Soon after I learned that I was expecting, I went out and bought the classic children’s book Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, with illustrations by Anita Jeram. And for the next nine months, I slowly added other titles to my collection—those I remembered from my childhood and those that just appealed to me as I walked through the children’s sections of bookstores fantasizing about reading to my child. Six years later, reading is a daily activity that I share with my son, and it is central to my parenting. It is an important part of how I bond with my son—often it is the one moment in the day that I’m guaranteed to be giving him my undivided attention. Reading has also been a tool for helping my son navigate growing up. As he prepared to start Pre-K, I read books about the first day of school and the emotions he might feel when away from family for the first time. Once he was in school, I read books about being shy, making friends, and following rules.
Completely unrelated, or at least seemingly so, is my desire to help my son question and challenge ideas about gender—this is another important element of my parenting. Experts in the field of psychology and scholars working on issues related to feminist mothering and the mothering of sons have shown that a traditional masculine identity can traumatize boys. Especially problematic is the way it often teaches them that communicating and dealing with emotions is “unmanly.” The inability to express themselves and respond to the feelings of others can leave boys emotionally and mentally broken. In Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, William Pollack calls attention to the problems and issues boys experience as a result of what he calls the “boy code”; he notes that, “Perhaps the most traumatizing and dangerous injunction thrust on boys and men is the literal gender straightjacket that prohibits boys from expressing feelings or urges seen (mistakenly) as ‘feminine’—dependence, warmth, empathy” (24); as a result, Pollack explains, boys suffer from low self-esteem, as well as, “profound feelings of loneliness, sadness, and disconnection” (25). Similarly, in her book Mothers and Sons: Feminism, Masculinity, and the Struggle to Raise Our Sons, Andrea O’Reilly explains, “Having been socialized to repress and deny emotions associated with the feminine—empathy, vulnerability, compassion, gentleness—and taught to tough it out on their own through our culture’s valorization of independent, individualistic (and fully individuated) masculinity, men grow into manhood deeply wounded and isolated” (9). As a mother, I’m always trying to figure out how I can help my son avoid the potentially traumatic and limiting effects of the “boy culture” that surrounds him.
Although reading and helping my son avoid the consequences that may result from adhering to stereotypical ideas about masculinity are both central to my parenting, it had never occurred to me to bring these two things together until recently. I decided I was going to read so-called “girl books” to my six-year-old son and help him access empathy, which is typically not associated with boys. Ironically, even as I prepared to resist conventional ideas about gender, I now recognize that my own thinking was biased, and I was working within a traditional gender binary, thus limiting my ideas about what gender is and looks like. Needless to say, the plan I developed and decided I was going to implement did not work out in a neat, straightforward, and clear manner as I had imagined; though it is a cliché to say so, mothering is complicated and plans rarely turn out exactly as we imagine them.
In the personal narrative that follows, I tell of my recent experience to show an example of the work engaged in, as well as the challenges faced, by mothers when rearing boys to resist traditional ideas about masculinity and avoid the harmful effects that seem to result from these restrictive ideas. Such narratives add to the database of “mother knowledge” which Besi Brillian Muhonja defines as focused “on the conceptual, cognitive, and experiential processing of the mother and not that of the scholar” (1). She explains that “mother knowledge,” is the result of the personal and experiential and therefore personal narratives are necessary to understand “the different complexities of motherhood” (2). My focus here addresses Muhonja’s concern that there is a “dearth of scholarship on motherhood in relation to sonhood” (2). Additionally, this essay adds to a growing dialogue among mothers of sons, one that revolves around the issue of mothering boys in a way that helps them defy a stereotypical masculine identity by bringing greater awareness to the mother’s experience when engaged in this type of mothering.
My idea started with the article “Social Intelligence in General Education Literature Courses” by Amanda Tucker in the Fall 2018 issue of MLA’s Profession. Tucker discusses the growing feeling that the “liberal arts are a waste of time and resources.” The piece explores the value of studying literature for general education students and suggests that one way studying literature has profound value is that it is connected to “acquiring social intelligence.” The article references studies that show “reading fiction improves one’s ability to understand the mental states of other people.” As a result, Tucker explains, “readers might not have personally experienced a particular social or emotional situation as it is portrayed in a fictional work, but in reading about it they gain broad social knowledge that will allow them to better understand this process.” In short, reading fiction builds empathy and teaches about emotions.
Initially, while thinking about Tucker’s article, I focused on how I might use this idea in my own teaching; but then it occurred to me that I could also use it in my mothering. It seemed to me that if reading fiction helped the reader to develop empathy, and “boy culture” works against it, then, clearly reading fiction is one way to resist that element of “boy culture”; it could be used to teach my son how to be aware of and understand emotions and to share in those emotions and to hopefully give him the tools to express himself. But questions remained: What was I to read? Would any fiction book work? Or were particular characters, themes, types of fiction more likely to build empathy? Was it possible that some fiction could have the opposite effect of the one I was interested in creating?
