Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why do we gender children? — How to approach kids neutrally

Hobo Mama wants you to know she's a professional blogger! Look at how professional she's being!

I have three boys with long hair, and one in particular who favors bright colors and sparkles, so I have something to say about our habit to gender people.

When we go out, it seems like everyone we interact with has to say something to make it clear they have interpreted these children as girls — whether it's a cashier offering a sticker as "one for you and one for your sister" or a waiter calling them "sweetie" (which I wouldn't have even caught but that sets off Mikko's spider senses) or a stranger outright saying, "What pretty young girls you are!"

Note a few things upfront:

(a) These are not mean or rude people. They're interacting with my children and doing so in a pleasant, friendly manner. I appreciate that a lot.

(b) There is nothing wrong with being a girl. Or a boy. Or a person born as a boy who identifies partially or wholly as a girl, and vice versa. There is nothing wrong with being gender fluid.

(c) This is probably the biggest one: I'm not here calling out individuals for being problematic. Heaven knows such individuals exist, but most of our interactions are with well-meaning folks. And I know that I am one of them! I'm sure I do this type of thing as well when I awkwardly try to interact with a stranger's kid. I'm more thinking of our culture as a whole and questioning why we feel the need so strongly to gender-identify people in general and children in particular.

Little children are the most naturally gender-fluid people I know. Developmentally speaking, kids don't realize there are genders until about 2 or 3, and they don't usually strongly identify as a particular gender until 4 or 5. (These are averages, and each kid can be different.)

When Mikko was three, he had me buy him a pink ballet dress and pranced around with me to ballet DVDs. His favorite toy at preschool was a baby doll. He also played with trucks and loved dinosaurs. He watched TV shows featuring girls and boys. He didn't care about the distinctions.

At about five years old, there was a massive shift. Suddenly, everything girl was inferior. Including actual girls! We had many a talk about this, because (hint, hint, Mikko) I'm a girl. I was kind of bemused by the whole thing as a feminist and given that Mikko had grown up in a household with a feminist father and equally shared parenting and housework. For instance, he'd gleaned (from TV maybe? Other families? Books?) that women cook and men don't. This DESPITE THE FACT that Sam does all our cooking! I was floored.

But that's neither here nor there, just a commentary on how much further we'd have to go to be a gender-neutral society.

Alrik was in that la-di-dah phase of childhood until very recently where he could love My Little Pony and Power Rangers equally, and so his outfits still often reflect his eclectic interests. Unless he's wearing an entirely butch outfit, any pink or sparkles he's wearing automatically qualifies him for girl status with strangers. Alrik identifies himself right now as a boy, and he's started talking more about how people think he's a girl and reflecting on why that is. So far it hasn't affected his love for makeup, hair things, and vibrant leggings, and I anticipate more exploratory conversations in our future.

Karsten at two is too young yet to care that everyone sees his long hair and assumes girl. Mikko at ten, however, gets annoyed by it for himself. He has various sensory issues that make him really, really dislike haircuts so he has chosen not to have them anymore. It's his hair so his choice. Before interacting on such a daily basis with these male relatives (including Sam) who at various times have had shorter or longer hair, I also saw short as the male default. Now I don't. I know most people in my culture aren't there.

Mikko doesn't have long hair to identify as feminine. He doesn't even particularly like it. (I think it's glorious, but don't tell.) He has strong opinions now about fashion (much earlier than I ever had — my mom was choosing clothes for me into high school, ha ha), so he tends toward dark colors (black is his favorite color) and he loves "boy" designs, such as Lego, Minecraft, Star Wars, and dinosaurs. (Obviously, I know those are not actually exclusively masculine.)

Despite this, I can remember all the specific people who've identified him as male, because they're so few. No one even suggests "she" must be a tomboy. It's like his hair cancels out his clothing. I guess we start at the head and move down as we're sizing people up, so maybe this makes sense.

Like I said, this is not me railing against any particular people for guessing wrong. I mean, if I wanted to, I could. I could tell you about the scattered doofuses, child and adult, who've refused to believe us that they're boys, making me wonder if these weirdos are expecting a whipping out of genitals to solve the riddle. You'd think being told, "I'm a boy" (or girl or whatever) would be enough proof for people.

And I could grouse about certain people I know who encourage my kids to cut their hair in ways ranging from subtle to outspoken. They're the same people who make snide remarks toward androgynous and gender-nonconforming folks we see, so I already expected it.

So I get that some people crave neat little boxes for the gender-binary world in their heads, and they will respond with disbelief and revulsion to anyone who challenges those views, including my innocent boys.

But I don't think (I hope, at least) that most of us are like that. I think most of us just aren't that aware of gender-bending looks or behavior until it's put in front of us, as is what's happened with me, in fact.

