Illustration: Kelsey Davenport


Is it wrong to think my son might need to toughen up a bit?

Liz Dashwood is in no way expecting her son to conform to hideous gender stereotypes, but he's not doing himself any favours crying at the slightest thing

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“You’ve got to get Thomas to toughen up,” says my friend Maria as we watch her son, David, and mine play together in the communal garden of our block of flats.

“I know,” I say. “I know.”

Before you start writing to social services and the Equalities Commission, let me say that this is not because Thomas is a boy and we find him to be cleaving insufficiently to the rigid forms and notions of masculinity that society needlessly yet consistently imposes upon all those of a certain genital arrangement. It is because – well, it is because he really needs to toughen up.

Every two minutes, on average (we timed it), I am called upon to examine a hurt finger, (invisibly) grazed knee or bumped (as far as I can tell by a leaf or unexpectedly strong breeze) head or adjudicate some perceived unfairness or peril in a game (“He was waving his stick too close to my eyes!”).

The contrast is more marked because David is a stoic. David could lose an arm in an accident and he would put it safely to one side and bring it over to his mother the next time there was a natural break in proceedings. I have seen him at a school football match play on with a gash in his knee so deep that the coach went as white as the bone that turned out to be showing beneath it when half time came.

'It’s nothing,' I say for the hundredth time as he proffers the body part he insists hath been lately most grievously insulted. 'There’s no blood. Nothing bent at a 90-degree angle. No necrosis. Just ignore it'

Meanwhile, like I say, strong breezes have mine looking round for the nearest Victorian fainting couch.

“It’s nothing,” I say for the hundredth time as he proffers the body part he insists hath been lately most grievously insulted. “There’s no blood. Nothing bent at a 90-degree angle. No necrosis. Just ignore it.”

David waits patiently for their activities to resume, but not all children have his saintly nature. They, quite rightly, are starting to stay away in droves.

I have consulted all my mum-friends about the problem. The general consensus is that, as with much of parenting, there is nothing to be done.

“They are how they are,” agrees Maria. “I didn’t teach David to ignore flesh wounds that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefield. He just does. And I don’t seem to be able to teach him to break out of a slow lumber when he’s got six minutes to get dressed and catch the bus for swimming. And he loves swimming. He simply cannot feel a sense of urgency.”

“I can’t stop Ashley worrying,” says Helen. “It’s just her nature. You just have to keep explaining that it’s not necessary and hope that eventually they’ll grow out of it.”

Others love reading; others won’t pick up a book. Some still have meltdowns when required to share; others will happily part with anything and pick up an alternative without fuss.

Encouraging them to fight against their flaws – without ever actually calling them flaws – seems to be the best we can hope to do. Nurture in an unending battle with nature.

“Such a rewarding job, motherhood,” says Maria.

“Isn’t it just,” I sigh as Thomas comes running towards me yet again with a face straight out of Edvard Munch because a butterfly has flapped its wings too near his crinoline. “Isn’t it just?”


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Illustration: Kelsey Davenport
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despatches from the school gate

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