Unclear on how to proceed, I started to research the topic of children’s literature. I found that in fact, experts in the field make the point that “[s]haring stories and books is an important part of helping children understand themselves, other people, and the world in which they live” (Rovenger 40). They also make the point that children’s literature is a useful tool for helping children think about gender roles. Among others, Michelle J. Sobolak and April A. Mattix argue that “children’s literature can be used as a vehicle to discuss, explore, and critique issues of gender” (13). While Carole M. Kortenhaus and Jack Demarest explain that “the characters portrayed in children’s literature mold a child’s conception of socially accepted roles and values, and indicate how males and females are supposed to act” (220).
With this information in hand, I started to think about what I would read to my son. And it seemed to me that if reading fiction was a way for readers to learn empathy, and if children’s books taught children their socially accepted gender role, and if I wanted my son to be empathetic and aware of emotions, values associated with girls, then what I needed to do was read so-called “girl books” to him. After all, as Michael J. Clarke, Anthony D.G. Marks, and Amy D. Lykins explain, “Gender differences between males’ and females’ empathic functioning have been consistently found,” with “females scor[ing] significantly higher than males” (523). And if girls are more empathetic, emotional, and connected, and “the expression of empathy is considered to be more gender-normative for females than males” (Clarke, et al. 525), then books aimed at girls would encourage these traits and reading them to my son would allow him to develop these traits as well. So now I had a plan—I would read these books to him, and it would help me counter traditional, gender socialization. Around the time I had come to this conclusion, a mother of someone in my son’s class mentioned that she was reading the Little House on the Prairie series to her daughter. These are stories I fondly remember, albeit vaguely, from my own childhood, and I decided this is where I would start; I pulled out my version of Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the series, to read to my son. But I did not get far.
On page four of the book, we are told:
“Every morning as soon as she was awake Laura ran to look out of the window, and one morning she saw in each of the big trees a dead deer hanging from a branch. Pa had shot the deer the day before and Laura had been asleep when he brought them home at night and hung them high in the trees so the wolves could not get the meat.”
This line made me pause. Dead, bloody deer? Hanging from trees? This was not an image I wanted for my son. Instead, it is the kind of violent, bloody image that boys are expected to feel unmoved by and it suggests physical dominance which fits with the stereotypical identity encouraged in boys. In my memory, the Little House series was about a young girl going through the emotional ups and downs of growing up while surrounded by a loving family to whom she was deeply connected. It is this that I had expected to read to my son. Faced with a different reality, I immediately felt uncertain about continuing to read. But I went on.
The chapter goes on to detail the gathering and preparing of food and storage for the winter. The reader is told this is necessary because in winter “Pa might hunt alone all day in the bitter cold,… and come home with nothing for Ma and Mary and Laura to eat” (6). At this point, my son asked what hunting was. Although I know that many people hunt, I simply explained that it was how people used to get their food before supermarkets. It was late, and I was tired, and I did not want to sit and explain hunting or my own disapproval of it to my son. I hoped this definition would be enough for the moment, and it seemed to satisfy him. But I myself was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my choice in books. The idea that men hunt, wield weapons, and are responsible for feeding the family while the women dependently wait at home is, perhaps historically accurate, but it is not the idea of gender roles I want to impress on my son. I read a few more pages and suggested we stop reading and go to sleep.
That night, after my son had gone to sleep, I flipped through some more of the book, which I had not looked at since I was a child. Images and text alike really drive home the idea of separate spheres and traditional gender roles for males and females. Page after page depict the girls and mothers making beds, churning butter, and baking, while in nearly every image in which he is featured, Pa is seen working with tools, pictured with a gun, or engaged in outdoor activities—even the images of him sitting at home in the evening telling stories show him cleaning the gun, and he is also shown casually carrying it with him in an image of the family taking a walk. Obviously, I should have realized this would be the case. The books were published from 1934-1943 and are about life in the second half of the 19th century, homesteading life, no less. But these are still vastly popular books today—it is not just the mother of my son’s friend who is reading them to her child. On Amazon, the series is marked as a bestseller and reviews consistently praise the book. Moreover, scholars argue that there are feminist elements to the Little House books.
