Gender and Kids

This is a topic that’s been on my mind a good bit lately.  The other day, at our corner park, a couple of little girls berated my son for several minutes because they simply didn’t believe him when he said he was a boy.  “Are you sure?” one of them asked repeatedly.  I wanted to go over there and point out that he had a penis.  BalletBoy, in his infinite sweetness, just chewed his long hair and looked at them like they were on some other planet, which to him, I suppose they were.  However, he’s been getting it from the kids in T-Ball as well.  And he’s been getting it out in the world more and more.  I notice that he’s either grown extra oblivious to people calling him a girl or weary with correcting people because I rarely hear him even bother anymore.  If he’s pressed on it, he simply says, “I just like girls more than boys.”

I think that nowadays, in the homes of white, well-educated, middle class families, it’s pretty common to let toddlers and preschoolers play dress up in their sisters’ princess costumes.  I think it’s even pretty common to let them dress themselves however they wish, and that includes little pink dresses.  I know that’s not everywhere, but among the people I know, it was pretty common to see little boys, especially little brothers, in dresses, with genuinely nonchalant parents who know that a dress doesn’t make their sons girls any more than a superhero cape gives them the ability to fly.

But then most of those kids head off to school, where gender conformity is enforced through peer pressure, especially for boys.  The husband and I have often lamented that while there are plenty tomboy role models in literature and TV for girls, there’s not even an equivalent word for boys who like stereotypical girl things.  Thankfully, BalletBoy isn’t headed off to school any time in the near future, because if he did, I’m sure his hot pink Keens, purple T-shirts, and maybe even his love of ballet would all go the way of the dodo.  Kids would tell him there was something wrong with the things that he’s chosen to make up his sense of self.  He would begin to believe that he couldn’t love pink or needed to get his long hair cut.  He would be changed.  As it is, homeschooling is protecting him from that, at least until he gets some maturity and has to deal with that mysterious animal called the “real world” more.  Almost none of my sons’ playmates have ever even been to school.  They think BalletBoy’s look is totally normal because they have known him for ages and see him as an individual.  While they might exert peer pressure in some ways, they’re mostly pretty positive ones, encouraging the each other to play together, to share, not to be mean.

Having a son, especially a twin, who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes has been an eye-opening experience for me as a parent.  For one thing, it makes me furious every time I hear a parent say something like, “I always thought it was how they were raised, but then I had my son and he only wants to play with trucks and my daughter just loves all that Disney princess stuff no matter how I discourage her, so I guess it’s all just hard wired into them!”  And trust me, I’ve heard that a lot since becoming a parent.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with how my kids are “wired” and I think it shows that gender simply isn’t the only determinant of likes and dislikes in life.  My kids like a lot of “boy” things, but they also love their baby dolls and they used to love their play kitchen.  I’m sure some boys are born with some innate desire to push wheeled toys around, but I’m also sure that’s not every single one because both BalletBoy and Mushroom seem rank toy cars near the bottom of the toy ladder.  They like building materials a lot more.  And so did I when I was their age.

Second, watching how people react to BalletBoy shows me how completely we rely on the most crude external clues to inform our understanding of gender.  He has long hair and pink shoes, therefore, people assume that he’s a girl.  Never mind that he looks identical to his twin brother.  One look at the hair and even though he’s in a baseball shirt and a pair of jeans and their opinion is formed.  I don’t mind that and I don’t fault them for it.  But I’ve realized that our expectations of children fitting into gender stereotypes are even more set than when we look at adults.  I think this is because we expect adults to make choices about their appearance, but many people don’t see children as being capable of controlling their own appearance or making those kinds of decisions.  I think our society expects children to be very simple in every possible way, not fully fleshed out individuals, and that absolutely includes our ideas about gender.

Finally, let me just say that I have almost no doubt that my son’s propensity for pink and frills is more about defining his identity as separate from his brother’s than anything else.  Yes, he does actually like flowery things and ballet and the color purple.  He gets all doe eyed at me when I put on a fancy dress because he thinks it’s so amazing.  But he also has claimed these things very clearly as his own, not his twin’s.  My two boys share a lot, but this is one way that I’ve seen them carve out separate space.  You should have seen the look of relief they both gave me when I suggested to them more than two years ago that they didn’t have to have the same haircut.  BalletBoy decided to leave his long, thus heading down a path that has eventually led us to his borderline heavy metal length hair today.

It's not girl hair, it's rock star hair.

9 thoughts on “Gender and Kids

  1. I have to agree that is a bit difficult to break out the gender stereotypes. Though maybe slightly easier for girls. Of course it doesn’t stop people from giving us weird looks when we mention her love of Spiderman and X-Men. Also my daughter was often mistaken for a boy when she was a baby because she had little to no hair. I had her in all pink with a pink blanket and they still thought she was a boy. Now she loves wearing pink, purple and dresses. Though she does have a Yoda shirt. She loves Disney Princess, Marvel superheroes, matchbox cars, and jewelry.
    Anyway good for you in embracing your son’s individuality. He looks like a very cute little boy, and I personally love the hair.

