It’s obvious to say that becoming a parent makes you think about the sorts of values you want to instill in your children; we want them to be kind, ambitious, hard-working etc. but we might also wonder about the bigger picture – like how do I help my children to see difference as something to celebrate? And how do I encourage them to stay true to themselves?

Since having my two sons, I’ve become a bit fixated on these questions and have started to examine what it means for them to be boys in this world, at this time. I’ve come to realise that the stereotypes and expectations we place on boys and girls because of their gender start from a ridiculously young age – when they’re still just babies, in fact. For the first year of my eldest son’s life, any toy I had bought him came from the gender-neutral, baby section of shops. It wasn’t until shortly after he turned one and I went to a well known toys retailer to buy him a doll’s pram that I realised that everything I bought him from this point on would be picked up from either the boys’ section or the girls’ section. How confusing, I thought. His daddy pushes a pram, so how could I explain to him that it’s OK for grown up men to transport their own offspring in a pram but not for little boys to push their favourite teddy around?

I’ve also become hyper-aware of the language used to describe specific genders; my son has been referred to as ‘cheeky’ for most of his little 21-month-long life as a way to explain how phyiscal, fearless, giddy he is. A friend whose daughter has similar traits is never called cheeky, she’s apparently ‘brave.’ And here’s the annoying part, I’ve done it too, I’m guilty of labelling him as ‘cheeky’ even though I really don’t think he is – actually, I think he’s an incredibly sweet, good-natured little boy who says please and thank you and blows kisses to strangers in the street. Yet when anyone comments on his impressive physical abilities, I often just laugh and shrug and say “oh he’s a cheeky one!” and feel immediately guilty. But maybe we just expect boys to be cheeky so everything they do will just serve to prove that whether it’s cheeky or not. When we were given a T shirt that said ‘Big Trouble in a Little Shirt,’ shortly after he was born, I had to wonder would we have been given the same T shirt if I’d had a girl, I’m going to go ahead and presume not.

I could go on and on about the differences in how the world treats children according to their gender – like how colours, fonts, symbols, even the music in TV ads are all tailored depending on the target audience, but what I really want to talk about is the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ and how every time I hear it, it makes me want to weep a little. I’d never thought about it in great detail before, and I’m sure I’ve said it myself in the past, but last summer, when I was about 7 months pregnant with my second boy, I took my first – then 16 months – to the park. This boy loves to climb – one of his favourites in our local park is the big kids’ climbing frame complete with log ladder and high platforms without barriers. I love that he’s so into climbing and keen to explore so I generally let him do his thing and toddle along behind so I can catch him if he falls/feel ridiculously proud/take endless pictures and videos – you know the drill. On this particular afternoon, he was up the climbing frame as usual and I hauled my pregnant self up behind him to make sure he didn’t slip off the platform. As soon as he started shimmying down the slide, I down-climbed the ladder and waited for him at the bottom. At this point a woman came up to me and asked what age he was and when my baby was due. I answered her questions and we chit-chatted for a moment before she said “you better hope this one’s a girl so you don’t spend your life climbing up that climbing frame after two boys,” Chortle, chortle, laugh, laugh, off she went.