Still, in making my choice, I had only remembered my own love for the character of Laura and with this in mind I had naively thought about how nice it would be for my son to read about the life of a little girl, told through her voice, giving her feelings. Also, I have to admit, I had also made assumptions about what would be in the book based on the fact that it is fiction mostly read by girls. I assumed there would not be any violence in it and that it would be only about friendships, family, communication, and feelings. Clearly, I was buying into the preconceived notions of what girls, and therefore things marketed for them, are like. My choice had been based on the idea that boys and girls are different, the very beliefs and barriers I was trying to help my son overcome.
And so what now? If this was a “girl book” and it was not necessarily what I had been looking for, then what was I to do? Was my plan a failed one and over? Would another “girl book” be better? Did it really need to be a book about, or for, girls? Or would any fiction work?
My son has always had books about a whole array of characters—Superman and Sleeping Beauty, Paw Patrol and Fancy Nancy, dinosaurs and butterflies. In providing these books, I had hoped to make it clear that he could read whatever he wanted. However, despite my best efforts, my son seems mostly drawn to books about superheroes, Pokémon, and airplanes. These traditional “boy books” are the things he brings home when I send money for book fairs and the ones he picks out in the morning to take to school to show his friends. There is nothing awful about them, but they focus on competition, battles, and winning. Given my experience with Little House in the Big Woods, I had to ask myself: were his choices really any worse than dead dear, men hunting, and women cooking and cleaning? Going against my instincts, I also wondered if reading about competitions and battles could also build empathy in that my son understands the feelings of the character striving to win or the superhero trying to be the more powerful individual to get the bad guy. Or do such stories work against human connections by desensitizing him to the feelings of others since the focus is on personal achievement and violence is often needed to meet the character’s goal?
Most recently my son has been carrying around Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man, a comic or graphic novel style book. The framing narrative is of two best friends who have known each other since kindergarten and enjoy writing comic books together. I like that this set-up counters two elements of traditional masculinity—the idea that boys shouldn’t have close friends (or at least not friends to talk and share feelings with) and the idea perpetuated by traditional masculinity that reading and to an extent writing is for girls. As psychologists, Cate Dooley and Nikki Fedele explain, “Boys learn that it is ‘cool’; to be distant, inauthentic, and disconnected” (191) which leads them to disconnect from male friends as they get older. Andrew Reiner in “Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls” argues that “boys and young men police each other when other guys display overt interest in literature or creative writing assignments. Typically, nonfiction reading and writing pass muster because nonfiction poses little threat for boys. But literary fiction, and especially poetry are mediums to fear. Why? They’re the language of emotional exposure, purported feminine ‘weakness’— the very thing our [society’s] scripting has taught them to avoid at best, suppress, at worst.” Certainly, Dooley and Fedele and Reiner are discussing stereotypical masculinity as it’s being defined in the United States today, and probably for only a part of the population—as Michael Salter explains in his article “The Problem with a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity,” “the standards by which a ‘real man’ is defined can vary dramatically across time and place.” Given that these are the limitations placed on boys that my own son is likely dealing with, I like that in Dog Man, friendship is highlighted and the friends bond overwriting. But this part of the book is just a few pages that set up the story explaining that the friends have created the adventures of Dog Man together.
The actual story of Dog Man follows the exploits of a cop that is half-dog and half-human. The premise for the character is disturbing to me—in the first few pages officer Knight and Greg the dog have an accident when they try to detonate a bomb and cut the wrong wire due to dogs being color blind. The resulting explosion is supposed to be humorous as is the ensuing action. Both characters are injured, and we are told that the dog’s body is dying as is the officer’s head, but a nurse has a brilliant idea and we are told: “So they had a big operation. The doctor cut off Greg’s head and sewed it onto the cop’s body.” (19) As a result, “a brand-new crime-fighting sensation was unleashed” (20). The book is full of slapstick humor where things explode, birds poop on heads, dog pee causes characters to slip and fall, pants fall down, and words are purposely misspelled.
It is all meant to be funny. My son certainly thinks it is. After all, he’s six and explosions are not yet real to him and dogs and humans becoming one are not outside the realm of possibility. The violent and gruesome nature of the book is not what he sees. For him, the situations are harmless and hilarious because they are so extreme and out of the ordinary. In contrast, all I see is the kind of disrespectful, violent, and inconsiderate behavior expected of boys. In my mind, the book perpetuates the idea that boys should be tough—desensitized to death and gross things as well as immature and unconcerned with the feelings of others. But perhaps I am overthinking it all and taking the books too seriously. Shouldn’t I be happy that he’s reading fiction, which is discouraged by the stereotypical boy identity? Maybe I’m even wrong to think that this reading isn’t accomplishing exactly what I want for him. After all, humor is a way of connecting to other humans. To find something funny requires that you understand the feelings of another who also found the same situation funny. I, therefore, find myself in the uncomfortable position of circling back and wondering if content matters. Is it possible that my son is engaged and building empathy in a way that I could not have perceived? And yet, I can’t get away from my own reaction to the book.
