Gender role images today. Children between guidance and confusion

Mathias Wais

A classic statement on the development of gender roles says that the child takes over the content of their gender role from the parent of the same sex and its appreciation and meaning from the parent of the opposite sex. In this sense gender roles thus have at least two dimensions. The following examples from child guidance can be looked at against the background of such differentiation.

Who can piss the furthest?

A small episode from a suburban neighbourhood. Four boys have gone out together one afternoon to the local wood for a competition to see who can piss the furthest. It turns out that Sasha is the clear winner, quite far behind him are Alex and Josh, and last of all comes Drago. The result is now expertly discussed in detail. It turns out that ten minutes before the competition Drago desperately needed to pee and could no longer hold it in. This puts his defeat into perspective and he has saved face. No one laughs at him. The other boys can understand his situation. As far as Sasha’s victory is concerned, everyone agrees that it is due to a ballistic advantage: because Sasha can bend his upper body particularly far backwards without tipping over. This means that he can start at a more favourable angle. And Josh deserves understanding. He had a phimosis operation three weeks ago and the boys believe that his urethra has been bent in some way as a result. “Who cares,” says Sasha. “We’re really all equally good,” he adds, sharing his victory with the other boys. Happy in the feeling of unity they begin to warm up – a football match is due to start soon… Then, like a bolt out of the blue, Alex’s mother comes storming over. “I watched you very closely,” she calls as she approaches. “This disgusting behaviour must stop! What if someone had come by? Or, worse still, a little girl?” The boys are scared. “You obviously think you’re entitled to pee wherever you like.” She clearly feels there is a lot more to say on the subject. The four boys look awkwardly at the ground. “But there will be consequences. Your mothers will get to hear about this.”

So what have the four boys now learnt, first, about the content of their gender role and, second, its appreciation?

Father Caroline?

Another example: two women in their mid-thirties have lived together in a lesbian relationship for many years, feel very close to one another and live their relationship with at least as much commitment and responsibility as we expect heterosexual partners to do. Both of them have wanted a child for a long time. One of the two partners undergoes artificial insemination. The pregnancy and birth go without complications and soon their life together is blessed with a little daughter. One day, the girl is about five years old, she is asked by a playmate in her group who her father is. The girl hesitates – she has never been asked this before. After brief consideration she responds with equal certainty and confidence: “Caroline”.

An answer which might appear strange at first glance. The girl at five years old clearly did not find it upsetting that there was no male attachment figure in the household; on the contrary, she just had to think briefly to which of the two women she wanted to ascribe a paternal function. The irritation was between the two partners when they heard about it – because Caroline was the one who had taken on the biological maternal role. She had carried the child and breast fed her for a long time. In contrast to their daughter, this created sustained uncertainty between the two of them about their gender role.

Once again we can ask: what does a girl who grows up like this learn about the content of her gender role on the one hand and its value on the other?

A third example: having separated from her partner, a woman lives together with their son. The father left the family when the boy was six years old. The mother told the boy this in tears with the words: “Your father wants to leave us.”

With these words she set up a relationship between mother and son which became increasingly problematical over the years to the point at which the boy at about the age of twelve attracted attention through his sexualised, misogynistic and obscene behaviour.

Because what is the mother saying with these words? In saying, he wants to leave us, she is driving a wedge between father and son. The suggestion is to be made to the son that his father not only no longer loves his mother but not him either. In fact this mother sabotaged the father’s attempts to observe his access rights for years, leading finally to the estrangement of father and son.

The subsequent constant repetition of the sentence: “He has left us,” created an unhealthy closeness between mother and son which soon became abusive. From the day that the parents separated up to and including the time of puberty the boy had to sleep in his mother’s bed. The desk where he did his homework was also in their joint bedroom. While he tried to concentrate on his homework, his mother changed her clothes and undertook her personal hygiene there. He witnessed all her feminine intimacies. And that was indeed the purpose. That reached its most extreme point when she asked him one day to apply some lotion to her and took off her bra for the purpose. Shortly thereafter the boy attracted attention in school because he told his school friends that he had “laid his mother”, as he put it. This is what brought to boy to our child guidance centre. What did the boy learn about the content of his gender role and what about its value?

When mothers are responsible for the masculinity of their sons

Let us return to the first example. Here there is an interesting detail: the angry mother who had caught the boys at their pissing competition announced that she would speak about their exhibitionist tendencies with their mothers. This raises the question who in our society actually feels responsible for bringing up boys. It is primarily women, mothers. Mothers sometimes say when they hold their little son in their arms: “It’s now up to me to make a proper man of him.” A wonderful goal. The only thing is: how does she do that as a woman?

Imagine the opposite case for a minute, if a father with his little daughter in his arms were to announce: “It is now up to me to make a proper woman of her.” We would find that disconcerting and, at minimum, we would say: “What does he know about being a woman?” Or, if we were more dramatically inclined, we would think seriously about calling the child protection services.

What a boy is, a “real boy”, how he should behave and what becomes him – that is the responsibility of the woman and mother in our society. We expect of her, or she expects of herself by virtue of her motherhood, to know what the “real” man or boy is supposed to be like. Boys frequently grow up from an early age with the internalised message: “What you are about as a boy, what is right for you, what should be expected of you – you don’t know that yourself. Your own ideas about that need constant correction and refinement through your mother.” Mothers bring up their boys in the way that they think men should be. And what makes up a “real” man is a mixture of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Heidi. He is certainly meant to be a full-blooded male, strong and down-to-earth, but he should also be sensitive, considerate and full of “decorum”. It is particularly teaching boys such “decorum” which is as important for such mothers as it is hard work. Because pure masculinity is something for them which in principle has to be civilised and contained. A boy is always at risk of becoming vulgar, prone to developing into a perpetrator of violence, a drug dealer or sex offender. It is the task of the mother to prevent this. Thus the masculinity of her son becomes the constant object of instruction, containment, warning, moral outrage and correction.