So I have a few humble suggestions for how we might approach children we meet, and indeed adults as well:

  • If referring to neighboring children or adults indirectly, try using gender-neutral terms. "Alrik, I think that child also wants to use the scissors when you're done." "Mikko, there's a person trying to get by you." It's rarely necessary in those circumstances to use "girl" or "man" or what have you, and it means you'll never guess wrong.

  • When referring to groups of children, stick with inclusive terms like "folks," "kids" or "hey, peeps" rather than "ladies," "boys," or "you guys."

  • When speaking directly with people, try not assuming their interests from their perceived gender. If in doubt, you can always ASK. For instance, you don't have to assume that a girl loves Frozen and a boy doesn't: You can just ask!

  • When distributing stickers or balloons or plastic cups or construction paper or what have you to a group of children, ask children individually what type they want instead of assuming (e.g., "I know you'll want purple because you're a girl!") or reacting negatively to a choice (e.g., "A princess sticker? Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a race car?"). A better alternative is to ask for preferences, and then respect them, either without comment or with a short, positive one ("Purple is my favorite color, too!").

  • Don't suggest that people are behaving inappropriately to their gender, whether positively or negatively. For instance, there's no need to tell a girl she's as strong as a boy — just plain "strong" will do. And I'll add a plea here for my boys: There's really no need to tell strangers (or, indeed, most anyone, with very few exceptions) how to dress or style their hair. Trust me.

  • To help your kids appreciate differences instead of growing up stuck in a binary rut, one fun thing you can do is read books together but substitute gender-neutral pronouns or swap the genders altogether. One mom read the Harriet Potter books to her daughter, which I find entertaining. (The daughter was aware of the switch.)

  • Seek out examples of gender non-conformity, and point them out when you come across them. For instance, if your son says boys can't have long hair, remind him of men he knows who do. Read books and watch movies about people who defy gender stereotyping.

  • Encourage social activities with diverse groups of children. My kids are homeschooled, so this is easier for us, but I love play groups where kids are varied genders, ages, and backgrounds.

A book I've really appreciated on the subject is by a blogger friend of mine (who does not know I'm shilling!): Gender Neutral Parenting, by Paige Lucas-Stannard. It's straightforward and helpful and a great choice if you've thought about the topic or want to but feel overwhelmed about what to do. It's not preachy or judgmental or over the top — just eye-opening to all the ways we pigeonhole kids and how we might work against that.

If you want more specific reading on parenting transgender kids, try Raising the Transgender Child, by Michele Angello & Ali Bowman.

I'm sure my ideas are just the tip of the iceberg, so if you have any to share, bring 'em on!



Jamie Edwards said...

Such a lovely post! My son is 6 and has hair down to his bum. He didn't see this as an issue until he started school (he's about to finish year 1) but has decided against having it cut despite being bullied for "looking like a girl".... he said it's not his hair that needs to change but them being mean needs to change! He did however threaten to flash a lady in the street who kept saying she everytime he said he! Your boys are gorgeous and they look happy too which is really all that matters! Screw the boxes! :)

Laine said...

Beautiful post and beautiful kids! Thank you for keeping the discussion positive <3 My youngest is gender non-conforming and I find it hard to find articles that are calm and level to share with folks and further the discussion. We have so many emotions wrapped up in the idea of the gender binary as it seems so simple on the surface. Before my experiences with my own child I thought I was pretty aware of the problems of foisting gender based expectations on small people. But I now know that I was barely scratching the surface, and also participating unconsciously in a practice at the heart of so much of the inequality we all face every day. We live and learn, and hopefully do better. In the case of gender it's so important to resist the urge to tell a child who they are and listen carefully instead.

Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook said...

My 3-year-old and I recently enjoyed a picture book from the library, Jacob's New Dress. It's about a preschool boy who enjoys wearing dresses from the costume box but is criticized by a boy in class...fashions a toga from a towel...tells his parents he wants a regular dress to wear to school and, after some awkward moments, gets his mom's help making a dress he really likes...and his teacher's response to that other boy is, "Everyone wears what's comfortable for them." Jacob's desires and worries are so perfectly expressed by the text! I was almost in tears wishing this book had been around when my son was in preschool! He's 12 now and has become more gender-conforming, but he had long hair until he was 9 and has always been fond of purple, sparkles, rainbows, flowers, and cooking toys. He had some tough moments with classmates and strangers.

My 3-year-old is a girl whose tastes are girly "enough" for the mainstream, but she was intrigued by the story, and we talked about it a lot.

I think your tips are great!

Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook said...

I decided I had to write more about this!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Jamie Edwards: "he said it's not his hair that needs to change but them being mean needs to change!" LOVE this.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Laine: Yes, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I'm also learning every day from how my kids navigate their world with wisdom and grace.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Rebecca Stallings: I've had that book recommended a lot and definitely need to check it out! It sounds perfect. Thanks so much for your post — I really enjoyed it and have shared it.

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