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.

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4 thoughts on “Why “Gender Neutral” Misses the Point

  1. This gender and categorization issue is only further complicated by preschool and daycare. I have found that no matter what I want to teach Isaac, being at daycare all day does impact how he views the world. So we talk about his friends of other races and talk about how cool it is that God made people that all look different and who speak different languages and like to eat different foods and live in different countries. And we talk about his friends who are girls and how cool it is that girls and boys can grow up to be all sorts of things: doctors, pastors, parents, etc. And we also talk a lot about why mommy and daddy don’t like guns. Because while the kids are not allowed to play with or pretend to have guns at school, it inevitably happens. Some kids have parents who hunt. And most all of them have seen those things acted out somewhere. I think the key for us (and sometimes I feel like I am fighting a losing battle) is to keep talking. A lot.
    As far as church goes:
    Molly Marshall, a Baptist preacher, talks about how she heard of how the kids in the nursery at church were playing “church” and how the little girls wouldn’t let the little boys be the preacher. Because all they had ever seen was Marshall preach. I think you are completely right that kids learn from what they observe. If they don’t see a woman in a pulpit, then women aren’t preachers. If they don’t see a man holding the stethoscope, then men aren’t doctors. Exposure to difference and lots of conversations are key. At least that is what I have come to believe after raising one little three year old boy. I find that I am learning as I go.

    1. This is a great point. I remember that the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter said she wrote the book after her daughter came back from a week of preschool going from no exposure to Disney to knowing all the names of the princesses from the movies. And this was in Berkeley! I’m convinced that pink tyranny is coming from T’s classmates (um, hello! I’m wearing green pants and she thinks green is for BOYS?). That’s a great story from Molly Marshall. I think the same is true for race. Since I think about interracial adoption (a lot) I’m always looking out for doctors who are of diverse races and assessing our own church experience for how my child will see models from her own race in other believers. Same is true for gender, as you point out.

      1. Good questions raised. I won’t have to cross this bridge with kids for a while, but I appreciate your thoughts and questions, like there is some sort of balance here: being sensitive to natural patterns of gender identification while also being aware of how this might fossilize into harmful societal differences and hostility.

  2. The 3 and a half year old I nanny was like that from the day I met her. I mean, just, everything. Pink and purple are for girls, blue and green are explicitly for boys. I bought her an orange dress, (the audacity!) and she’s never worn it. Never. She can’t figure out where orange and yellow fit. I try to avoid reading the princess stories, (she has a Disney princess encyclopedia. No joke.) and when she insists, I read her Mulan, and Tiana, or any princess that has a mind too. I also find it helpful to point out that Pinkalicious’ brother Peter wears purple. and I like to show her pictures of girls with short hair or wearing blue, and boys with long hair and wearing pink. It’s hard without her parents’ support in that though.

    Luckily, she hasn’t figured out how race works yet. That’s a whole ‘nother bridge. Everyday she decides what princess each of us look like that day, based solely on what color clothes we’re wearing. I kind of like that. Also, Cinderella wears blue. Hey, there you go, try pointing out to T that Princess Tiana wears green, and Cinderella wears blue.

    Good luck!

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