questions for you: children’s perceptions (& policing) of gender

As regular readers know, I’m working on a feminist book about parenting. Will you help me write a better, more inclusive project by answering some questions?

This week’s topic: children’s perceptions (& policing) of gender:

  • Do you have a story that illuminates your child’s (or any child’s) understanding of what gender is and how it works? Do you remember anything about your own childhood experience of gender?
  • Have you witnessed children acting as the self-appointed gender police, trying to make sure other children present ‘correctly’? Share stories and/or thoughts, please.

The details:

  • By commenting on this post, you are giving me permission to quote what you say here in my book. Please indicate the age(s) of your child or children, as well as whether you’d like to be identified by full name, first name only, or a pseudonym of your choice if I end up using your words.
  • Feel free to email your responses instead of commenting here, if you prefer: molly at firsttheegg dot com.
  • Please answer any question (or questions) that strikes your fancy, in any way, at any length. Anything relevant to these topics is welcome, even if what you have to say is not really related to the questions. I’m so grateful for any thoughts you offer!

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  1. Posted 20 February 2013 at 3:02 PM | Permalink

    My own daughter is only two, and there hasn’t been too much gender policing of her yet (though I did tell a little boy in her daycare class that I liked his glasses (he was wearing pink sunglasses) only to see another little boy try to take them away and say “those are for girls,” so I’m sure she’ll get hit with it soon).

    I do have a memory from my own childhood. I grew up in a very rural area and didn’t go to preschool. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and we were pretty isolated, so I had’t had a lot of interaction with other children when I went to elementary school. I had grown up very “tomboyish,” spending a lot of time playing in the woods, climbing trees, fishing with my dad, etc. When I got to elementary school, one of the recess games was a girls v. boys game where the boys captured the girls and locked them in a tunnel on the playground. The whole class played this game, and I HATED being locked in the tunnel and couldn’t understand why the girls never got to chase the boys and lock them up. I remember arguing so passionately that we should get to switch roles sometimes, so much so that the girls ganged up on me and said “why don’t you just be on the boys’ team.” So I was. They teased me about it, but it made my recess a lot less boring. Who wants to just sit in a tunnel?

  2. Posted 20 February 2013 at 6:24 PM | Permalink

    My 4 year old, Margaret, is very defensive about her younger brother’s gender. He has long curly blond hair and is often mistaken for a girl. Last summer, she was so distraught about a little girl saying Isaac was a girl that she came crying to me. I told her it was ok and that Isaac, who was 2, didn’t care and that sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone has a penis or vulva by looking at them. I know gender doesn’t always match physical sex, but it’s all we’ve got to go on for a 2 year old! Anyway, she went back to playing while informing the girl that, “Isaac has a penis so he’s a boy!” In a funny turn of events the girl replied, “I’m allergic to penis.” I’m pretty sure she meant “peanuts.”

    When Margaret tells me something like, “Boys don’t wear necklaces,” I reply with, “I think some boys wear necklaces. Let’s see if we can find a picture of a boy wearing necklaces,” and we look up pictures on the Internet. When she sees that both boys and girls can have necklaces, ponytails, earrings, tattoos, pants, skirts, wear pink, etc., she lets me know, “Boys AND girls can both do that!” And I’ve heard her tell her gender-policing friends about what both boys and girls can do.

  3. Posted 20 February 2013 at 8:40 PM | Permalink

    My boys are three, and they haven’t picked up on gender differences. They do notice sex characteristics and ask questions like “Nana has a vulva? Yay! She is like you, Mommy!” At the preschool I work at, we generally assist their understanding of the differences between the sexes by saying “Girls grow up and can become mommies. Boys can grow up and become daddies.” That doesn’t address the range of gender expressions, but it’s developmentally appropriate. We also allow all the children to participate in all the activities, even– especially– when the boys want to wear the tutus and tiaras.

    Pink is a color. A kid is a kid.

    When I was about four years old I informed my mom that I couldn’t be a doctor because I was a girl. She bought me a doctor’s kit toy the next day. I’m not sure where I got that idea since it’s not one that was verbalized in the house I grew up in, but I’m guessing it’s something I intuited; in the small town in which I grew up there weren’t any female doctors.

  4. Posted 21 February 2013 at 4:38 AM | Permalink

    The only thing I’ve picked up so far with my two-year-old son was when he pointed out some playing cards, one with a diminutive princess and the other featuring a large ogre, and informed me that the former was mummy and the latter was daddy. This was shortly after his second birthday and without us ever having actually addressed gender differences together. It was amazing to me that he could already distinguish between the two and fascinating, and frightening, what they manage to perceive without you having the slightest idea how.

