The New York Times did a story today on gender-fluid kids: children who choose not to comply with societal gender norms. They focused particularly on boys who enjoy participating in typically feminine activities, like wearing dresses or playing beauty-shop. It’s a heart-wrenching read, as the parents disclose the social toll gender-noncompliance has on their children, as well as the confusion that some of them experience in terms of their masculinity as they develop.
Biology vs. social contruct
Before I dive into an exploration of childhood gender expression, I think it’s important to discuss the difference between gender and sex. Sex is about anatomy and DNA: boys have XY chromosomes and male genitalia, women have an XX chromosomal pairing and female genitia. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct that refers to how one behaviorally manifests their sex. Gender is effected by culture, by parental modeling, and by societal norms. The problem is that our society holds rather strict rules about gender and sex, and those who express themselves as more masculine or feminine than their sexual biology may have identity confusion. But what if they didn’t have to?
Finding a middle space
The New York Times article acknowledges that previously, we’ve tended to box our children in when it comes to gender, feeling that they need to “pick a side”. Oftentimes, when parents observe a child with some gender fluidity, they begin to stress out over which gender their children will identify with. Some parents may seek therapy to try to “repair” their gender. Others may have conversations about the possibility of their child being transgendered, and even begin them on hormones to hasten sexual reassignment in an effort to give their child a body that matches their gender expression. But what if, as a society, we were able to give kids more fliuidity in their gender roles (behaviors) instead of feeling like their behaviors must be in line with their sex (biology?). According to the New York Times, the tides are slowly changing:
Many parents and clinicians now reject corrective therapy, making this the first generation to allow boys to openly play and dress (to varying degrees) in ways previously restricted to girls — to exist in what one psychologist called “that middle space” between traditional boyhood and traditional girlhood. These parents have drawn courage from a burgeoning Internet community of like-minded folk whose sons identify as boys but wear tiaras and tote unicorn backpacks.
The sticky role of gender stereotypes
Children start to classify themselves according to gender lines as early as toddlerhood, and this will continue into adulthood. Gender is a huge part of a child’s identity development. Helping a child feel secure in their gender identity is important in building their overall sense of self. Gender scripting or stereotypes – which prescribe easy and delineated roles for children to follow – is a way that children learn mastery of their gender. For example, “I’m a boy, therefore I like sports and trucks” is a simplistic way a child finds comfort and identity in gender scripting.
The problem, however, is that inevitably children will have interests that fall outside of society’s assigned stereotypes for their gender, which can lead to confusion for children and parents alike. And yet, gender stereotypes are just that: stereotypes that may or may not accurately describe how each person will think, feel, or behave.
All children will be aware of gender stereotypes at some point in their life. It is pervasive in our culture . . . so pervasive that sometimes it is even beyond our awareness. As a mom of both genders (2 girls and 2 boys), I am often dismayed by the gender scripting presented by the media and toy companies. And if you’ve ever had the experience of shopping for a baby shower for a mom who hasn’t found out the sex of the baby, you know that infant products are sharply delineated by gender: blues and trucks for boys, pinks and flowers for girls. I was made aware of the sharp gender lines this year as I shopped for Chrirstmas toys. I wanted to buy a musical keyboard for all the kids. I could only find them in pink. So some toy marketing genius has decided that keyboards are only of interest to girls? On the other hand, I had to special-order a stroller for my son in a gender-neutral color, because he likes to play with dolls and the only strollers at the store were bright pink. My son likes horses, and those are in the aisle for girls, in feminine colors. The aisles of girl toys are filled with dolls, animals, and kitchen accessories. The aisles for boys are full of toys that crash, fight, and destroy. According to the toy aisle, girls are scripted to nurture, and boys are scripted to battle. It’s a little scary if you really sit with that thought.
My oldest daughter, at five years old, is already prejudiced in her ideas about gender. She scolds her brother when he wants to play with her princess wand. She separates her markers into “boy colors” and “girl colors”. She determines the gender of every movie and refuses to watch the ones she has deemed for boys. She has been known to cry over the wrong color of sippy cup, and last year I gave up after months of her refusing to wear pants of any kind. Her ideas about gender baffle and irritate me. But if you really make it a point to be aware of it, you will notice that you can barely leave the house without exposing your children to gender sterotypes.
I hate that already, my boys are being subtly told that being nurturing and artistic are feminine qualities. I hate that my daughter refused to partake in a basketball class because “sports are for boys, ballet is for girls”. I am the first to admit that I have watched my children naturally drift towards the typical toys for their gender. My son seemed to have an affinity for superheroes stamped into his DNA. Still, I want them to feel free to choose, and most of all, I want them to be able to play together without feeling like they are rejecting a gender script to do so.
How parents can help
So how do we combat this? I think the first step is understanding why it is problematic in the first place. There is a greater likelihood, in my experience, that a child will thrive in an area that naturally interests him or her, than if they are pushed into roles solely because they are considered “gender-appropriate.” When kids feel stuck in living out gender scripts, it stifles their creativity and their potential, and makes them feel abnormal when they have interests that lie outside the norm. . Children who don’t feel typical for their gender and who feel pressured (by parents or others) to change will have more adjustment difficulties because they feel rejected for their natural interests.
Most parents agree that nurturing a child’s individuality is a worthy parenting goal, but somehow this often falls to the wayside when it comes to variances in gendered behavior. Some may worry that any difference from the norm is grounds for school bullying, or indicative of some deep-rooted psychological issues. Some may have fears about sexual orientation. However, the manifestation of gender roles will vary from child to child, just as other aspects of personality and temperament will vary. Some kids will follow more traditional gender stereotypes, while other kids will feel more freedom and pull to explore interests traditionally reserved for the opposite gender. It is important, as parents, to learn to nurture our child’s individuality no matter where they fall on the spectrum of gender role conformity.
The best thing we can do to promote a healthy gender identity in our children is to help them feel that they can choose from a wide variety of interests without gender confusion. It’s possible that as our society moves towards gender fluidity, that kids will have more freedom to express who they are, and less anxiety about gender roles. We should be helping our boys understand that being sensitive, nurturing, or artistic does not compromise their masculinity. We should be helping our daughters feel free to be athletic or ambitious without threatening their femininity. Encouraging a child’s individual passions is one of the most important gifts a parent can give their child.
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