Re-reading parenting manuals, I realise they are DIY guides to toxic masculinity

“The sorts of masculine behaviour required for stalking, pursuing and killing wild animals are very different from the feminine virtues.”

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I never meant to become a mother of three boys. A lifelong feminist, I planned to raise an army of Amazons to take on the world.

Alas, it was not to be. My head said “smash the patriarchy” but my uterus said “must make replacements”. To be fair, it’s not been all bad. My sons are utterly brilliant people. I just wish someone had warned me about the books.

I suspect many of my fellow feminists have no idea just how truly awful the literature aimed at mothers raising sons has been. Think “misogynistic and essentialist” – Piers Morgan, perhaps – then times that by 1,000.

Of course, it doesn’t mean to be that way. Such literature is, we are told in that sad, regretful tone adopted by neurosexists and evolutionary misogynists everywhere, merely presenting the facts. No one wants to believe boys are naturally aggressive, girls naturally submissive, but you can’t argue with bullshit science. Just don’t blame the messenger, OK?

In 1997’s Raising Boys – a bestseller, still in print today – godfather of raising boys bullshit Steve Biddulph complains that “for 30 years it has been trendy to deny masculinity and say boys and girls are just the same”. And yes, if I’m honest, that was totally my experience of being a child of the Seventies and Eighties, providing you exclude the “reality” bits:

The fashionable theory for the last 30 years has been that boys and girls have no differences other than those we give them through conditioning. According to this thinking, all differences in gender arise from the clothes and toys we give them, and so on. Well-meaning parents and lots of pre-schools and schools got quite fanatical about this: working hard to get the boys to play with dolls and the girls into the Lego. It was felt that if we raised all children the same then gender differences and problems would disappear.

Steve, mate. What planet were you on? The one in which it was legal for husbands to rape wives, in which the nagging and shagging defence could excuse a man for killing his partner, in which judges could claim rape victims were guilty of “contributory negligence”? On such a planet, do you seriously believe scores of people were particularly arsed about getting their sons to play with Barbie? (Spoiler: they weren’t.)

As Cordelia Fine notes in 2010’s Delusions of Gender, “writers who argue that there are hardwired differences between the sexes that account for the gender status quo often like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness”. Fine is a respected academic yet her work, unlike that of Biddulph, is dismissed by some as bearing the taint of feminist bias, due to the ongoing assumption that feminism is a political ideology being superimposed on a neutral reality. As she wryly observes, there are “two familiar protagonists in the sex differences debate”:

There’s the hero, who doesn’t let political values get in the way of the search for scientific truth. And then, there’s the villain of the piece. That bogeywoman – the truth-fearing feminist.

There is undoubtedly something in it for women in demolishing the idea that females are “naturally” subservient. This is seen as sufficient reason to treat anti-essentialist arguments with suspicion. That there may be something in it for men in promoting the continuation of the status quo is, on the other hand, politely ignored.

For the feminist mother of boys, this can be a major cause of headaches. Like most new mothers, you’re unsure of yourself. People tell you that you simply must read a bit of Biddulph, or Nigel Latta’s Mothers Raising Sons, or Sue Palmer’s 21st Century Boys, or whatever the new “I’m not a 1950s ideologue but…” parenting bible is, and so you do.

You know that what you find in them is total bollocks, but you are up against three obstacles:

1. you are a feminist, hence politically motivated in a way that non-feminists are not
2. the science says females are rubbish at science, hence you saying it’s bollocks will be taken as evidence of it being correct
3. whether the science is accurate or not, what kind of bitch puts her feminist principles before the wellbeing of her offspring? Would it kill you to just accept that males are naturally more aggressive due to hunting mammoth or testosterone surges or something? (NB it might indeed kill you, but you’re a mum now so stop always thinking of yourself.)

Writing for the website MamaMia, one mother of boys dutifully admits defeat: “I may have been [a feminist] at one time, but then I became the mother of two boys and I realised that I cannot align with a message that has changed into something degrading, offensive, accusatory and opposed to the morals and messages I am teaching my kid.” In MOB Rule: Lessons Learned by a Mother of Boys, Hannah Evans positions herself, a Mother Of Boys (“always exhausted, often exasperated, but nevertheless totally enamoured with her trio of testosterone and biggest boy husband”) against the Mother Of Girls, who “smiles at the MOB sympathetically, sanctimoniously or possibly not at all”.

