At 2-and-a-half, my son has a minimal understanding of the difference between boys and girls. He is well-aware that he and daddy have a penis, while mommy does not. However, I doubt that he fully grasps the concept of gender differences. That said, at a very young age, my son already behaves and plays differently with his girl peers than he does with the boys. With the boys, especially those that are his age or older, my son tends toward more aggressive play. He enjoys chasing them around the playground, kicking a ball around and various forms of roughhousing. If he really likes a little boy, he will try to hug him, but even that is more like a tackle than a gentle embrace.
For a while, little girls got the same treatment. But, things have changed, and my son is much gentler with them. I would even go as far as saying somewhat chivalrous. At a recent trip to the playground, my son took a liking to a slightly younger girl, and happily held her hand as they moved about the equipment. He patiently waited for her when it was her turn to go down the slide, and looked heartbroken when she had to leave. At no point have my husband or I ever told our son to treat girls different than boys. We do tell him to be careful around smaller children and babies, but we do not distinguish between genders. As far as we are concerned, as long as everyone is happy and safe, we don't really care how children play together.
So how does a child, who has yet to learn about the generally accepted rule that females are the "weaker" sex already treat girls more delicately than boys? I honestly have no idea. Maybe he is just picking up on the behavior of other children. Maybe he sees the subtleties of how adult men and women interact with one another. Or, maybe he is just hardwired to treat women differently.
I would be lying if I didn't admit to finding this behavior somewhat endearing. With all the talk of women and girls being treated poorly, I do take pride in seeing my son behave like a gentleman. I want him to grow up to respect women and understand that they are to be valued. However, there is a part of me that wants to tell him that he shouldn't feel like little girls need to be cuddled and protected. I am sure there is plenty of research to suggest that men are programmed to behave a certain way around women, and that those who are abusive have "their wires crossed."
I'll save the Googling for you readers, and just be content to observe my child from the sidelines, with the occasional reminder that all people, regardless of gender, should be treated with kindness and respect.
This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.