When my ten-year-old son is excited, he flaps his hands like a limp-wristed seal.
He makes the same move when he’s happy, or when he’s being ironic, or when he’s delivering the punch line of a joke.
It’s the kind of gesture that can be endearing or annoying—depending on how many times it occurs in a given conversation—but it always fills me with a sense of pride. In a culture that allows boys such a narrow range of expression, I’m pleased to be raising a son who talks with his hands.
Still, there have been many times when I’ve locked eyes with my spouse above our flamboyant flapper. How long, we wondered silently, before someone rains on this hand parade?
There was a time when I was more optimistic. When Waylon was three, I introduced him to the soundtrack of my own childhood, Free to Be You and Me, but I purposely skipped the classic “William Wants a Doll.” Waylon didn’t yet know that boys who played with dolls were called sissies, and I didn’t want to introduce what I hoped were outmoded ideas.
It didn’t take long before Waylon’s peers proved me wrong. Even though he attended the most progressive preschool in town, a place where boys and girls alike wore nothing but briefs and body paint through much of the summer, he still caught flack. Other kids reacted in horror when he wore pink clothes or painted his toenails or carried an orange backpack with a peace symbol.
Katy and I searched for a way to help him think critically and stay safe in his social world. We explained that some families have very different rules for what boys can do and what girls can do. Some parents enforce these rules very strictly because they’re afraid of being different.
“It’s okay to be different,” we told him. “If someone gives you a hard time, you can tell them we don’t have those same boy rules at our house.”
I’m not sure he ever uttered those words, but our talks seemed to make him feel better, and he loved to come home with exasperated stories about the gender stereotypes he encountered.
“Did you know that some people think boys are not allowed to like the color purple?” he’d ask over dinner, rolling his eyes.
Given his critical perspective on gender expectations, you might think that he would be a bit of a rebel. But Waylon didn’t like to rock the boat. When he encountered resistance, he tended to retreat. By first grade, he wasn’t wearing pink shirts or painted nails.
I thought maybe he had too much at stake, being a kid with queer parents. Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with social hassles, or maybe those things just weren’t part of his evolving identity.
Then the flapping emerged as a major feature of his conversational schtick. It seemed so undeniably Waylon, such an expression of his personality, but I wondered if he’d retreat from that too, once he realized how other people perceived it.
The other night we were eating ice cream in bed and watching the Olympics.
“Do you want to hear something sexist or uh, racist or whatever?” Waylon asked during the commercial break.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Some people call this ‘sissy fighting,’” he said, flapping his arms in his usual way.
“Who says that?” Katy and I asked in instant unison.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged mysteriously. “But what does it mean?”
“It’s a stereotype that men who move their arms like that are gay,” Katy said.
“’Sissy’ is a word that people use to tease boys who don’t follow their idea of how boys are supposed to act,” I said. “It’s sexist and homophobic.”
“I know that,” Waylon said, as if my labels were belaboring the obvious.
That was it, end of conversation, he was ready to turn back to the TV. I snuggled next to him, my mind a swirl of conflicting emotions.
It’s painful to watch your child bump up against the world’s negative judgments. Whether or not Waylon keeps flapping, I know he’ll never be as free as he was before, and I resent it. But I feel hopeful too, because he didn’t seem ashamed. The way he framed it, the problem was other people’s bias, not the angle of his wrist.
Maybe he’ll live to flap another day.
Seal photo: Marcel Burkhard
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