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Faith in Vermont: For the Boy Next Door

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Posted on November 21, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



When we moved into our current house, we moved next door to a boy. He’s an only child, and we share part of our long driveway with him and his mother.

The boy next door, whom I’ll call Theo, was nine years old at the time – a year older than my eldest daughter. The first time we met Theo was the day we took possession of our house: He and his mother joined us for pizza on our lawn, since we had no furniture in the house. My girls were so loud, and there were so many of them; I was certain that they’d overwhelm Theo. On top of that, my oldest daughters had recently picked up the sort of “girls rule, boys drool,” attitude that seems to predominate early elementary school culture.

In short: I couldn’t imagine much of a future for Theo and my daughters.

Fast forward: Theo just turned 11, and feels as much a part of our family as if we’d adopted a big brother. When he comes over to play, which happens multiple times a week, the best word I can use to describe it is: magic. Somehow, he is able to navigate four rambunctious girls between the ages of four to ten. Theo is one of the only people who’s ever been able to play with all of my daughters simultaneously without anybody feeling left out or jockeying for position. I breathe a sigh of relief when he comes over, because I know it means a couple hours of relief from sibling screams and squabbles.

Over the past months, my daughters and Theo have invented a game called “Fox and Chickens;” battled invisible forces of evil in our field with wooden swords, bows, and arrows; pretended to be birds of prey; made up their own farm (complete with a cheesemaking plant); and imagined they were orphaned siblings left to fend for themselves.  The five of them share a love of theater, fantasy, and animals. (Also, they’re all homeschooled, which means that they have plenty of opportunities to play while their peers are still in school.)

All of this has delighted and surprised me. The truth is, although I’ve had many excellent male friends throughout my lifetime (culminating in my best friend: my husband), boys are still a mystery to me. I was an only child, so I missed out on brothers. In my career as a teacher, I taught only at girls’ schools. Then, I went on to have four daughters.

There are several apt literary portrayals of “four sisters and the boy next door.” For a while, we joked that Theo was our “Laurie;” a reference to Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, in which the four March sisters strike up an enduring friendship with Laurie Lawrence, who lives next door with his grandfather.

Then, we read The Penderwicks, the first book in Jeanne Birdsall’s recent series about the four Penderwick sisters, who end up in a Berkshire vacation cottage next door to Jeffrey Tifton and begin a friendship that changes all of their lives. The personalities of the Penderwick sisters are so closely aligned with my daughters’ personalities, and Jeffrey is such a dead ringer for Theo, that our two families began reading The Penderwicks together and laughing in recognition of how closely our reality mirrors fiction. (The only objection Theo’s mother and I have to the book is that the Penderwicks’ mother is dead, and Jeffery’s mother is a snooty rich woman.)

I thought about Theo the other day, as my husband and I discussed the rampant wave of sexual assault accusations that began with Harvey Weinstein and swept across the American cultural and political landscape. It turns out that almost every female I know has been subjected to some sort of assault, physical or verbal. As a mother of four daughters, I picture my daughters’ faces with every “Me, too.”

I’m concerned about our girls.

My husband’s response: “Men are jerks.”

But now we have Theo – and Theo isn’t the only boy in our lives: There are several boys whom I love like my own children. I want the best for them. I am grateful for their friendships with my daughters. I look forward to seeing them grow into the men they’ll be.

So I’m also concerned about our boys.

Interestingly, the CD that’s been on repeat in our minivan these days is Marlo Thomas’s 1972 children’s album, “Free to Be…You and Me.” “Free to Be…” was the soundtrack of my childhood (on the record player, of course.) It introduced a generation to the revolutionary idea that girls could build things and run fast, and boys could cry and play with dolls.

Listening to it 45 years later, I’m struck by how slow and lopsided the progress has been.

My eldest daughter just wrote a letter of complaint to Nova Naturals, a local toy catalogue filled with Waldorf-inspired wooden toys and play-silks. If anything exudes “hippy-dippy progressive Vermont,” it’s Nova Naturals. Yet my daughter noticed that, in their catalogue, only boys were photographed playing with the wooden swords and construction sets; only girls were depicted playing with dolls.

Her letter read, in part: “Girls like swords, too -- this is the 21st century!”

So certain gender stereotypes – boys must like weapons and trucks, while girls must like dolls – are still alive and well.

But progress is being made, for girls at least: Despite hard-to-shake stereotypes, my daughter wrote her letter to Nova Naturals because she felt empowered to do so. She felt empowered to do so because these days there are a dizzying array of books available for her to read about powerful female role models. The message of these books: You can be whatever you want. You can be a leader. Please consider jobs in the STEAM fields. Our town runs a STEAM summer camp for girls only. And recently even the Boy Scouts made the controversial decision to admit girls (while the Girl Scouts maintain that they’ll remain a “safe space” for girls.)

All of which is wonderful -- for girls. I feel as if my daughters have caught up with the vision advanced in “Free to Be…You and Me.” But have our boys? What messages are we sending them? What role models are we pointing them towards? Or is society’s current message to boys more along the lines of: Don’t be a jerk?

The problem, it seems to me, is not that all men are jerks, which is obviously untrue and unhelpful. The problem has to do with power and success – two things that our culture idolizes. The two are linked, of course: Those who achieve career success usually find themselves in positions of power. People in positions of power often abuse that power -- lording it over the lives, minds, and bodies of those with less power -- because they feel invincible. And historically, men have had more access to positions of power than women.

I don’t have a magic answer, but what if, in addition to providing girls with female role models who are powerful and successful, we also offered role models – for both genders – who are kind, humble, and sacrificial? What if, rather than encouraging either gender to equate power with success, we just encouraged everyone to be their best self? After all, this is the 21st century.

As they move into puberty, the relationship between Theo and my daughters may grow awkward. But I hope it serves as an early example to them that solid, safe relationships between genders are possible. The other day, Theo wrote our family a letter that concluded with, “You’ll always be my Penderwicks.” I hope so.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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