are you making new friends?”, “Did you say hello?” or, given the circumstance, “Can you give me a hand with our stuff?” Again, if we want to change the conversation about masculinity, this is another great place to start.
Masculinity and Children of All Genders
Fast forward three weeks. Sadly, it was my very last day to enjoy the atmospheric panacea of sparkling sunshine, salty waves, and golden sand before my flight back to the Illinois sunshine.* I’m once again lounging on my sunscreen-scented towel, minding my own business listening to everyone’s conversations.
I hear a dad with the most calm, loving voice address a child. My left ear suddenly bent toward the approaching conversation. As I, shall we say, accidentally eavesdropped on his conversation, I gathered he had two little kids, a boy and a girl. It also seemed he had a third — a baby in stroller! They were settling in to their delightful spot on the beach.
Okay, now, I would do almost anything to go to the beach, but haul three “under-5’s” to the beach? I just don’t know about that. Impressive. Also impressive was the interaction between Beach Dad and his Beach Babies.
Masculinity and Conversations
The conversations were, I must say, pretty heart-warming and sometimes humorous.
Dad: “I’m so sorry I forgot your floaties! Today you will have to stay closer to me, but I will remember them next time.”
Kid: “That’s okay, Dad!”
Dad: “Let’s go get some sand for the castle!”
Daughter: “Dad, I would like a little sand too, please. Thank you!”
Daughter: “Hey, he’s taking all my sand!”
Dad to Son: “You have to ask her first if you can borrow some sand. You wouldn’t want her to just take something from you, would you?”
Dad: “Wait, that’s not the castle we were planning to build. Well, okay, you can change the design if you want. Use your creativity!”
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.
Offering Support to Beach Dad
Beach Dad walked by me with a bucket o’ sand. I stopped him and told him he has a darling family. Explaining that my work supports and encourages parents to talk to their kids, I told him I was very impressed with his parent conversation skills.
He was pleasantly taken aback. He appreciated my comment and noted that some days are significantly better than others, and that he feels very much outnumbered. I laughed and said, “Yes. Yes, you are outnumbered. But you are handling it well!”
As we talked a bit, I learned his wife was on a business trip on the island. She didn’t want to be away from her nursing baby too long, so he agreed to take time off his job to join her. This enabled her to have a successful meeting by relieving some of that new-mom stress.
The children are too young to comprehend the adult conversations that clearly took place before this trip. However, they can internalize the collaborative, respectful tone modeled by their parents. By modeling respectful behavior, Beach Dad Two taught his kids a few important lessons.
1. Dads and Moms are equal partners in life. No matter one’s gender, all parenting roles are equally important and should be shared.
2. Support your significant other in what they do. No one person’s work is more important than the other. Partners must enable one another to be successful in their lives, however they choose to do so.
3. Consent and respect can be taught in the sandbox. Or the beach, depending on where you are. If you teach them when they are young, those lessons are so much easier to embrace when they are older.
4. Draw outside the lines. Be creative and express yourself. There’s no “wrong” in trying new things. Not really a relationship learning experience, but definitely a growth experience.
After our engaging interaction, I bid him —and the turquoise ocean — farewell and dragged my sorrowful, tanned toes to the hotel for a final consolatory Mai Tai.
Masculinity and Growth
As I limped along the beach feeling sorry for myself, I soon had a bounce in my step. I thought about these two Beach Dads and how we raise our children as we redefine masculinity in this new decade.
You know, these two dads, like all parents, are doing the best they can with what they know and what they can handle. Parents learn and grow as we go through life. But these two dads, with their opposing experiences, taught me something: Even though we have a long way to go when it comes to redefining masculinity for our children, we have certainly come a long way. And growth is what matters.
Illinois Sunshine: Clouds. Lots and lots of gray clouds, typically found in the winter months. (My own definition.)