There are moments when I feel bad for boys. Like every time my son tries to get a babysitting job.
The scene is almost always the same. A parent — almost always a mother — calls up to ask my oldest daughter to babysit. My daughter, in age-appropriate behavior for a 17-year old, will often say that she is busy, but that she has a younger brother who may be available.
“But does he know how to babysit?” usually comes the reply. Other times there is an awkward silence, when the offending mother realizes she is about to be obnoxious — sexist really — and tries to make other excuses. Lately, questions about the availability of my son’s younger sister have increased in frequency. She is 12½ , by the way, and is now in high demand, with at least one weekly job.
My son, by contrast, has had about two babysitting jobs in the past six months. (Not to worry, he is in high demand as a dog-walker, so he still has money to go to the movies with his friends.)
The point is that in the year 2010, mothers would prefer to have a 12-year old rookie girl babysitter than a 14½ year old boy babysitter. No matter how much his sisters or anyone else try to market him as an experienced, caring, and responsible teen, he is fighting an upward battle. The prevailing sentiment among young, upwardly mobile parents is that childcare is for girls.
This is astounding to me, both personally and sociologically. Personally, I know that my son is great with little kids. He frequently looks after his little sister, and in fact, the two shared a bedroom for her first two years of life, and he would often be the first one to wake up with her at night and try and put her back to sleep. I remember some mornings when he would seem particularly tired and I would eventually learn that he spent an hour pacing with her and did not even bother waking anyone else up for help. He even used to change her diapers! So on the personal level, I feel his insult every time someone questions his ability to babysit, why he has to explain himself time and again, usually to no avail.
More than that, I am deeply troubled that such antiquated notions of gender are so deeply embedded, starting from such an early age. The idea that boys are naturally irresponsible, uncaring, and emotionless is apparently the widespread opinion — yet it so profoundly damaging to boys. Imagine a boy who wants to be caring, who tries to be helpful and responsible and loving. He is pushing against popular beliefs, challenging expectations, and risking turning himself into an object of ridicule. After all, a boy who babysits is clearly not a correct man. Like, go walk a dog or something.
I wonder about the messages that all these so-called modern, yuppie parents are sending to their children. If they are not even allowing space for boys to try and challenge gender expectations, I can only fear for the next generation. How can women expect society to change what it means to be a woman, when women themselves are not challenging these expectations?
Moreover, it is time for us to acknowledge that sexist attitudes are as bad for men as they are for women. Just as sexism keeps women out of positions of leadership, power and high-paying jobs, sexism keeps men and boys out of positions of affect and relationship. If we keep sending messages to boys that they are incapable of being nurturing and caring — guess what, they will grow up to be men who are indeed incapable of nurturing and caring.