When I was pregnant I decided not to find out the sex of the baby before birth. At first it was kind of a whim – I liked the idea of it being a surprise. But soon, I became very protective about it because I started noticing the choices for baby clothes, decor and accessories had three choices: girl, boy and gender neutral. I was attracted most to the gender neutral items. Soon after that, when my belly was obvious, the main question people would ask was “boy or girl?” I know it’s just a way of making conversation, but when I heard that many times per day it got me thinking about the boxes we put people in – even before they are born. (I was also asked a few times about the race of the father – which really blew me away). My answer to both quickly evolved in to something like: “well, when the baby is born it will take a few years to be able to speak English, and then you can ask this little person him or herself. As 100% sure as I was that I would not make the choice circumcise my child if born anatomically a male – I was sure my child’s gender identity was up to him or her. I have enjoyed the freedom to chose how I dress and carry myself and it felt natural to leave those choices to my child for him or herself.
Since then, I have found though that the gendering (or genderizing as I call it) doesn’t end at birth. There is only more pressure to behave like a boy or like a girl. The popular opinion is boys are aggressive and girls are gentle. Boys play rough and girls play calmly. Boys like sticks and girls like clothes. Boys are messy and girls are neat, tidy and in control. I think when this is observed it is because kids sooooo quickly pick up on what they are supposed to do and they get little boosts of encouragement for certain things: bravery for boys, dressing up for girls, getting dirty for boys and playing neatly for girls. And if boys hit they are simply behaving badly, if girls hit (or bite or scratch) they are trying to tell us something. I also can’t stop thinking like a scientist – constantly collecting data – and I’ve seen both behaviors from both “boys” and “girls.” So, what’s up with that? These comments and assumptions are so ingrained in us. I feel so strongly on this topic but I even find myself greeting little girls with “what a pretty dress!” or “you look so cute!” I think about how I would react to things my son does if he were a girl. He has been very interested in automobiles, heavy construction equipment and trains. And I’ve noticed I have balked at those interests at times. But when I think about how I would react if he were a girl…? I would be alllll about her being interested in those things. Curiouser and curiouser I tell you.
A few months ago my, anatomically male, child expressed interest in wearing a skirt. I sometimes wear skirts as do many of his playmates and he said a few times: “mama, I wear ‘kirt, too!” So we went and bought a few skirts for him to add to his clothing options. The first time he wore one I was astounded at the difference in the was greeted on the street. To be fair, he does tend to get a good amount of attention for his appearance – mostly his wildly awesome hair. But this was a whole new ballgame. Where it was mostly women engaging with him before – it was now also men (maybe more than women). Where no stranger had ever offered him a gift before – he was now being offered candy. So interesting. It really hit me that having a girl would not only be an entirely different experience for the child – but an entirely different parenting experience as well.
The research shows that gender is learned. And fast. I’m going to keep letting my child choose what to wear and how to play. I’ve tried minimizing his time with people who are prone to genderizing – but I’ve found that is nearly impossible (like I said – even I do it). I feel this genderizing really does limit kid’s options and worldview and I hate that. I will just keep talking with him, and others, about it. If you want to read more, here are a few helpful articles and resources from around the web:
The best possible advice on this topic.
Of course one of my favorite parenting books that I’ve mentioned on the blog about 100 times already.
Marketing toys to girls and boys.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic!