I Never Felt Comfortable Telling My Son To ‘Toughen Up,’ But It’s All I Tell My Daughter

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When my son was born – and even before – I thought a lot about the messages I did not want to send him growing up. I’ve always hated how people default to certain phrases for boys and girls. I’ve been acutely aware that I never wanted to tell my male child to “toughen up” or “shake it off” or be a “strong boy.” I never wanted to socialize my little boy that way. And now that he’s three – I still watch the things that come out of my mouth in regards to “being a boy” and masculinity.

I do the exact opposite with my daughter, though.

I have a seven-month-old baby girl. She’s amazing. She rolled over when she was less than two months old, sat up at three months, started crawling at five months and now is looking really impatient in regards to walking. She’s constantly on her feet – and tumbling to the floor. Seriously – she can’t be stopped. She falls on her face about 30 times a day. My reaction? Shake it off! You’re a tough girl!


I’m constantly telling my seven-month-old daughter to be tough. When I talk about her, I use adjectives like strong, unstoppable, stubborn – she’s a bruiser. See? What is with the double standard?

I try to make myself feel better about this by patting myself on the back for not defaulting to traditional gender expectations. She is a tough little girl – why not reinforce that? But, my son is a tough kid, too. Why am I disturbed when using adjectives to describe my son that totally roll off my tongue when describing my daughter?

I guess I sort of know the answer to this. I never wanted to force it with my son. The Representation Project – the brilliant minds behind the documentary Miss Representation, put together another documentary – this time focusing on boys, titled, The Mask You Live In. It’s all about the messages we send boys: “The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to ‘be a man.’” I believe that. I feel like we’re setting our boys up to be aggressive and emotionally stunted by always expecting them to be strong. 

Honestly, I guess I just don’t have enough faith that the outside world will ever stop reinforcing stereotypes. I feel like my son will constantly hear toughen up! out there. I owe it to him to balance the scales, don’t I? My daughter will constantly hear about her looks and what a princess she is – right? Isn’t that how this works?

Maybe I’m doing this all wrong. But my intuition is telling me to make sure a boy who will be growing up in a world that expects him to be strong all the time should get the message at home that he doesn’t always need to be. Similarly, my intuition about raising my little girl is that the world still isn’t a place that opens its arms to women, and that she’s going to have a long fight ahead of her. Basically – the baggage I carry from living in a world where women still aren’t equal is affecting the way I raise my daughter – not my son.


I guess it’s good to be aware of these things. I guess. This hyper-reflective parenting we are all doing these days is really starting to get on my last nerve. It’s a blessing and a curse – all the information we have, all the stories we share,  and all the studies we read. I now can be certain that I really am screwing up my kids and setting them up for a lifetime of issues. One day my son will probably be saying, My mother never made me feel strong, and my daughter will counter with, I always had to be tough! I wanted to be a princess! 

All I can continue to do is go with my gut. My gut is telling me that both my kids are tough – it’s just a message that I think my daughter will need to hear more.

(photo: Getty Images)