Would you hire a male babysitter?

Maybe we don’t mean to but we send a clear message to teen boys that they are incapable

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

After my firstborn arrived almost 20 years ago and the initial shock of childbirth passed, I found myself rather chuffed to discover I was the proud mother of a beautiful baby girl.

This summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. Read all about it at  irishtimes.com/summeroffamily

I understood girls. I used to be one. I came from a house of all girls. I knew what to expect – the good, the bad, and the bits you hope your parents never find out.

And I was going to put all that experience into raising her, I figured, even as she grew up and proved to have very different interests to me.

Roll on a few years later and the first of many sons was born and with his arrival my first glimpse into the world of boys. Shockwaves rippled through the family. “A boy?” came the words of disbelief from his grandmother and aunties. “I don’t even know what you do with boys,” his grandmother continued, before learning that one of things you do is make sure you have another nappy immediately ready before removing the current one, if you want to avoid a drenching.

And so it began.

Not only was I the mother of a fabulous daughter, I now had to navigate the world of boys without lived experience to draw upon. I was an Irish mammy; we’re infamous when it comes to our sons. But I wasn’t buying into that. We were going to have equality in our house, with every child championed and similar expectations of all.

And then I learned that while that might be my ideal, the outside world has a way of trying to pigeonhole our youngsters based on gender, no matter how differently we might teach them at home. And even the most solid foundations can be shaken by a torrent of societal expectations.

I spoke to some other parents to see how they felt about it. Those with girls said there was more pressure on their daughters to be “good”, to comply with standards of behaviour that weren’t disruptive or unbecoming – not a shock to the feminists among us. There were worries about the harassment and objectivity their daughters might experience or indeed already had – just like their mothers before them.

Those with boys feared the cuteness factor disappeared much earlier. The notion of the adorable, mischievous, destructive, full-of-hugs younger boy giving way, by the time the preteen years arrived, to a narrative of negativity that seems to ultimately surround teen boys more than any other group in society.

For those of us with teens, the school summer holidays are upon us. Three long months stretch ahead after an already substantial period at home in the past year due to Covid-related school closures. The hunt for summer jobs is on, which are not so easy to come by when you’re under 18.

As younger children gear up to finish for the summer at the end of this month, working parents everywhere may well find themselves under even more pressure than in typical years. School closures meant many have already had to use much of their own leave, paid and unpaid, in the early parts of the calendar year. If only there were teens available to help out...

But that sentence alone is perhaps misleading. If a recent, admittedly unscientific, poll I ran on social media is anything to go by then that sentence without the word female in it means nothing.

Forty per cent of respondents said they would not hire a boy to help with childcare or babysitting. In an age where we’re finally addressing the huge mental load placed on women and mothers, it seems almost incomprehensible that we’d send a clear message to our teen boys and young men that they are seen as either untrustworthy or incapable.

We are all products of our upbringing influenced by what we see and hear. A light switch doesn’t just turn on when children reach adulthood. If we rightly tell our girls that they can be anything they want to be, and are capable of doing all the things boys do, then surely it’s important we tell our boys that the same is true of them in reverse. Which of course involves welcoming them into caring roles, ones that gender alone deems no one unsuitable for.

Some parents remarked that they were disappointed in their own reactions to the question. They had never realised they felt this way until they were asked. But honesty matters.

Our boys deserve better than this. And so do our girls. Until we address the toxic societal expectations and narrative around teenage boys and young men, the future looks remarkably similar.

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