"I want to shoot Iggy*," Ivan often tells me. He and his friends want to shoot Iggy, he says, because "we don't like princesses." Iggy is a boy in my son's preschool class who wears dresses to school – often bringing several, as he may want a new look by midday -- and likes to play princess with the girls.
Why does my son have violent fantasies about this kid? It's disturbing, to say the least, though his teacher assures me that he never bullies anyone in real life.
Ivan, age four, used to have an expansive view of his gender options. He would tell me he wanted to be a mommy when he grew up, but "a mommy who cooks and drives." (I don't do much of either -- his dad does both.) Later he decided he wanted to be "a daddy like Tommy," a butch lesbian friend with a daughter close to his age.
But since the beginning of this school year, masculinity has been a source of constant confusion and distress. After a classmate told my son that boys don't play with dolls, Ivan took to beating his baby doll –he'd always been quite nurturing with her, tucking her into bed and tending to her when she was sick -- yelling at her to "Shut Up!" and sometimes even reporting that he'd killed her.
None of this drama seems to afflict Ivan's friend Lee, a girl who wears Batman shirts and likes to play Transformers, Star Wars and other "bad guy" games with the boys. All the girls want to be her friend, but she's just not that into their (largely pink-hued) activities.
Apparently, Ivan's life mirrors that of many other boys today. A recent study by University of Illinois sociologist Barbara Risman found that while girls have made substantial progress in being able to transcend gender stereotypes – playing sports, no longer pretending to be dumb – boys, she says:
have gained fewer freedoms to explore their individual interests and talents from the gender revolution. Boys are still reluctant to admit to enjoying any activity, from gymnastics to dancing to knitting -- or even reading books -- that smacks of something girls do. And they now seem to be subjected to the same kind of teasing about supposedly 'gender inappropriate' activities or interests than girls used to face 45 years ago. Today it is young boys who are afraid of showing off how smart they are and who feel they have to pretend to be interested in certain activities and not others for fear of being taunted as 'gay.'
Before anyone accuses me – or the author of the study – of minimizing pressures on girls, let me assure you that Risman did mention that girls face increasing pressure to be "sexy" at younger ages – a problem that many other experts have also observed. But it is interesting that the pressure on boys to conform to gender norms may be even more intense than the pressure on girls.
Boys like Iggy can face teasing and even violence when they're older. But, at the moment, Iggy seems a lot more secure in his gender identity – and confident about himself -- than most boys. He exuberantly shows off his new ring to me: "Look, isn't it beautiful?" If you tell him he looks pretty, he agrees: "I know."
We should certainly be making the world safer for kids like Iggy. But I'm just as concerned about how children who are not obvious gender rebels learn not to be limited by stereotypes. Which is a rather primly P.C. way of saying, I don't want my sweet little kid to think he has to be a violent thug just because he has a penis.
His immediate social world is a good place to start. Ivan talks about Iggy a lot. I tell him there is no reason a boy can't be a princess. I also say, You don't have to be friends with everyone in your life, but you do have to respect everyone. Then again, maybe there are games that bad guys and princesses can play together, I venture with absurd relativism. Maybe there are things they both like to do.
But sometimes the suggestions that sound silliest coming out of one's grown-up mouth are the most convincing. A few days later, Ivan tells me, "If Iggy came to my house, I would show him Princess Leia!"
"Would you like Iggy to come to your house?" (If it seems like a dizzying leap from homicidal ideation to playdate planning, that is because you are not four years old.)
Ivan looks uncertain. But he's entertaining the idea.
*It seems ethical to change all names of children other than my own.