Sexist Gender Roles or (Un)Common Courtesy? Why I Teach My Boys To Hold the Doors Open

Call me old-fashioned. But few things annoy me more than seeing an elderly couple or uncomfortable-looking pregnant woman standing in a crowded lobby while fresh-faced twenty-somethings slouch on the benches, fiddling with their iPhones.

*visualize indignant mom-glare*

Now, I’m hardly a stickler for manners. I don’t care if my kids put their elbows on the table or blow bubbles in their chocolate milk. But there are some social niceties that spring from kindness and common courtesy, and I encourage my boys to live by them. Offering your seat to your elders, and not letting the door slam shut in the face of the person behind you, are simple, thoughful gestures that show you are aware of the other person’s existance and care about their well-being.

And besides, little old ladies smile really wide when a six-year-old boy holds the door open for them.

Maybe that’s why I found this article on cross-gender rough-housing, posted on friend and fellow boy-mom Valerie’s Facebook wall, so interesting.

“We don’t play wild with girls.” The author, Lyn Lenz, was lamenting the very words that I have said to my boys on several occasions, making them out to be an un-feminist way of sidelining females.

But are they really?

I’ll admit, not only have I warned my boys about not playing rough with girls, both my husband and I have made it very, very clear that being unkind to a girl is about the worst thing they could ever do. Now, this may seem sexist at six or eight, when a good-sized girl could (and perhaps would) flatten them. (If, you know, my boys didn’t happen to be blond behemoths whose arrival off the school bus puts one in mind of the Viking invasions.) If you’re just raising boys, why make unnecessary distinctions?

But ultimately, we’re not raising boys who need to get along with girls. We’re raising men who need to get along with women. And the reality is that men usually have a huge physical advantage over women.

So, at what point are boys supposed to learn to treat their female friends with a bit more caution and consideration than their male peers? When they’re lanky, clumsy pre-teens who don’t know their own strength until they accidentally hurt someone?

I suppose that’s one way of doing it. But it’s not how I was raised, and it’s not how I’m raising my children.

I’ll admit to feeling the occassional twinge of guilt when I ask my fourteen-year-old to lug heavy things for me, because “I need his muscle.” In reality, we’re about the same size, and I’m not sure if he’s stronger than me yet. I don’t want to downplay my competence to build up his ego.

And yet, there is little question that within a year, he will be bigger and stronger than I will ever be. That throughout his life, it will be exponentially easier for him to carry in that second-hand chair from Goodwill, sling bags of garbage into the dumpster, and open stubborn pickle jars than it will be for the women in his life.

What is he going to do with that strength, that advantage? How is he going to use it? How should he use it?

So, what do you think? Is it offensive to acknowledge a physical advantage by treating others differently–by giving up your seat, offering to carry a heavy package, or suggesting a game of tag instead of tackle football? Or is it respectful? How do you feel when people make these concessions for you? How do you feel when they don’t?

I really do want to hear your thoughts on this, so please, speak up!

21 Responses to Sexist Gender Roles or (Un)Common Courtesy? Why I Teach My Boys To Hold the Doors Open

  1. Dawn Nicole Baldwin October 29, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    Great post :)

    I’ve taught both of my nearly grown children to give up their seats for pregnant women (or those with small children) & seniors. (I have a son AND daughter)

    I’m also grateful when a man offers to help lug my carry-on bag in an overhead bin, carry my stuff, hold doors or otherwise be kind in areas that are physically easier for him than my 5′ self in heels. It’s not sexist. It’s just helping another person. (I’m also happy to hold a door open for someone–man or woman–behind me at a door or struggling with packages)

    I think it’s just common courtesy.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 9:05 am #

      “I’m also grateful when a man offers to help lug my carry-on bag in an overhead bin, carry my stuff, hold doors or otherwise be kind in areas that are physically easier for him than my 5′ self in heels.”

      I think that’s one of the big things–if you offer to assist someone, does that mean you think they’re somehow weak and incompetent? Or that you’re being thoughtful and helpful? I definitely assume thoughtful and helpful, but not everyone does.

  2. Melody Harrison Hanson October 29, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    I actually do think it is sexist, unless we teach both girls and boys to be polite, give up their seat for the elderly, etc. Kindness is impt for every child to learn. As for opening doors, a courtesyetc,again t have nothing to do with gender.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      I hold doors and give up my seat (surreptitiously, when it comes to men old enough to feel honor-bound against it), and if I had girls, I’d teach them to do the same thing. But I think it has a different tone when boys do it, *because* it was such a gender thing for so long. I often wonder if those thoughtful traditions died because they were considered sexist, and people were afraid of being labeled as such, or if people just became self-absorbed. I think the bathwater absconded with the baby. :-)

      • Tim October 29, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

        “I think the bathwater absconded with the baby”


  3. Margaret Philbrick October 29, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    Teaching our sons to be servant leaders by putting others first in any circumstance is not sexist, it’s Biblical. It is actually honoring their masculinity to step in and provide help with the luggage in the overhead bin or open the door for anyone.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      It’s interesting, because while I’m not too concerned about enforcing gender expectations, I DO think it’s crucial for all Jesus’ followers to learn how to use their strengths in service of others, and navigate the advantages culture and nature have given them with grace and humility. For many men, physical strength and stature are one of those natural inequities they will have to negotiate in their relationships. They can ignore it, use it to serve others, or use it to serve themselves. But it is one of those realities that is sometimes glossed over.