  5. Lara
    Posted 21 February 2013 at 8:38 AM | Permalink

    Probably one of my feminist-mommy favorite moments is along these lines. My older son had asked me to buy him a pair of pink sweatpants when he was 5 years old, and I did, though I pointed out that the people who made them probably intended them for girls. I hated feeling like I had to tell him that, but they were Target sweatpants, very, very pink, and very adult-woman styled, and I felt that it would be unfair of me to send him into the world wearing them without a small warning about how they might be received. He said, “I know, Mommy, I want them for bedtime,” and he wore them to bed every night for a while. We still had them when my younger son grew into that size, a bit younger, and I put them in his drawer when I pulled out the 5T clothes. The morning he discovered them, at age 4, he loved the pink pants, and had no qualms about putting them on to go to preschool. I agonized about whether to say something. If I did, would I just be reinforcing the gender police? If I didn’t, would he feel betrayed by his own mom, who didn’t protect him from doing something foolish? As I was agonizing, my older son (then age 7) tenderly sat my younger one down, and said, “you know, Oliver, other kids may tease you if you wear those pants. They may say, ‘pink is for gi-irls, pink is for gi-irls.’” Oliver replied, “no it’s not, I like pink too.” My older son basically agreed with him, and he wore his pink pants to school. Sure enough, the girls in his class told him repeatedly that they were girls’ pants. I knew his wonderful feminist-buddhist-hippie teacher, who has a gay son, would handle the situation well, and she did. And he wore the pants several more times after that. He always felt the need to declare that pink isn’t just for girls, it’s for everybody, and he got the moral support he seemed to need from our family before he headed off to school. It did seem to be tiring for him to wear them, anticipating the flak he would get, and that makes me sad. But for a first serious encounter with the Gender Police, I felt like it went as well as I could hope. I was particularly proud of my older son, who was so gentle and understanding with his brother. He could have teased his brother, acted the part of the Gender Police himself. Instead, he fortified him with information and sympathy, better than I could have done myself.

  6. Posted 24 February 2013 at 2:02 PM | Permalink

    When my daughter was 3, we had a game of hair salon get out of hand. Her long hair was all chopped off (by another kid) into a cut that was more stereotypically “boy.” We didn’t make a big deal about it, and she wasn’t too upset until she started getting mistaken for a boy by other kids. Any time she wasn’t wearing something obviously girly, someone would assume she was a boy, and she, at that young age, would get very mad about it. It surprised me.

  7. Maggie
    Posted 24 February 2013 at 7:13 PM | Permalink

    I find my child’s assumptions regarding gender in others quite different than the understanding he applies to himself. His preferences are for warm, bright colors, light-weight close-fitting clothes, and long loose hair. He identifies as a boy. However, he identifies the gender of other children, adults or story book characters according to our standard cultural assumptions. In particular, it takes some reminding to call a long-haired kid a “he” when that is the case, even though my son himself has long hair.

    We have recently met some friends and parents whose physical sex is different from their gender, so we’re starting to talk about that. It’s not a topic I’m terribly familiar with, but I’m learning! I’m going to gently challenge those of you who have suggested that learning about the complexities of gender isn’t age appropriate for very young children. Finding the right language to express complex ideas simply is hard. But people of all genders are in our world. I don’t want to edit them out of existence. I’ve found this genderbread person* a fun way to educate myself. There was also a program on Vermont Public Radio a few months ago that made some interesting points about speaking to children about gender*.

    My son gets mis-identified/gender-policed quite frequently by other children, although adults in this area are generally pretty accepting. What irritates him the most is when people just don’t believe him when he says that he’s not a she, but a he. He didn’t really care at 2 or 3, but now at 4.5 it is important to him that he be correctly identified. Children comment on his overall appearance, adults and children comment on his hair, and once an older child insisted that he was a girl because he “talked like a girl.”

    *I don’t know how to put links in a comment …

    Maggie, Vermont
    children aged 4.5 and 1.5

  8. A'Llyn Ettien
    Posted 24 February 2013 at 7:32 PM | Permalink

    When I was 7 or 8, some boys who lived near us liked to play ‘bow and arrows.’ I thought it seemed fun, but it was totally a ‘boy’ thing and that was very serious for some reason, so I when I made myself a play bow with a bendy branch and some string, I did it secretly. Then it was too floppy and didn’t shoot at all, so I felt silly about it, and when my mom saw it and commented on my ‘bow’ (in an interested neutral tone, if I recall, no disapproval, so the policing wasn’t coming from her), I claimed it was supposed to be a purse, which I guess was an approved girl toy, even if not something my mother or–any woman I knew–habitually carried.

    Better to play at a stereotypical girlishness I’d never seen, than a stereotypical boyishness I couldn’t do well, I guess.

    I think maybe I would happily claimed a nontraditional, bow-hunting gender role, if only my bow had actually worked at all…I remember feeling more strongly about not wanting to do a ‘boy’ thing badly, than about not wanting to do it.

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