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Children, Gender, and Being a Fluid Parent

"I've always wanted a beard!" Said my daughter. Should I call in the experts?

As I watched Caster Semenya compete in the 800 meter event at the Olympics, I wondered (like many others) whether she held back to not win the gold. To my completely inexpert eyes, it looked like she did, and deliberately settled for silver.

She insists she didn’t, but if she had, I wouldn’t blame her one bit. After all, winning the 2009 world title led to a huge controversy where her gender was questioned, at length, and she was banned from competing as a woman. She was forced to be public about a very private matter being intersexed and suffered endless public humiliation. Why would she go for the gold when this public shaming is the prize?

I thought a great deal about Ms. Semenya when I was reading What’s So Bad About a Boy Wearing A Dress?,  a lengthy piece about “gender fluid” children in the New York Times Magazine. I’ve heard mixed responses to the piece many who feel the piece isn’t fair to girls, as it’s primarily about little boys being “girlish” and the usual hysteria about how liberals are ruining our children.

It’s impossible to talk about this article without, once again, discussing privilege. Because parenting perspectives + The New York Times means only the perspective of the very few. Poor people don’t have the capacity to hire expensive therapists to tackle child gender issues, much less do things like hire someone to “train” your kid’s school’s staff to be more sensitive to a gender fluid child.  So know that when I’m responding to this piece, I am also responding from a position of privilege; my daughter’s new school she starts in a few weeks would be a safe place for her to explore gender identity, so I’m very, very lucky.

I am fully supportive of children (and adults) exploring all aspects of gender identity. Hell, years ago I dated a guy that routinely wore a skirt. I’ve watched friends cope with this issue, many in different ways. Recently a friend asked if I had an old skirt of my daughter’s I could give her because her three year old son wanted to wear a skirt like his grandma. Other friends have supported their son’s My Little Pony love as well as routinely allow him to wear princess dresses when and where he wants. I got to know Sarah when she wrote about the long, drawn out battle with her son’s preschool over his “girl” Halloween costume.

I am totally a crazy ass liberal that way. But, ironically, I’ve ended up with a fairly gender rigid child.

I fully planned to let my daughter practice gender fluidity. I encouraged her to play with trucks and dolls. I encourage her to examine bugs. I wanted her to feel she could confidently be whoever she wanted to be… until the day came when who she wanted to be was a pretty, pretty princess.

I resisted. I didn’t want my little girl to waste time in princess fantasies. But then a friend pointed out my incredible hypocrisy; after all, if my daughter had been a boy, I would have indulged all of his princess play. Why couldn’t I allow my daughter to do the same? I relented, and my daughter for several years was firmly in the I AM A GIRLY GIRL camp. She’d rather do dance than karate, wear a skirt than pants, and if her old school had let her, she’d have worn a tiara daily.

Ultimately, as thoughtful and generous at the New York Times article is, I think it failed to acknowledge that some kids DO choose to align with the gender definition that society has assigned. And that’s not wrong, either. Boys can be girls can be boys can be boys, and girls playing sports and boys wearing dresses doesn’t hurt society any more than girls wearing dresses and boys playing sports does, in my opinion.

What do you think? We’ve continued to have the discussion with my daughter; just now as I was speaking to her about this issue she pointed out the “boy” things she likes (playing the drums, scary movies, vampires, and snakes). I, as the liberal mom, will continue to point out to her that those things aren’t really just for boys, and she’ll continue to argue with me. That’s how we are fluid as parents about gender in this house. How about in yours?

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