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Are boys being left behind in push for girl power?

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FARGO — Google the phrase “girl power” and you’ll read about empowerment, confidence and strengthening relationships. Search “boy power” and you’re likely to find information about a recliner, a superhero comic or hip-hop radio show.

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More parents are looking for ways to raise emotionally strong boys. Some say boys are forgotten in the push for girl power.

“I think we need to keep things balanced,” said Rachel Gillen, a Fargo mother of two daughters and one son. “As long as we’re emphasizing girls being able to do anything, which is a great thing to emphasize, I think we do need to remember that the boys need to hear the same thing about themselves.”

Gillen said a lot of media put boys into a corner they don’t naturally belong in, and she doesn’t think boys naturally have an aversion to toys, movies, books or other products society might consider “girls’ things.”

Her son likes the movie, “Frozen,” for example, and doesn’t mind reading books where the main character is a girl. But those products are not typically marketed toward boys.

“I don’t think that marketing is doing boys any favors by making movies and books with girl protagonists aimed so clearly at girls instead of just at kids,” Gillen said.

Her daughters could wear clothes designed for boys if they wanted to, she said, but a boy wouldn’t be met with the same acceptance if he wore a shirt from the girls’ clothing section.

“It is a little hypocritical,” Gillen said. “There are no girl colors or boy colors, there are just colors.”

It’s also more socially accepted for girls to wear shirts that put boys down, with sayings like, “girls rule, boys drool.” And television commercials often make men out to be idiots when it comes to housework, so a woman has to come in and save the day, Gillen said.

“It shouldn’t be OK to say that boys are incompetent or that men are incompetent when we would never say the same thing about girls or women,” Gillen said. “Can’t we teach everyone that everyone is competent?”

Strong boys and girls

April Pearson, Casselton, N.D., has four boys, ages 10 months to 8 years. She said while messages of boys being able to do anything are stronger than when she was growing up, those messages are not as strong as they are for girls.

“I do think it’s getting better, but I don’t think it’s nearly pushed as much as it is for girls,” she said.

As a stay-at-home mom, Pearson said her boys tend to think moms do everything, so she said she pushes them to ask their dad for help, so they know they can go to both parents.

One of her sons has said laundry is only for moms. She assured him it isn’t.

Pearson said she also counts on her husband to help teach their sons men can do laundry, dishes and stay home with the kids.

“He’s a big part of how they look at me and what their role is going to be and what their wives roles are going to be,” she said.

Paula Mehmel Casselton, who works as a pastor at First Lutheran Church in Hunter, N.D., is a single mom of two teenage sons, and said it’s a challenge not having a male caregiver in their lives. But she said she’s tried to expose them to a lot of different things, so they can find their own voices.

“The main thing in terms of empowering — it’s not about male or female — it’s about empowering individuals,” she said.

Mehmel and her sons go to a different ballpark every year on vacation. But they also go to a lot of museums as well as the theater, symphony and opera.

“In helping them channel their choices as a parent, one of the things I’ve tried to be very deliberate about is to not limit what they’re exposed to,” she said. “Their passions have arisen from what they’ve become interested in.”

Emotion management

Sarah Klimek, an elementary school counselor with Fargo Public Schools, will be teaching enrichment summer school courses this June on both “boy power” and “girl power” at Washington Elementary School.

The courses, designed for students in third through fifth grades, cover topics such as confidence, friendship, social skills, bullying and handling emotions.

The classes are similar in a lot of ways, but Klimek said emotion management for boys is huge.

“Boys have been told, ‘You’re tough. You act tough. You don’t cry,’” she said. “I tell boys and girls, too, that anger can be an easy way to show things, but a lot of times anger can really be jealousy, embarrassment, frustration.”

The Representation Project, a movement that uses film and media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes, has made a trailer for a film coming out later this year called “The Mask You Live In.” It’s about the way society limits men and boys by its narrow definition of masculinity.

“We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the United States that doesn’t give young boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity so we make them go prove it all the time,” said Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and educator, in the video trailer.

The video goes on to say that less than half of boys and men with mental health challenges seek help. And every day, three or more boys commit suicide in the U.S.

“Boys are more likely to act out. They’re more likely to become aggressive,” William Pollack, a psychologist and educator, said in the video. “Most people miss that as depression or see it as a conduct disorder or just a bad kid.”

Both Gillen and Pearson have found physical ways to help their sons express strong emotions. Pearson has a drum set in her basement and a small trampoline they can jump on if they feel frustrated.

“It helps release pent-up feelings or to go outside and just run around and to be able to let go of whatever happened at school or at home,” Pearson said.

Gillen has a pad of paper called “mad paper” her son is allowed to rip up when he feels angry or frustrated. He also runs and wrestles with his dad.

“We’re teaching that it’s OK to feel angry and it’s OK to let that anger out if it’s in a way that’s OK,” she said.

For Mehmel, whose sons are teenagers, she said she tries to listen to them and what they say they need.

“If they say they need time and space, then I give it to them, but not so much that they don’t ever have to deal with it or talk about it,” Mehmel said.

“I don’t always succeed, but I try very hard to listen to what it is that they need from me as long as they are dealing with their emotions and feelings and I am not seeing it come out in a destructive way.”

If You Go

WHAT: Boy Power and Girl Power, classes for students in third through fifth grades, through Fargo Public Schools Elementary Enrichment program

WHEN: Boy Power: 10 a.m. to noon, Girl Power: 8 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, June 9- 27

WHERE: Washington Elementary School, 1725 N. Broadway

INFO: Register by May 29 by calling Rebecca Folden, Clara Barton-Hawthorne Elementary assistant principal at (701) 446-4415; $75

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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