gender schmender

When he was three years old, my son Oliver used to dress up as a fairy. On a regular basis. Some of his closest friends were girls and there was always an encouraged exchange of costumes between them, dressing up being a – perhaps the – staple activity of any playdate in the fourth year of life. Sometimes he would complement the frills and wings with an electric guitar or light saber. Sometimes not. Sometimes he would forgo Tinkerbell altogether in favor of Batman or Darth Vader or any of the myriad of other male superheroes we had piled up in the toy box.

Oliver was a sensitive and cautious toddler. He could concentrate on quiet tasks for long periods of time, he could sit calmly in a restaurant armed only with crayons and a piece of paper. He didn’t have the need to run wild or the tendency to break things. He never, not once, expressed a desire to drive a digger. So too it was clear from an early age that he was emotionally astute and empathetic.

You can see where I am going with this. Some kids come out of the womb screaming their gender. Others are born with only an outward manifestation of sex, and the gender develops later, slowly, and perhaps not so overtly. Oliver had many typically ‘feminine’ traits as a small child and while I never thought he was a ‘pink boy‘ per se, I liked the fact that he wasn’t a dark blue one either.

Fast forward four years. Oliver comes home from school now with very definitive views about what is ‘for boys’ and what is ‘for girls’, all of which are drawn along conventional gender lines and all of which drive me crazy. Pink is for girls, says the boy who begged for a purple iridescent button-down shirt on his fourth birthday. Dance classes are for girls, says the boy who spent month after month moonwalking around the room to the sound of Michael Jackson’s falsetto. Barbies are for girls, he says, and to be fair we don’t have any Barbies. No they aren’t, I tell him just the same, but his face is utter disbelief. And what about Ken, I want to know, a question which is met with stunned silence.

These changes in him make me wonder whether a flexible idea of gender is something you age out of. As babies we are pure and open-minded in this regard, untouched by the stereotypes that run rampant in society. But after a certain amount of time the reality closes in and there seems to be very little we can do about it as parents. How long does the process take? Seven years? Many of Oliver’s recent outbursts on this topic are in response to his five-year-old brother, who is, you’ll have to trust me, far more innately ‘macho’ and testosterone-fuelled than Oliver himself. Leo still likes pink, though, and New Direction too. In fact, his best friend is a girl and he sees no problem here. Not yet.

Part of the reason I bristle against Oliver’s newfound attitude is because I want to think he wasn’t raised like that. I consider myself to be fairly progressive on this front, but if I am honest there is so much conservatism to which I must plead guilty. I wasn’t the parent who refused her two-year-old son the cotton-candy colored kitchen he pined for, but I wasn’t necessarily a ground-breaker either. Leo got a baby and a dollhouse for his second birthday and I remember feeling proud in the face of my non-conformist gift choices. But the baby was a boy, ‘Max’ , clad head-to-toe in powder blue, and the house was chosen for its array of primary – not pastel – colors. Unlike that Canadian child named ‘Storm’, I have never disguised my kids’ genders. Their clothes have always been bought from the rack of the sex they actually are. The boys’ hair has been kept short, the girl’s hair has been grown long.

Oliver and Leo both spent their early years in a house of only male children. But my boy/girl twins have not, which makes them the offspring who have been exposed to the most naturally-occurring gender fluidity. These are the kids who actually wear each other’s clothes and who use, on a daily basis, each other’s gender-themed crockery. Often this is for practicality’s sake. There are other times, though, when I do it on purpose. I give the purple butterfly sippy-cup to Jasper and the green truck one to Phoebe and, oh I know, I know, it’s so liberal you can hardly stand it.

From the word go these two have been exposed to the same collection of toys and there is certainly a noteworthy crossover because of it. Jasper makes cups of ‘tea’ every now and again, lovingly steeped and sugared, while Phoebe might rev a race-car across the kitchen floor. And yet, as ever with twins, their large-scale behavior proves that much of personality – including gender – comes pre-determined. Jasper undeniably gravitates towards electronics and ball games, while Phoebe tends to her dolls with an interest and tenderness that none of the others have shown. She feeds them and changes their diapers and wipes clean their faces in a way and from an age at which it makes it hard not to believe that, for some girls, maternal-ness is hardwired.

The potentially negative consequences of early gender stereotyping seem to be different between the sexes. Oliver claims that girls can play football or Star Wars, but that boys cannot collect Sylvanian Families or take ballet (you can bet ‘Billy Elliot’ is on our playlist). The fear with our sons, in other words, is that they will be too effeminate and mocked for it. The concern with our daughters is something else. We don’t tend to worry, unless it is an extreme case, if they are tomboys. We worry, rather, that they are going to feel somehow restricted in their opportunities because of the fact that they are not boys.

My stomach lurches at the prospect that one day in the not-so-distant future I will have to walk down the street holding hands with a daughter who is sparkling and fully bedecked as a princess. But I can live with the fact that she wants to be a princess at three if I am sure that she knows she can be a doctor, or anything else for that matter, by thirty-three.

equal opportunity tutu wearing

equal-opportunity tutu wearing

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “gender schmender

  1. nice post. my daughter frequently tells me she’s really a boy that likes to wear dresses and be fancy. soooo…they’re all trying to figure out a lot in these early years. like you pointed out, no matter what gender/sex alignment they follow the outfits are sure to get interesting no matter what.