Why do we expect women to take on this task? Why do some women feel called upon to take on this task? Why do fathers go along with it? Clearly many fathers share the image of their wives and believe in giving them the trainer’s licence. The main thing they reveal about themselves by doing so is that they themselves do not have any confidence in their masculinity. They thus pass on the message to their sons which can be summed up in a little joke: Jimmy is occupied with his biology homework. He did not understand everything in school and asks his father, buried in his newspaper: “Dad, where do we get testosterone from?” Dad responds: “Ask Mum, she does all the shopping.”

This general jurisdiction of mothers over the development of masculinity in their sons is also a tragedy to the extent that it in principle crosses boundaries. Because the jurisdiction of women over developing masculinity fundamentally ignores the differences in the essential nature of female and male experience.

Jealousy and fear of feminine vitality

First, men cannot themselves experience what it means to be able to conceive, bear and feed life. That leads to an existential insecurity with regard to what is alive in general and the feminine in particular. In so far as I can tell, this is precisely what underlies sexist and misogynistic words and actions.

A mother who feels or has to feel responsible for the development of the masculinity of her son forces a world on the boy with these elemental facts which is fundamentally alien to him and can even subconsciously make him afraid. Most boys react to this by rejecting anything that is feminine or what they see as such and yet at the same time they long for the proximity of just this incomprehensible sphere. This ambivalence is taken one stage further with single mothers where femininity is consciously or unconsciously made the focus of the son’s attention. In working therapeutically with sex offenders – abusers, rapists, exhibitionists – I regularly come across men who grew up in a negative, often latently incestuously tinged closeness to their mother.

Not every son of a single mother becomes a sex offender. But the link between violence and sexuality does not go back to negative role models but to an absence of such. And be it only because, although the father is present, he nevertheless leaves the upbringing to his wife.

One extra developmental step for boys

The second aspect consists of the situation that a boy has to detach himself from his primary attachment figure, which in most cases is the mother, in order to find his sexual identity. Girls do not have to do that. The bond between the child, whom we think of at that point as gender neutral, and the mother is well known to be existentially different from the bond between father and child. The child has a deep, almost vegetative and initially of course nonreflective connection with the mother whereas it first has to gradually find and develop the relationship with the father.

For boys this means that they have to go through one more developmental step than girls. Boys must not stay in this nonreflective relationship with the mother. They must not identify with the feminine, but girls of course do. Boys do not learn what a boy is through primary identification with the mother but only through secondary identification with the father.

For boys this means that they depend on the mother permitting such a developmental step and on finding a male attachment figure who can give them guidance.

Even if the mother is willing to leave her son free in the issue of determining his gender role, he faces the problem of having to find the male attachment figure. And even if the mother living apart from the father does not belittle the father in front of her son, it is not hard to imagine that the son might have difficulty in finding male guidance which gives him security.

Many boys are lucky and find what they need in their stepfather or a relative. But many whose father lives apart develop a caricature instead of a realistic and manageable father or male image. They idealise their absent father and as a logical consequence masculinity – and yet feel deep within themselves the hollowness of the male myths in which they have sought refuge.

In such cases the father is at the very least a kind of modern knight, independent and free, and only reliant on himself; he is highly effective, at least in a figurative sense; has lots of money, for example, because he can afford constant visits to leisure parks, the circus or sporting events; he has power because by leaving he has determined the life of the rest of the family. Here the question arises once again: what does such a boy learn, first, about the content of the male role and what does he learn, second, about its meaning?

Men must want to be involved in upbringing

The stronger sex is, particularly when we look at its development, the weaker and more at risk one. In this situation it is of little help that our familiar education, but also state education, is feminine to the present day. That is not an accusation against women in the relevant professions but a challenge to the male sex to become involved in education, and specifically the education of boys, not just privately but also through the choice of occupation.

There is no longer a specific gender-based education. That is understandable because we have recognised the one-sided nature of a previous gender-specific and gender-separated education system and understood that it brought with it – for girls possibly even more so than for boys – the fixation on and limitation to rigid gender roles. On the other hand partially gender-specific education and schooling, particularly for boys, would certainly be of help.

Spaces without women would help

In many places there have been so-called “boys’ centres” for some years. These are spaces without women under the leadership of men which do not, however, celebrate some kind of myth of primitive masculinity but in which there is reflection on, research into and experimentation with what it might mean to be a boy or a man. Other cultures, and primarily so-called primitive societies, have such boy-specific social spaces and we may assume that this is one of the reasons why there are fewer problems there with male violence and the crossing of boundaries than is the case with us. In my child guidance practice it is my experience, contrary to all sociological considerations and gender research, that a core does exist in which gender comes to expression which is even more important today than previously and allows for greater orientation than educational methods, be they ever so sophisticated. A small boy, who out of curiosity had observed girls changing in the cabins at an open air swimming pool, was tackled about this by his angry father. In response to the father’s question: “And what do you have to say for yourself?” the boy answered: “What you always say, Daddy: as long as we’re healthy”.

About the author: Mathias Wais studied psychology, Judaic studies and Tibetology in Munich, Tübingen and Haifa. In his work he focuses on biography work, biographical and child guidance. He is a member of staff at the “Child, Adolescent and Adult Advice Centre” in Dortmund.