“I know how to do it at school, but I don’t know how to do it at home.” Our four year old daughter loves to yell at me, perched atop the toilet near our kitchen. Yesterday, after telling her I could not leave the stove to watch her pee, she demanded I come wipe her. I reminded her she knows how to take care of herself, and does it at school all the time. That’s when she whine-yelled the sentence above on loop for several minutes.
Her reasoning was ridiculous, but I have a feeling she learned it from us. Many of us have standards for behaviors that vary based on our setting. For instance, I am more likely to yell at someone who angers me at home, but I have yet to do so at work. My kids’ behavior at home reminds me of wild elephants that are occasionally affectionate but always leave a wake of destruction in their path. I sincerely hope they do not behave that way in other people’s homes. My own mother has wished for years that I had different standards of clothing for home and public. Alas, I continue to baffle her, rarely looking in the mirror before I grab my keys.
Her hope that I will dress up for the outside world reflects a larger cultural acceptance that our behavior and habits change depending on where we are.
This is certainly true in many areas of my life, but at times it all seems rather absurd to me. Why do I use restraint or fully engage only in certain arenas? Why do our expectations of others fluctuate dependent on place? My favorite iteration of this type of thinking is when married women disparage their husbands, laughing as they complain that their partner is genetically incapable of picking up his shoes, returning his glass to the sink, lowering the seat, or remembering when the kids have choir. The deficits of males who live in interdependent households shared by others are widely mocked and accepted by women and men alike.
Often the party pooper, I loathe this type of thinking for at least two reasons.
First, these stereotypes totalize our gendered experiences in ways that I find unobservant. The basic construct that ALL MEN do any one thing strikes me as ridiculous. We know plenty of slobby, disorganized women, just as we know type A, neat freak men. Given this, why do we agree to pretend like there are no exceptions to the rule that men mostly function as needy, additional children?
I think the answer is imbedded in the question. We love to think we are exceptional, while often painting others with the broadest brush possible. I am more than a product of my gender or cultural norms or habits, but those other people are all the same! We offer ourselves the dignity of agency, choosing how we live and how our actions impact others, but we easily slide into assuming the people around us are just the way they are, and we might as well get used to it.
We might be less likely to dismiss others if we notice the unique individual standing before us rather than seeing them mostly as a product of the group to which they ‘belong.’
The second reason I think humorous stereotypes about men are unintelligent and maybe even dangerous is this: We expect and allow men to rule the world while treating them as incapable slobs around the house. The boldness of our society-wide cognitive dissonance is staggering. How do we simultaneously view men as natural leaders, effective visionaries who complete tasks while improving systems as they go, and—at the same time—as utterly incapable of getting their laundry to and from the washing machine? In my view, we mostly give them far too much credit in the public sphere, and far too little credit in the private one.
It is tempting to treat men like extra-large problem children. It is often all in good fun, and many men seem to enjoy the banter and revel in the labels placed upon them (Maybe they have discovered that such incongruent stereotypes work in their favor. These widely mocked behaviors pave the way for men to kick ass at work and do little at home. Sounds like a sweet deal, but I know better). Even if it is socially acceptable to belittle the function of men at home, it reduces us in toxic ways.
I need look no further than my partner and husband, who is a physician. He is, in fact, prone to leave his junk wherever it lands at home, he often forgets who goes where when, and his instincts for tidying up are lackluster. However, he has never, to my knowledge, forgotten about a surgery or left medical instruments inside a person’s body. He is, in fact, incredibly organized, decisive, dare I say tidy?, at work. He is a fabulous leader and detail oriented in all the right ways. Knowing this, why on earth would I treat him as an incapable slob at home, preventing him from engaging our family in all the helpful ways that only he can?
When we reduce folks to a stereotype, locking them into a tribe or a group rather than seeing them as individuals capable of growth, we limit our ability to hope for better. We choose to deal with the status quo rather than to challenge it in order to improve.
Why do we act certain ways in some contexts, and abandon those standards in others? We know how to be compassionate in many spaces, but we thwart those instincts in others. We know how to speak up, using our voice to raise a different point of view or to protect a vulnerable person in some moments, but we remain silent in others. For the next few weeks, I’ll explore the ways our habits demonstrate my daughter’s thinking as she hollers incessantly from the bathroom. Let’s think about all the ways we “know how to do it at school, but don’t know how to do it at home,” and then dream together as we imagine how to remind ourselves that we already know how to care deeply about the growth of those around us, if only we will pay attention.