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The perils (and perks) of parenting a child of the opposite gender


Q. I’m the mom of a little girl, am now into my second pregnancy, and my husband and I just found we’re having a boy. This panics me more than I care to admit. I grew up with sisters; I’ve got a daughter. Can you freak me out a little less about parenting a child of the opposite gender?

KATHY: All I can say is that you are about to expand way more than your belly. My mind, my perceptions, my presuppositions — all have been wildly broadened by the experience of parenting the opposite side. As a woman, you can have a husband, a brother, a father — but, I’m sorry, you are a rank amateur about understanding the male species until you have a son. Because you are at the construction site here, the raw foundation, not the finished structure. I realize we have hit the age of gender fluidity, but for me Boyland has been shockingly different from Girlville.


My defining moment came one summer day when I took my son Will, then 5, to the new playground just built for the kindergarten he’d attend in the fall. Another little boy was there, whom Will had never met. This boy marched up to Will, got right up in his face, and blurted, “I’m bigger than you!” My son stared back and retorted, “I’m faster than you!” and started running. The other boy puffed after him, and when they stopped they happily began playing on the swings. No hard feelings, just a chest-beating establishment of status. Trust me, no female-to-female meet-greet in history has ever unfolded like this. I felt like Jane Goodall among the chimps.

JEFF: I’m not sure whether to carry on with this discussion, or just go climb a tree and eat my banana.


You can have your highbrow anthropology, Kathy. I’m going to approach this with an erudite exploration of our culture’s most primal phenomenon: shopping. The first time I recognized that being father to a daughter was going to be different from filling that role for a son was one Christmastime when I went to our town’s toy store, by myself, hunting for gifts to put under the tree. I immediately found two or three or eight or nine items that I knew my kindergartner son would love. Now, I hadn’t deliberately been searching only for the boy, but LEGOs and Hot Wheels and such just jumped off the shelves, inviting me to play. I had to consciously comb the aisles for girl stuff, and kept picking up toys and staring at them, hoping to feel a connection. Nothing. I called my wife.

It’s not so much that a son is a carbon copy of his dad, but there’s an intrinsic common ground that allows for intuition to lead the dance. With my daughter, I’ve had to learn the steps, 1-2-3. But you know what? Clumsy as it can be at times, this has been a beautiful experience because I’m required to be fully present with her, no automatic pilot. As a result, I believe I am more patient with my girl. Her big brother sometimes has to deal with the burden of my expectations — such as when he doesn’t handle a situation the way I would. Because, after all, I’m the perfect male role model, never having made a mistake in my life.


KATHY: Yes, Jeff, but can you run faster than me? And I hear you on the pressures that affinity brings. My daughter doesn’t always want to know how I handled classic girl scenarios like, say, friendship triangles. She wants to blaze her own trail. I’m a native speaker with her, but I’ve had to learn a second language with my son, and honor the customs of the country. When he was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, for instance, my instinct was to make up stories, like I did with my Barbies (I mean, hey, they do have faces). “Oh boy. Percy and James head to the roundhouse, meet Diesel and Terence, and then go out for milkshakes!” This was completely wrong. Too much talk, not enough action.

With my backstage pass to Male-apalooza, I’ve also come to admire a seemingly clearer way to live in the world. That “I’m bigger-faster” exchange has now morphed into Will and his teenage teammates candidly comparing who’s a better rebounder or 3-point shooter. To female ears, it sounds like bragging. But the guys just think it’s being honest.

Meanwhile, we female tribeswomen exhaust ourselves engaging in constant “one-downsmanship,” to use the psychologist’s term. Amy Schumer did a hilarious sketch about this called “Compliments.” One woman says to another: “Look at your cute little dress!” Other woman: “Little? I’m like a size 100 now. And I paid like 2 dollars for it. It’s probably made out of old Burger King crowns.” And so I say to the questioner: Get ready — not only to understand males better, but to reconsider female approaches too.


JEFF: For the record, Thomas and friends are completely wrong even when they’re not performing Shakespearean soliloquies. As for the comedy sketch, I’m laughing and grimacing at the same time, because even as I develop some understanding of how my daughter’s mind and emotions work, I realize that she’s growing older and her relationships with other girls — and with boys! — are going to throw me many a curveball. But that “learning a second language” analogy of yours, Kathy, reminds me that parenting is basically an ongoing adult ed class. If our kids were just like us, with no surprises or mysteries, that wouldn’t be very invigorating, would it?

Jeff Wagenheim and Katharine Whittemore were founding editors at the innovative parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the “Seven Books About . . . ” book review column for the Globe. Wagenheim writes for Sports Illustrated and the Globe (covering sports and the arts).