In the moment, I didn’t think anything of it but afterwards, her comment started to irk me. In fact, if I’m perfectly honest, I’m still annoyed about it. First of all, how did she know I didn’t love climbing after my son? Why would she presume this was annoying or frustrating for me? OK, it was difficult when I was pregnant but playing with toddlers is often a hell of a lot more fun that making small-talk with adults. And secondly, (this is where I’m really going to let off some steam – soz) what was she saying about my potential daughter? That she wouldn’t be interested in climbing? Maybe not interested in the outdoors at all just because she’s a girl? So what would she be doing instead? Would we have to take colouring books or a bag of knitting or a piano to the park so she could do girly things while her brother enjoyed all the rough play? Turns out I didn’t have a girl, I had a pretty delicious little boy who, although only 3 and a half months old, is already showing signs of being very different to his brother. He wants to be held all the time, he cries at the slightest noise, he watches my every move. The big boy, at the same age, squirmed and screamed if held too long, often preferred having a little kick out by himself and has always been much more interested in his daddy than me. Even now, I can tell he’s an independent spirit and 99% percent of his cuddles are reserved for Daddy Bear but they never last more than a few seconds. So this leads me to ask; if my older boy likes climbing and collecting sticks and looking at motorbikes and making animal noises, does that make him a ‘real’ boy? A ‘proper little boy?’ And what if my baby continues to love snuggling? What if it turns out he prefers his mummy’s company to that of other children and is a bit scared of that climbing frame his brother had already mastered at 16 months old? Would that mean he’s wired weirdly or that he’s doing boyhood wrong?

Does swinging on monkey bars make him a ‘proper boy?’

Truth be told, I’m not annoyed with this woman, she was just a friendly stranger who found the sight of a heavily pregnant woman climbing after her busy son amusing. I’m annoyed at our ongoing insistence to shrug off certain behaviours as ‘typically boyish’ or ‘typically girlish.’ Because as far as I can see, this has bigger repercussions on the lives of our young men than just being expected to choose certain games over others. If we are so quick to perpetuate the idea that being a boy means adhering to a prescribed set of behaviours and interests, we give them permission to do and be certain things but take away permission to do and be others. They can be dancers as long as it’s breakdancing or hip hop. They can paint houses but not oil paintings. They shouldn’t hit girls but boys are fair game. Cuddle your mother but not your friends. Have a favourite toy, just make sure it has wheels. And it doesn’t stop there, when they’re grown men they should love their partners but call them a ‘nag,’ be wonderful fathers but not full-time, own a dog but not a poodle, buy a car and make it big. We create restrictions that can only ever limit boys and their potential and we expect them to not only understand these restrictions but embrace them and live by them or run the risk of standing out for doing it all wrong.

Now I’m no social scientist but I’m guessing that operating within these constraints is pretty confusing and I suspect, go some way to explaining the wider experience of boys in our society. We have to ask ourselves why boys typically do less well in school than girls – is it because an interest in academia is deemed uncool or not tough enough? We have to ask ourselves why suicides are higher amongst young men than young women – could it be because we all know that talking about how you feel is reserved only for girls on sleepovers? Why are more females harassed than males, and the rape of young girls used as a common initiation practice in gangs across the world if not to prove how ‘manly’ the participant is? And if the President of the most influential country on this planet sees fit to laugh off his boasting about grabbing women in their most intimate body parts as ‘locker room talk,’ isn’t that just giving the thumbs up to boys and men everywhere to act according to a predetermined definition of what it means to be a man regardless of the impact on others – because that’s what real men do and ‘boys will be boys?’

Perhaps you think I’m over-egging the pudding here but I’m not so sure. If toys for children less than two-years-old are already being labelled according to gender then I’d say this issue runs pretty deep and is so far embedded in our society, it’s almost imperceptible. I’m not saying that boys and girls are completely the same or that gender has no bearing whatsoever on what makes a person who and what they are, but I do think that we have some expectations of people according to gender alone and that’s not entirely fair.

If both my sons grow up obsessed with football, have no interest in art, drama or music and want to work in construction – as the stereotypes might have us belief – then fine, they can do that and they’ll have my support all the way. But I’ll be damned if they’ll make choices that aren’t right for them or turn their back on certain interests just because they happen to have been born with penises. If we want to put the world right – and I really do – it has to start at home, it has to come from us parents, carers, teachers and filter down to the next generation. No one is going to tell my sons they can’t be whatever the heck they want to be and I’ll sure as hell never brush off any unsavoury behaviour or attitudes towards others as simply an example of ‘boys being boys.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s complacent, unhelpful and serves to fail boys themselves as much as it does anyone else.