Hanging in our back hall is a poster, “The Rules to Always Being a Gentleman.” Please take a moment to read it. Catchy and clever, right?! I bought it on Etsy and when my son was moving into his new apartment, I offered to get him one too.
He said “No, thank you.”
“Why in the world not?” I asked.
“Because it propagates norms.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but like all good moms, I pretended to and told him that as usual, he was full of nonsense.
Side note: Always pretend to know. Never admit your child has overtaken you intellectually. And when they ask you if you ever smoked weed, give the impression that you will share the answer and then spill your hot tea on them.
Anyway, a few months later, I was meeting with a woman entrepreneur in my kitchen and she admired the poster. “My son hates it,” I said, pointing at him as he unsuspectingly ate a yogurt. “He thinks it propagates norms.”
“That’s nonsense!” exclaimed the entrepreneur. “I have four daughters and I’ve taught them all that if they want to get a man, they should watch the way I greet their father with a hot meal when he comes home from work.”
“But what about when you come home from work?” I meekly asked.
“He’s the king! And every one of my girls knows it!”
I was shocked. Propagating norms indeed. When she left, I looked at my son and he looked at me. In that moment, I caught up to him.
And before I go on, I want to make clear that there is not a thing wrong with the rules on the poster. But they don't apply just to gentlemen. They apply to everyone.
While it may seem like benevolent chivalry to "offer a lady a seat", it is a form of etiquette based on the presumption that the "lady" to whom you, "the gentleman," are offering your seat is too weak to stand. Young people today believe that offering up a seat to someone does not need to be such a gendered act. It can be a polite and kind gesture, done by anyone for anyone.
This change in thinking is hard for my generation. It is hard for me. And I had parents who encouraged my stronger characteristics -- my outspokenness, my ambition, my willingness to take risks. My dad, in particular, took secret delight in some of my unladylike behavior. When I was in the 7th grade, I remember how understanding he was when I was sent to the principal's office for punching a boy who cheated in flag football.
I identified with feminists. I marched in the "Take Back the Night" protests in 1988. And when my husband and I began a family, I couldn't wait to have a daughter to whom I could pass on the lessons of sisterhood. I would teach her how to question authority, how to face outward without apology, how to love herself first and foremost, and how to stand up to what the feminist Sandra Lee Bartky called "the tyranny of slenderness."
Even when no daughter came, when each ultrasound revealed a "tassel" instead of a "smile," I vowed that my sons would grow up to be feminists.
We tried. Everyone played with dolls as well as guns. Everyone learned to cook, clean, and sew. The boys took dance classes, French lessons, art classes, and enough baseball to last until the Cubs win the series. We didn't care about crying. We took them to a female pediatrician. Toenails got painted. Fashion styles were developed.
So maybe I've taught my sons to be feminists not by focusing on stereotypes of women but by helping them break down the stereotypes of men.
And now, ironically, they are helping me break down old stereotypes. My charming little poster that seemed so perfect in a house of boys is actually out of place. We took it down, my son and I, and we're looking for a new one. Something like, The Rules to Being a Human.
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