Maybe I ought to feel ashamed at my inability to make a similar statement of affiliation to Team Boy. The trouble is, I just can’t see my sons that way. I think they’re better than what masculinity has to offer.

All Nineties and Noughties guides to raising boys are rubbish, but each is rubbish in its own special way. Biddulph is quite the Freudian, all in favour of devoted, submissive mothers while the infant is young (like Palmer, he is quite clear about baby boys needing more attention than baby girls – how could that possibly go wrong?). When the boy reaches his teens, he must separate from the mother who has accepted him as a substitute penis and submit to the Law of the Father … Sorry, I mean “benefit from a strong male role model in order to overcome DDD (Dad Deficiency Disorder)”. “Women are, on the whole, getting it right,” says Biddulph, magnanimously, while also strongly hinting that putting baby boys in day care and not having a dominant man in your life would count as getting it wrong.

By contrast, Palmer’s 21st Century Boys is obsessed with the Stone Age. In acknowledging that men are more violent than women, Palmer helpfully points out that this would “be required for fending off attackers and hunting down prey”:

The sorts of masculine behaviour required for stalking, pursuing and killing wild animals are very different from the feminine virtues needed for raising infants and getting along with one’s fellow campers. Natural selection therefore meant that over the millennia, male and female developed gender traits fitting them for their particular roles, and these traits are hard-wired into our psyches at birth.

Demonstrating impressively circular argumentation skills, Palmer then suggests contemporary educational assessments and crime statistics prove her point. I’d laugh only apparently if we refuse to acknowledge that there are “essential differences between boys and girls […] we damage the prospects of all children - indeed, perhaps of our species as a whole”. Best get your sons kitted out sabre tooth tiger skins forthwith.

In Mothers Raising Sons, Nigel Latta tries – by god, he tries – not to be a total arse yet still comes out with passages such as “the ‘zero tolerance for violence’ stuff has become almost ridiculous in many places”:

This is particularly difficult for boys, whose games often include people being shot, stabbed, speared, blown up and decapitated. All this is ripping good fun, but would be frowned upon greatly in many schools.

Yeah, sod that. All that frowning upon decapitation re-enactment! Whatever next?

One constant throughout the traditional raising boys literature is the idea that boys have an innate, manly aggression that must find an outlet somewhere. There’s disagreement on whether it comes from their Stone Age past or their testosterone-fuelled present, but who cares, it’s there and if you don’t let boys engage in enough low-level violence, they’re bound to get embroiled in the big league version. “If there is a natural urge in little boys to fight,” writes Palmer, “banning it is rather like trying to crush something deep in their soul.” Indeed, banning it makes you a mean feminazi who will have only herself to blame – and not a massive violence-apologist, porn-soaked culture – when her soul-crushed sons have got a taste for causing pain.

My eldest son is now ten. Have things got better since the day I first opened up my Biddulph? Certainly I’d say we’re not out of the neurosexism woods yet. Beliefs in the existence of pink and blue brains still flourish. The recent flurry of books presenting boys with gender non-conforming heroes to look up to – as opposed to F4J-style father figures – is a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, while breaking down stereotypes matters, we need to remember just how deeply entrenched our beliefs about male and female human beings remain, and why they’re in place.

Gender is not simply a matter of who gets to play with cars and who with dolls; it’s about grooming those playing with cars to be dominant, those playing with dolls to be subordinate. You can take away the cars and replace them with dolls without questioning deeper assumptions about the player. If we want our children to be their true selves – whatever that means – we need to think hard about the relationship between what is believed about boys and girls and what is desired of them. 

As Grayson Perry writes in The Descent of Man, with reference to global statistics for male violence against women, “gender may be a performance but it is not playing pretend”. While I can ridicule the books I’ve collected over the years, their basic, if incoherent, message – that we continue to condition our sons to be aggressive in order to make them less aggressive – is dangerous. The babies that were handed to me did not come with a hidden, seething cauldron of hate in their bellies.

Hence my advice to any fellow feminist mother of boys: ignore the books. Be your best feminazi mother from hell and treat your sons like the unique human beings they are.

They may end up hating you for it. Years from now, they may be found in student bars ranting over the sheer injustice of having been given a Polly Pocket instead of a bullish sense of entitlement and dominance over the female sex.

Oh well. It takes a village to raise a child. At least you’ll know that you weren’t the idiot.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.