    • thank you for reading! you are right: they are such interesting little mixes in the first years. trying, on the one hand, to master the ‘conventions’, but on the other to fit their own instincts into that bigger picture. as with so much else about growing up, it probably looks much harder from the outside! how old is your daughter? i am going to come check out your blog later today.

  2. Philippa

    Such an interesting subject! I feel that I have been forced to adjust my pre-parental thinking on this matter and conclude that there really are innate gender differences in children. However, the ways in which these are made manifest are not always straightforward in our house. There seems to be a spectrum on the dressing-up/sparkly stuff with a good deal of overlap between girls and boys at an early age, and like you say, as they get older and go to school children do develop more fixed ideas of which realms of things are ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ – despite the best efforts of those of us who campaign against those restrictions. I observe my daughter with interest as she strongly endorses all things pink and sparkly yet remains totally uninterested in dolls, prefers soccer to ballet (all the while stockpiling lipbalms and necklaces as if her life depends on it), chooses to buy ‘The Beano’ instead of ‘Princess’ comics, lists her interests as ‘arm-wrestling, reading and knitting’, but most obviously comes home from school breathless with gossipy information about who is/isn’t friends with who and why. Little girls seem far more attuned to the social niceties of life than the boys – this sort of thing was not even on H’s radar at the same age and still isn’t – in fact all the little boys I know are refreshingly free of that stuff. However, my husband was horrified when our son requested ‘Barbies’ for his 6th birthday and refused to buy them; not so much because he felt that H should not play with dolls, but from a concern that he might be bullied and derided by other boys for doing so. So I cannot pretend that every decision made in this respect has been entirely even-handed (in my defence H did receive a toy vacuum cleaner at one point…) Since then, Barbies and baby dolls have made their surreptitious way into the communal toybox, but neither child bothers with them (although cuddly toy dogs and rabbits seem to multiply in the night so that’s where all the nurturing instincts find an outlet, if anywhere). Both children are equally boisterous and physical, but I can certainly detect an innate femininity my daughter’s affect that I have tried to neither nurture nor suppress, while my son spends hours immersed in lego building and has become inexplicably fascinated by cricket. And for no apparent reason, every morning my daughter deliberates carefully about her outfit and accessories while her older brother simply pulls the topmost garments out of the drawer, often putting them on back to front. So I am gradually becoming reconciled to the fact that many of their traits conform to gender stereotypes. Does it matter? I suppose not, so long as the talents that do not conform are not criticised, squashed or repressed…I’m on the lookout for arm-wrestling classes!

    • brilliant comment, as ever, philippa! i absolutely loved reading the description of how your children both conform – and push against – the typical gender lines. the joys of having a boy and a girl. your daughter, in particular, sounds like a fascinating combination. you also touch upon a very real point of concern re your son’s sixth birthday present request. i am genuinely torn here. on the one hand, why potentially open them up to teasing if the interest in the barbie is only a fleeting, mild one? on the other hand, shouldn’t we as liberal parents be trying to change the pre-existing attitude that ‘boys don’t play with dolls’ by getting the barbie without a second thought? i am not sure how to explain to a boy, who is not allowed to have his own, the reasons why he is not supposed to tease another boy who does play with barbies, without being hypocritical or undermining the very message i am trying to drive home.

      • Philippa

        I know, the Barbie thing was a real dilemma! In the end I wimped out and simply bought him the other stuff he had mentioned, and managed to avoid any expressed opinion one way or another…as it happened he never mentioned it again anyway, but if he had truly set his heart on them then I don’t know what would have happened. It’s so much easier for girls – we have pink lego and a pink DS player (I perversely wanted to make sure B got into computer games, but then I am also the mother who strongly and unapologetically encourages watching tv – but that’s a whole other story!)

  3. Sarah Armstrong

    I see the same fairy phase with number two and am distraught I never got a good video of him twirling. And he is definitely a diggers and guns kid now. But seeing similar mom’s stories elsewhere I’m surprised there’s not as much bringing in of our own growing up. I was a Barbie fanatic but am so not a girly girl. Yeah the world’s, by which I mean American TV culture, is more gendered and sexualised than what I got as a kid, but our kids also get Judith Butler, Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry, right? Let’s all paint our nails!

    • it’s true, it seems like many kids gender bend for a while and then ‘grow out of it’. i’m not sure i did. i was a tomboy throughout my youth, who turned into a not particularly feminine woman. i can’t quite see you with barbies…would like to think there exists some photographic evidence for that in addition to lucas in a tutu ;).

  4. Jean

    oh girl/boy twins, you’re always making us think twice, aren’t you? nice post, lauren. i was just thinking: to tutu or to not tutu when rick brought home a green one for gemma and instantly max said, “where’s maxi’s tutu?” i copped out and said, “ask dada.”

    • thanks for writing in, jean, it is great to hear from you. boy/girl twins are certainly a planet unto themselves. you won’t be surprised to learn that jasper was actually ‘borrowing’ that tutu from phoebe. it too was a present, i should add ;). hope you guys are all well!

  5. Jean

    Yes, yes, and yes. This is such a carefully thought out narrative of an argument that goes on in so many of our heads these days. I’m hoping that one day, our kids will look back on how concerned we were about these things and laugh at us because in their group of peers, they’ll have come to know that it doesn’t matter. Fingers crossed 🙂

    • Thank you so much for reading, Jean, this is definitely a topic I contemplate (and write about) A LOT. I do think the way we handle gender issues and questions at home, when they are young, matters. But I also think society is a powerful force and what happens at school, with their friends, matters too. Hopefully, as you say, they will navigate between the two with success!

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