Yesterday T and I were picking out her clothes for the day when she informed me that she would no longer be wearing the bright green shorts I held out to her. “Those are boy shorts,” she said, rummaging around for the one pair of pink shorts in the drawer.
And so it begins. Just around her third birthday T is figuring out that she’s a little girl. The only other clue as to this developmental step was when we looked at pictures of herself as a baby. Not wanting to speed the inevitable association of pink-to-female I mostly dressed T in what we would call gender-neutral clothing as a small child. Whenever she sees these baby pictures she tells me that these were taken when she was a boy. She wonders if she will be a boy again when she gets older.
I used to be nervous about the time my child would turn into the gender police. I thought there might even be a way to stop the princess tyranny that may yet invade my home. I’m not alone. Every day I read a new story about a parent in the midst of a grand gender experiment. Most of these parents are choosing to withhold the sex of their baby from the outside world in order to allow for “natural gender discovery” in their child. The idea is that, instead of having gender forced upon you from an outside source, you will make your own choices about clothing, likes, dislikes, friends, interests and other gender-regulated aspects of life.
I can empathize with this desire to allow for freedom in self-identity. Yet, I can’t help but shake my head at the total failure to acknowledge how normal a developmental step it is to begin dividing up your world. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurturShock talks about one example of this phenomenon, only this time in terms of race. After experiments done with children on the establishment of identity, scientists concluded that in-group favoritism is developmentally normal. It’s even true of babies who will be drawn to white faces if they are white, Asian faces if they are Asian, etc. This is how children learn about their world – they divide it into pieces they can understand, and this in turn helps them develop their own identity. This is why we don’t need to freak out when our three year olds tell us they don’t like white/black/Latino kids. Eighty-six percent of children at this age say they would prefer to be friends with children of their own race. Their categories are limited. For now there is only us and them; good and bad.
Gender is less a dividing factor at this age but get to four and game over. Unless the gender-neutral movement is right. The problem, according to the research, is that kids will find a way to divide themselves up no matter what. One experiment in NurtureShock divided children up by T-shirt color. No antipathy developed but, sure enough, the Shirts created divisions to confirm each group’s sense of identity. The Reds explained that all Reds were good; only some Blues were good. If it’s not gender it will be something else, like skin color. Black kids play with trains; white kids play with dolls.
The other problem I see is the short-sightedness of this approach. As Bronson and Merryman point out, the problem isn’t that kids divide themselves up, it’s that we never talk about race with our children. Because it’s an uncomfortable subject we don’t bring it up. As a result, normal developmental patterns turn into racism and race preference. I think the same could be true for gender. Really think about it: do you want your kids to choose their gender with the options now before us now? Because the divide lines up like this: femininity is associated with consumption, timidity, low-impact play and observation; masculinity is associated with toughness, under-achievement, lack of empathy (seen as weakness), and sexual prowess. Both are packaged by Mattell and available at your local Toys R Us. I choose neither, thanks.
Despite knowing that I will have to restrain rolling my eyes for the next few years, I fully expect my child to divide up the world along gender lines, but I also hope that exposure to the Mia Hamms and Ruth Bader Ginsbergs and Esthers of this world will help expand her understanding of femininity and it’s opportunities. I also hope that our religious tradition will become a place where T can rest her identity (I haven’t read any research as to how religious communities do or do not impact gender norms). I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for getting out of the gender norms problem, but I’m pretty sure that pretending like gender doesn’t exist isn’t the way to go.