Four ways to get around the ‘boy-girl’ thing.

As a mother of a daughter and a son, I was always trying, perhaps over-trying, to balance the boy-girl thing. I would encourage Edvard to cuddle his teddy bear and Emma to build with Lego bricks. 

Edvard happily came for the cuddles, but Emma always gathered up all the Lego people and sat them down for a morning meeting, like the one at kindergarten. Oh well you can lead a child to Lego but you can’t make them build…

And as I read my kids bedtime stories, especially fairy tales, I would find myself editing them on the fly to make them more the stories I wanted my son and daughter to hear. 

I would tweak the girl character’s actions or speech to make them appear a little less useless. Surely Rapunzel with a brain as clever as her hair was long, had time enough in that tower to work her own way out? And there was no way Little Red Riding Hood would not recognise a wolf when she saw one – and why was she being defined by what she wore?

I would do the same to the boy characters too, adjusting to make them a bit more emotionally normal. It would be weird, wouldn’t it, if the prince wasn’t just a little scared, even maybe shed a tear as he faced up against a fire-breathing dragon? After all, what would be the point of all that dragon-felling and tower-climbing, if the princes didn’t have an emotional, let alone an empathetic, thought in their handsome heads?

After all, what we want is feisty and feeling kids who can help and rescue people – and sometimes themselves. To help them become that, I think we need to crush the clichés and smash the stereotypes.

Here are four things I learnt – or my kids taught me.  

1. Caring is pretty cool and not just for girls

When my son wasn’t building towers with Lego or shooting people with bananas, one of his favourite toys was ‘baby’ Sammy. He had asked for a baby doll when he spied one in a toy shop and I confess my first instinct was to move him quickly on to the adventure toys. Thankfully, he persisted and I came to my senses and Sammy became a much-loved part of family life. Playing with Sammy gave an early lesson in nurturing and caring that I would have been nuts to stop him having – but I nearly did because I was a little trapped in the ‘boy-girl thing’.

2. Heroes help people but still smash stuff

My son loved fire engines and fire men (well, who doesn’t?). It may have been the scream of the sirens and the trucks and hoses that drew him in, but it also taught him that heroes are people that help other people, often at great risk. However, it can make a bit of a mess, this rescuing business, as my son explained why his bedroom was so trashed – ‘I was just rescuing!’. He had a point. Things can get messy when rescuing – things can crack open, burst into flames – I learnt to embrace the explosions as part of process!

3. Heroes can and should cry

One of my favourite memories is coming into the living room to see father, son and daughter all tearing up watching Marley and Me. Big boys – including really big boys, like husbands, can and definitely should cry. After all, what’s wrong with showing you feel stuff? Armour is for bodies not hearts. Real men do eat quiche (never got that one) and cry when something or someone hurts. 

Which leads me to the conclusion that what we really need to do is …

4. Crush the clichés 

Smash or don’t smash? I think I have finally learnt that the answer lies in the messy middle. My little nephew’s favourite nail polish colour at the moment is a beautiful pink with sparkles – it does get a bit chipped when he engages his friends in stick-sword-fighting at school. It’s reapplied each evening – at the same time that his mum talks to him about the potential pitfalls of waving sticks around at each other…

So I’m learning to check my assumptions, ease up on the boy-girl thing and enjoy life in the messy middle.

By Susannah McFarlane. Susannah is the bestselling Australian author of Fairytales for Feisty Girls and Bold Tales for Brave-hearted Boys.