Ultimately, I have many questions but no answers. Like with Little House in the Big Woods, we’ve never gotten through the whole book of Dog Man because I can’t. But unlike the Little House book, we do keep coming back to Dog Man because my son really enjoys it. He likes looking at the images and can read it by himself, but he often asks that I read— and he likes me to start at the beginning. Unfortunately, the book has not grown on me with rereading. Every time I read the book, I comment on the making of Dog Man and note that the explosion is really violent and that injury seems like an awful thing to joke about and that the operation is grotesque. I also point out that the boss of Dog Man is unnecessarily mean—he’s always yelling at Dog Man—and that we shouldn’t laugh about people being hurt or having something embarrassing happen to them. While my son only half-heartedly agrees with me and then asks me to read on, I feel the need to continue commenting on the actions and behaviors in the book and making the point that I do not see them as an acceptable norm. In doing so I am heeding the advice of famous children’s author Mem Fox who says that, “because [children] learn to read in close relationships with adults, we teachers, parents, and writers, have a heaven-sent chance to discuss their constructed world with them through what they read and, if necessary, to rage at the values and question the situations presented” (88). It is clear that my son does not see the book the way I do and I can’t make him, but I hope that in voicing my thoughts I’m opening up conversations and modeling critical thinking about feelings and behaviors, and offering different ways of being—I want him to see that he doesn’t have to think this is okay or funny. In offering my point of view, I hope that I am encouraging him to see the various situations from a different perspective so that he can connect to my feelings. And I console myself with the thought that allowing him to see and understand something through someone else’s eyes, to share in their feelings, in this case, mine, was my goal all along.
Clarke, Michael J., Anthony D.G. Marks, and Amy D. Lykins. “Bridging the Gap: The Effect of Gender Normativity on Differences in Empathy and Emotional Intelligence.” Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 25, No. 5, 2016, pp. 522-539.
Dooley, Cate, and Nikki Fedele. “Raising Relational Boys.” Mothers and Sons: Feminism,
Masculinity, and the Struggle to Raise Our Sons, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Routledge, 2001, pp. 3-7.
Fox, Mem. “Men Who Weep, Boys Who Dance: The Gender Agenda between the Lines in
Children’s Literature.” National Council of Teachers of English, Vol. 70, No. 2, February 1993, pp. 84-88.
Garaigordobil, Maite. “A Comparative Analysis of Empathy in Childhood and Adolescence:
Gender Differences and Associated Socio-emotional Variables.” International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2009, pp. 217-235.
Kortenhaus, Carole M. and Jack Demarest. “Gender Role Stereotyping in Children’s Literature: An Update.” Sex Roles, Vol. 28, Nos. 3/4, 1993, pp. 219-232.
Mohr, Christine, Angela C. Rowe, and Olaf Blanke. “The Influence of Sex and Empathy on Putting Oneself in the Shoes of Others.” British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 101, 2010, 277-291.
Muhonja, Besi Brillian and Wanda Thomas Bernard. Introduction. Mothers and Sons: Centering Mother Knowledge, edited by Muhonja and Bernard, Demeter Press, 2016, pp. 1-13.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Introduction. Mothers and Sons: Feminism, Masculinity, and the Struggle to Raise Our Sons, Edited by O’Reilly, Routledge, 2001, pp. 1-21.
Pilkey, Dav. Dog Man. Graphix: An Imprint of Scholastic, 2016.
Pollack, William. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood. Holt, 1998.
Reiner, Andrew. “Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls.” The New York Times, 15 June 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/well/family/talking-to-boys-the-way-we-talk-to-girls.html
Rovenger, Judith. “Fostering Emotional Intelligence: A librarian looks at the role of literature in a child’s development.” School Library Journal, December 2000, pp. 40-41.
Salter, Michael. “The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity.” The Atlantic, 27 February 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/toxic-masculinity-history/583411/
Sobolak, Michelle J. and April A. Mattix. “Using Children’s Literature to Explore Positive
Gender Role Models.” Reading Between the Lines: Activities for Developing Social
Awareness Literacy, edited by Kenneth Cushner and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, pp. 13-19.
Tucker, Amanda. “Social Intelligence in General Education Literature Courses.” Profession, Fall 2018, Modern Language Association,
https://profession.mla.org/social-intelligence-in-general-education-literature-courses/Wilder, Laura. Little House in the Big Woods. 1932. Illustrated by Garth Williams, 1952, Harper Collins, 2004.
 For discussions of empathy and gender differences see the following: Garaigordobi; Mohr, Rowe, and Blanke.
 For an example of a feminist reading of the Little House series see Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.