  4. Valerie October 29, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Thanks for the shout out! I think it’s interesting, that in both our cases, we are godly women with very strong views of male and female equality, each with four boys! And yet, I agree with everything you are saying. I think a lifestyle of looking after others, and being considerate, is what we are teaching. Boys can be rough with one another and with their dads, but I LOVE that my boys will stand and hold the door open for the ladies at the gym I go to. My three year old does this and it melts my heart. It is not thinking less of the other person, it is teaching them to think more of the other person and offer them a kindness that not many people give in today’s world.

    On another note, I offered my seat to an elderly man the other day, and he just sat down with a huge grin. It really gets me when people do not do this for elderly or pregnant persons. I remember being 8 or 9 months pregnant and walking into a restaurant and standing there for an hour. For this mama, standing in one spot was very painful, and there may have been one or two times I was actually offered a seat.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

      Right there with you, Valerie!!! I wonder if the experience of raising a rough-and-tumble passel of boys impacts a person’s perspective on this matter. Girls can be crazy rowdy too–I’d never say otherwise–but it seems that boys are just so much *better* at sending their favorite people to the ER. ;-P I think kids in big families tend to be much more physical too, especially if one gender predominates. So maybe that plays into it as well.

  5. Barb October 29, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    We teach our children to be considerate of others, whatever that means in different situations. A girl can hold a door for someone as well as a boy — the elderly, a mom with three toddlers, a grandma with an armful of packages, or someone who can’t reach the top shelf at the grocery store. Boy or girl, man or woman, be considerate, be kind, help where you can, smile and greet when appropriate. When we do this, we put a smile in our hearts as well as those we help.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

      “When we do this, we put a smile in our hearts as well as those we help.”

      I love that! :-)

  6. Mallory October 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    Speaking as an independent, single female, it doesn’t offend or bother me when a man (or anyone for that matter) holds a door for me, offers to carry something for me, etc. If anything, I find it so rare for people to do so anymore that it’s actually refreshing! I view these examples as just being considerate/respectful, regardless of age/gender. I think to speculate about whether it’s sexist/condescending goes to a level of judging a person’s heart/motives of which I’m just not capable. Like one other commenter, I try to hold doors and offer my seat to whomever needs it. And, like you Jenny, nothing makes my blood boil faster than seeing someone fail to give up their seat to someone who needs it or fail to offer help to someone who’s obviously struggling.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

      It has become rare, hasn’t it? I remember being absolutely astounded once–I was on a subway wrangling a huge suitcase, a toddler and a kindergartener, with a weeks-old baby strapped to a carrier on my chest–and NO ONE offered their seat! I’ve gotten used to the restaurant thing (although it still REALLY annoys me) but that just seemed so over-the-top.

  7. kristen October 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    I don’t get why this has to be a gendered issue. Teaching our children to be aware and considerate of others is basic whether they are girls or boys. You open the door for the person behind you, or coming towards you (if it is a glass door), no matter who they are so the door doesn’t slam in their face, not because they are too weak!

    Teaching them to not “play rough” with people who are not their physical equal would be a better message over all, especially if they are built like “vikings”. There are probably some smaller boys they come into contact with who would rather not be at the receiving end of their rough play either. Making it a girls vs. boys thing sends the wrong message.

    I am a 6-foot-tall woman who regularly gets asked by shorter men and women at the grocery store to reach things for them, and I do it with a smile. I also expect the big or small man or woman ahead of me to hold the door if he/she is physically capable. If he/she is not, I’ll get it for her/him.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong October 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

      That’s a great point. I don’t think it has to be gendered–I just have no experience raising anyone who is not male and significantly bigger than most of their peers. But I do think it carries a different tone when males offer than when females offer–the possibility of condescension. It’s something I think about more and more, going through the trippy experience of seeing the baby I used to have to do everything for doing things I would struggle to accomplish myself!

      • kristen October 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

        I get that. My 7-year-old boy is already close to 5 feet tall!

        I’m trying to focus him on understanding where his body begins and ends and how not to put it in the path of people around him. He always seems to be in the way!

        I guess the test for me would be would I teach the corresponding lesson to my imaginary daughter? Would I tell her to expect a boy to open a door for her because he is a boy and she is a girl? Probably not.

  8. kristen October 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    I should also add that the rough play scenario is quite different from holding a door for someone.

    But it is a great opportunity to teach about consent and respect – don’t play rough with someone who doesn’t want to, and stop when they say to stop. Same message will apply later on when the issue isn’t rough play, but sexual play.

    And this still applies equally to both sexes.

  9. Tim October 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    *visualize indignant mom-glare*

    Here’s a visualization for you, Jen. Picture me going up to the miscreant and telling them that someone else needs their seat, or telling them it would be polite to say thanks to the person who let them go ahead in line. Yes, I’ve done that to complete strangers. I try to choose my situation wisely, though, so as to avoid getting knifed in response. Being told to get lost, on the other hand, I can cope with.

  10. Kathy November 12, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Recently my teenage son was heading to the cash register in the supermarket with his one can of energy drink and bag of crisps when an old woman with a cart piled high virtually raced in front of him!! So… how on earth do I teach him to respect other (older) people and put them first!! Actually he’s pretty good at it but seriously – adults don’t always help! :)

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