Sexual politics in the 90s: Daddy's girls, mummy's boys

Parents should be sex-blind. But conquer the bias and you kill the magic, says Maureen Freely

What does a father look for in a daughter? What does a mother see in a son? No one seems to want to say these days. It's far easier to talk about what fathers should not look for and mothers should not see.

We all carry about with us memories of monsters we have met who broke the rules, and this is mine. The matriarch owner of a rooming house on the Greek island of Kos, who refused to believe that her brute of an 18- year-old son had entered my room during the night and tried to rape me. "It's impossible," she kept saying. "My son is a fine man. He would never do such a thing. You must have mistaken him for someone else." When I insisted that I hadn't, she invited me into look into the parlour-turned- makeshift bedroom where her son was sleeping with an assortment of cousins. "Tell me which one entered your room," she said. When I pointed him out, an adoring smile spread across her face. "Yes," she sighed. "That's my son, all right. Isn't he the most handsome man you've ever seen."

At the time I saw a direct link between this brand of maternal super- indulgence and all the rapes and wars of the world. I still do - of course! - but now that I have a son the same age, I think, well, at least this woman wasn't ashamed to admit she had a soft spot for the boy. In this day, age and culture, it is almost sacrilegious for mothers to prefer sons, and the same goes for fathers and daughters. We all aspire to be sex-blind parents. We want our sons and daughters to grow up with the same judicious blend of formerly male and female virtues. They should all be able to stand on their own two feet, but they should also know how to care for others. Girls should have a chance to be assertive! Boys should be applauded when they dare to cry!

That's the official line, but you can't spend five minutes in the company of mothers and sons without noticing that the good theoretical intentions don't quite translate into perfect practice. When a little boy introduces a baby doll into a war game, there is usually a tinge of pride in his mother's voice when she tells him he is an incorrigible little monster. When he grows up and goes grunge, she will lecture him incessantly about the importance of boys knowing how to do their own laundry. But when he goes out without having so much as picked up his socks off the floor, she runs around disappearing them before anyone else can notice or complain. I am speaking about myself, of course, but I have seen this behaviour in many other mothers, and I see it, too, in fathers with their daughters.

When my five-year-old sweeps into the kitchen wearing her Esmerelda dress, when her three-year-old sister pushes past her to climb onto her father's lap and announces that she's the one who's going to marry him, there is always a split second when he radiates pure joy. Then he clears his throat and says the right thing.

The psychic security monitor must never be switched off. To quote one friend who lives alone with her 14-year-old son, "If you caught me unawares, you might get me to say something different. But mostly, I would have to deny any sexual feeling just because of the way we live. It's just the two of us here. I have to be the one to keep a clear distance."

I have another friend who goes to greater lengths than most to make sure her older sons and daughters take equal part in caring for their younger siblings. She's proud when her 17-year-old son goes upstairs of his own accord when he hears his baby sister crying, but she knows, too, that this boy is much better than any of his sisters at manipulating her into doing his ironing for him and checking to make sure he knows about his ophthalmologist appointment.

Despite all this, she and all the other women I've been speaking to say their relationships with their sons are easier and more straightforward than their relationships with their daughters. As one remarked, "You can see yourself in your daughters, and it's not always pleasant, but you can't project yourself into a boy."

My own experience is that projection is a two-way street. When my teenage daughter was looking at her reflection in my computer the other day, she murmured, "I look just like you in this. How disturbing." My son, who has never had to see his mother gazing back at him from a mirror, is naturally going to have a easier time seeing me as someone separate. This sets the scene for a more relaxed and straightforward sort of affection.

"I think the big change happened when my sons were big enough to lift me up and stick me on a kitchen shelf," another friend tells me. "You can never be quite so cross when you're having to look up at them instead of down. You do lose some authority, although I can't say I can complain about getting a really good cuddle from a son who's suddenly a hunky man. It's great." She claims she thinks a lot about their future wives and girlfriends. "I'm always trying to cure them of their father's bad habits, so that they have an easier time than I've had. But I also feel very protective of them. I'm always pointing out that statistically they're far more likely to be beaten and raped than their sister."

Like so many other mothers, she says her daughter is much more clued in than her sons are. "Not that her father sees it. She can wind him round her little finger. I have to keep a very close watch on her, to make sure she doesn't manipulate him to unfair advantage. I feel very sorry for her husband. She knows how to get what she wants." But beneath her harsh words is a high regard for her daughter's ability to hold her own, which must add to the girl's confidence.

I've heard the same sort of two-step when fathers discuss daughters. They, too, say that they know boys are more likely than girls to get into trouble. They, too, say that even so, they have to convince these boys that they are strong enough to "go out there" and hold their own. They admit that they are far more protective of their teenage daughters, but they see a reason for this, too. As one man put it, "Maybe I see my daughter's vulnerability better than her mother does. And I know what goes on in men's minds. They are far more likely to take advantage of a girl if they sense there is no other man watching over her. That's where I come in."

So, yes, despite our protestations, we don't come close to being sex- blind. We see children of the opposite sex as needing greater care. We give children of the same sex more confidence by expecting more of them. But as long as the will is there to be fair, is this kind of parental balancing in any way discriminating? I think we have been policing ourselves far too severely.

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