Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lost Boys

There was a piece a while back at the Daily Beast on the trend for American parents to “feminize” the names given to baby boys. Most of the names mentioned in the article are not in and of themselves all that bad. However, the motivation behind these parents’ decision to choose less masculine, more “gender neutral” names for their boys is disturbing.

Their choice: Maxfield. “We liked it that the name carried no image of masculinity, that it would free him from all preconceptions and let people see him as unique,” Richmond said.

“All those preconceptions” about what? Being a boy?

“With the new masculinity, wanting men to be involved fathers, to have close friendships, to really be compassionate, are all things my husband and I thought about when we gave our son his name,” said Katherine Woods-Morse, who works for a foundation in Portland, Oregon, and whose now 12-year-old son is named Paxton.

Woods-Morse chose names for her children--she also has a daughter named Torin--before she knew their genders, an effort to counteract stereotyping. “We very specifically wanted to not put a lot of gender role pressure on our children with their names, though we also didn’t want to embarrass them by going with something too feminine for a boy or too masculine for a girl.

Again, what is this “gender role pressure” that she speaks of? To act like a boy or a girl? Which by the way is what their nature inclines them to do.

For some parents, it’s not about redefining gender roles so much as redefining the next generation. “I was a child of the ’70s, my parents were children of the ’40s, and I’m trying to teach my sons you don’t have to be so traditional, to reflect more of a global culture, to open them up to different family structures and different orientations,” said Deb Levy, a New Jersey graphic designer and mother of Jacob, 10, Asher, 6, and Zane, 4.

In choosing names for her boys, Levy said, “I wanted to imbue my sons with feminist values, but you’ve also got to pack them off to school every day. You can spend all this time thinking about a name, but then they’re going to become who they’re going to be anyway.”

Open question: is it in any way a good idea to “imbue” boys with “feminist values” (whatever the heck that means) in the first place? I think not. Teaching them quaint notions like respecting, honoring, and defending women ought to be enough. By the way, for the last forty odd years or so the public schools have been trying to seed these same feminist values in boys. Ask a twenty-something single woman how that’s worked out for them.

One might argue that parents who name their sons Calum Stuart, the choice of doula and lactation consultant Virginia Wadsworth Middlemiss, also may be more likely to raise those sons in ways that are consistent with the name’s meaning of “gentle chief” (as Middlemiss says she has): attending the Unitarian Church, not playing with guns, embracing modern and open opinions and attitudes.

One can only hope that little Calum grows up to convert to the Orthodox Church, own several firearms, and embrace conservative political values (which I would imagine are the opposite of the “modern and open opinions” that his mother holds). C’mon Karma.

“Among my generation of parents, our nontraditional boys’ names--vaguely androgynous, nonmacho, or just plain unique--reflect our own desire to raise sons who will be as comfortable pushing dolls in strollers as pushing trucks,” said Deborah Siegel, Ph.D., author of Sisterhood, Interrupted and founding partner of SheWrites, whose 1-year-old son is named Teo. “But what I wonder is this: Will a boy by a different name really be that much more sweet?"

Let’s pray to God not. The generation of boys now being raised in America will face no end of challenges as the men of tomorrow. The threat posed by Islamic extremists will likely still be with us. As will the threat to American economic and innovative leadership from countries such as China, India, and Brazil. The mettle of these future men of America will no doubt be put to the test. Giving this generation of boys kindler, gentler, softer names doesn’t seem to be the way to forge the strength they will need.

(For the record, all of my boys have boys names: one a Revolutionary War hero, one a Biblical prophet, and one oft associated with Anglo-Saxon nobility even today.)

Sisyphus Adds: That article has to be a parody. I expected to see a quote like this: “I know I won’t be able to be around much to help encourage my son to explore his feminine side, so I chose to give him a name that will not put a lot of gender role pressure on him. That is why I named him Sue.”