  2. I can think of two perplexing events we’ve had in the last few years that involved kids doing something Different: one was when my eldest made friends with a kid named Rory at gymnastics. Rory was fun, long-haired, wore a lot of pink, and adored my eldest. It was also impossible to tell if Rory was male or female. It really was. We studied Rory for about 3 months before we finally worked up the courage to ask the gymnastics instructor, who said that Rory was a boy. Then it seemed obvious, but jeez we struggled with that. I don’t see the same situation with your son. He looks like a boy with long hair. He has the Boy Gene. Rory didn’t. Rory still doesn’t.

    The second was when my daughter wore her customary two watches to track. One was her LEGO Darth Vader watch, the other a purple strap. “Are you wearing your brother’s watch?” everyone said. Really. Everyone said this. Darth Vader is apparently a Male Bastion. If girls wear him they are trying to be like their brothers. It really bothers my daughter. “No!” she says irritably, “this is MY watch! Can’t a girl have a Star Wars watch?”

    Apparently not. I prescribe Ma Vie En Rose. Even if all you get from it is some schadenfreude. Hopefully you will see how silly all this gender-typing is. But it’s definitely the province of the kid world when they’re Out There.

  3. I think so much of it is about people not expecting younger kids to make their own choices. I feel like there are probably teenage girls (of the cool, geeky persuasion) who are into Darth Vader and Spiderman, but the expectations are such that younger kids aren’t expected to really be individuals.

    Sheila, sometimes BalletBoy pushes the edge of my comfort zone by not correcting people who think he’s a girl. It happened a whole bunch while we were camping a couple weeks ago. Maybe because we were out of the city and with a broader range of people? Though I don’t want to assume too much. But there was one guy, an older guy, who we saw repeatedly on a hike to a waterfall. He spoke to us and to BalletBoy and made repeated references to him as a girl, which BalletBoy did not correct. I’m trying to back off and let him decide when it’s worth it to say anything. After the first few comments, it was clearly too late for me to say anything, but it made me feel sort of disingenuous. If kids call him a girl, he pretty much always corrects them, but I think he has a pretty low expectation level from grown-ups. Or he’s tuning them out. Or he doesn’t see them as individuals any more than they see him as one.

  4. I admit I’ve been guilty of the “I didn’t believe in ingrained gender differences until I had kids” line. Now that I have two boys who are each extremely ‘boyish’ in some ways and ‘girlish’ in others–and in totally different ways–I don’t say that anymore. I think what I was seeing was that very young children can have very strong preferences for how to be. It’s easy to pick out those preferences that align with your kid’s gender and see it as a gender issue, and be temporarily blind to those traits that don’t align. It’s so hard to not look for tidy explanations.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. Yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve said that exact nature/nurture thing to you. Thankfully statistics (though my observations are entirely anecdotal) don’t necessarily apply to the individual. I grew up immersed in a feminist culture that was distinctly anti anything “girly”. Pink tutu? No way. Climbing trees? Yes way. Now I have a tree climbing pink tutu wearing girl. Are we finally losing our agendas and allowing kids to celebrate their individuality? Hope so.

  6. My friend Patchfire writes about gender a lot. You two would get on well!

    Making sure my children understand the difference between biological sex differences and sociocultural constructs of gender is an important issue for me. I sometimes worry that I’m modeling “do as I say, not as I do,” because their father and I do have fairly traditional (as in, American popular culture tradition) gender roles — dad goes to work at a historically masculine job (police officer) while I stay home w/ the children. I think the tool that has worked best for us has been presenting it as part of our education on advertising and the messages ads are trying to send. Is that toy really “for girls” or is it just marketed to girls in order to create a new target market? I think it’s working, because at one point, Captain S came home from my grandmother’s house in one of her shirts (his had gotten messy) and I said something about it being a woman’s shirt. He said, “Don’t you mean it’s marketed to women?” I laughed and explained that, no, I meant it was cut for a woman’s figure that includes breasts, but I was pleased he’s picked up on the concept.

  7. Your son is lucky to have you as his mom! It seems that society does push so hard for children to fit the “typical” mold, which I never fit and my kids probably won’t either. I’m happy that homeschooling will allow them to develop their personalities without feeling too much peer pressure!

  8. This is yet another area that makes me so glad to be out of the social environment at school. My kids, until recently, both had long hair. My oldest wanted his hair out of his eyes, but didn’t want to cut it, but was *adamant* that pony tails were exclusively for girls after wearing a pony tail to school one day and being teased about it. I was really annoyed by that, since we know several men with hair long enough to be worn in a ponytail.
    The only thing that made this situation even remotely bearable for me is that my son decided that a butterfly barrette (with wings on springs that jiggle when you walk) was the solution – and somehow, wearing THAT was perceived both by him and by his classmates to be less gender-inappropriate than the tail. o_O

    My boys wore purple Dora backpacks (and in fact are still reluctant to let them go), and other ‘inappropriate’ things for boys… what you said about there not being a word for boys equivalent to tomboy isn’t quite right – there is, they’re just all negative and hurtful. I always thought that my boys would be so free from gender constructs – but despite having playsilks and dolls and a play kitchen, they’ve ever been drawn to rough and rowdy things… Whatever makes them whole and happy; that’s okay with me. How lovely that your kids benefit from a similar mindset 🙂

    Anyway – I really enjoyed reading this!
    ~h

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