Gender is a spectrum of personal identity and expression and not the binary boxes into which children are pressured to conform. We are free to be our true selves and reach our happiness potential when we are granted access to that full spectrum of human experience.
Gender socialization has been proven to begin in the womb when we talk a lot more to our babies if we are told they are girls. Why should we limit our verbal interaction with our babies just because they are male? As they age, we say we don’t talk with boys as much because they just aren’t as communicative. They aren’t as communicative because we don’t talk with them as much! It is a reciprocal dynamic of influence that results in us missing out on a lot of quality, meaningful conversations with our sons.
Traits Versus Actions
Boys will be boys.
I loathe this expression. It is frequently offered by parents who have dropped the ball in their responsibility to raise an empathetic citizen. Just because your child has a penis doesn’t mean it’s okay for him to hit another child. Traits like aggression and actions like hitting are two different things. Testosterone is not an excuse for behavior that violates the rights of others (more on this in the Your Vulva is Not Lord Voldemort chapter). We all have an id—that lizard brain that rears its head trying to lash out our instinctual drives. But if we set the expectation that the lizard commands the masculine spirit, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also denies the complex emotional experience behind a boy’s behavior. Perhaps he felt disempowered or threatened or frustrated. His actions are an invitation to get to know his inner world and be shown a path for peaceful navigation (and it’s the same with girls). When you sell boys short in that way, you do a tremendous disservice to them and the world.
When I see one girl hit another girl on the playground it is usually accompanied by a time of separation and a long talk. This talk usually contains two components: making it clear that the choice to hit is not acceptable, and empathy building: helping the child to see the situation from behind the eyes of the victim. Frequently this talk ends with the female aggressor apologizing to the recipient of her aggressive action or some other form of peacemaking. When I see a boy hit a child on the playground, it usually elicits little more than an eye roll from the parent, maybe a “Stop!” as the child runs off. So is the boy more aggressive because we allow it, or do we allow it because the boy is more aggressive? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer is that it is a combination of both nature and nurture. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter—our jobs as the parents of our individual children are the same. We must get to know who they are, both the essence of their being and the minutiae of their ways and preferences, and use that to help guide them to become the best people they can be; to be happy within themselves and positive contributors to the world.
A friend, who has five daughters, remarked to me that, “Whenever I take my girls anywhere, someone is always calling them ‘princess’. Yes, they are girls, but they have the capacity to be interested in other things!”1 Girls are often praised as princesses for traits like being pretty and quiet. Are those really the qualities you want your daughter to aspire to? As a mother to three boys I can tell you I often hear, “Hey, tough guy!” Do we really want our sons to be aggressive and emotionally out of touch? I am not saying that the resilience and strength associated with being tough is a bad thing; I claim that label as a part of my own identity. I am not saying that we cannot appreciate the beauty of our children or that there is no value in listening. I am saying that a well-rounded person should have access to all of these characteristics. What will grant them that access is encouragement of behaviors and traits beyond the limits of their gender stereotypes. Praise your daughter for her leadership and courage in addition to her natural physical state. Praise your son for his empathetic care of others in addition to his commanding presence.
All human beings need to receive, have the potential to give, and thrive on immense affection, regardless of the genitalia with which they were born. They have the same capacity to love, care, and hurt. They have the same need for love, care, and comfort. Their capacity to hold all those feel-good bonding hormones that are replenished with acts of love and gestures of affection is the same. The lifelong benefits received from having those needs met are the same. If they fall and scrape their knees, they bleed the same and experience the same pain. A boy is no more equipped to tolerate the pain and isolation of a physical and emotional wound left untended than a girl. A girl is in need of no more coddling than a boy. When we deny our boys the affection they need, they will seek that physical contact in other, more gender-role accepted ways, like hitting and wrestling—both of which involve physical connection, which all humans need for survival. Withholding the physical expression of our love and tenderness from our sons and discouraging them from sharing that with others robs everyone of the level of peace we could attain as a people.
Thinking of all the love that the world misses out on from boys gives me a heavy heart. My sons spend hours a day, usually during the course of other activities, lovingly stroking the back of their brother, hugging, kissing, and cuddling me, and expressing loving words of affection and care. I cannot imagine what kind of life I would have, what kind of family my children would grow up in, if this affection were not a part of our lives. They still have sword fights as Peter Pan and Captain Hook, but they also have access to a whole pool of other emotions and expressions for their relationships. Why limit your child’s depth based on his gender?
Play is the world through which children exercise . . . everything. It is the playground of the imagination, the therapeutic space for their issues, and the practice ring for their learning. Restricting the type, style, or specifics of your child’s play based on arbitrary gender boundaries is profoundly limiting. A boy who plays with dolls is allowed to process the way in which he is cared for, practice relating to others, and prepare for the potential transition into fatherhood. A girl who is given blocks is allowed to exercise the mathematical side of her brain and use spatial reasoning for engineering. A girl who has a parent who plays the role of princess or villain and allows their daughter to play the role of hero, defeating the scary or seemingly insurmountable in her life, is empowered, and she is encouraged to tap into her courage, strength, and leadership. A boy who is granted access to a full spectrum of dress-up opportunities, beyond fireman and cowboy, is allowed to try on, experience, and manipulate the myriad of human experiences.
The Masculine Mask
Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men and/or advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of equality. I am a feminist as are all of the men in my life who love and respect me. I have spent much of my life standing up for myself and other women in the face of an oppressive patriarchal culture. Before I became the mother to sons, the masculine experience was only in my peripheral. Then as my first boy began to interact with the world, I was gobsmacked by the stifling limitations and double standards that characterized the male experience that I was now seeing through my son’s eyes.
Boys, in particular, experience severe pressure that drastically limits the parts of themselves they are permitted to express. While females are now encouraged to be both sweet and tough, males are still pressured to stuff anything outside macho stoicism behind a mask. Girls can be whatever they dream, dress however they want, and be true to whoever they are (fall anywhere along the feminine-masculine spectrum). Boys are denied that same freedom. And I’m allergic to double standards. It is no more “wrong” for a boy to dress up as a fairy than for a girl to dress up as a fire fighter. If a girl can wear pants, then why can’t a boy wear a dress?
When people express concern for a little boy wanting to play with a baby doll, I try to address the fear behind their words: “What are you afraid will happen if he plays with a baby doll?” Let’s cut to the chase: homophobia is usually at the heart of the matter. A boy who role-plays caring for his child is not more likely to grow to be homosexual—he is more likely to grow to be a father. But even if your son is going to grow to fall in love with another man, a childhood full of criticism and disapproval will not pressure and shame away the gay. Banning your son from liking the color pink will not yield any benefit (a boy liking pink won’t make him gay any more than a girl liking blue makes her gay). Homosexuality is not a disease that spreads through color. Our energy is better spent encouraging our children to learn, play, and be whatever fills them with joy and leaves them feeling authentically their best selves. That is unconditional love.
Want to see people’s heads explode? Have a son with long hair. When people would say my toddler was “so pretty” and I would respond, “Thank you; he is,” they were incredibly uncomfortable. Why do people perceive sex as so important? Why do we have to know what genitalia a 2-year-old has to even talk to them? Most people feel a strong compulsion to put everything and everyone in a box. You are ___ (insert label); you therefore ___. It is an immature state within the meaning making process of the brain. It’s taxonomy. It’s the quickest way for humans at the beginning of their journey to make the most sense of the biggest amount of input, in the shortest amount of time, with the least amount of effort. But we are supposed to mature beyond that; at least we have the potential to. And an adult with that system of meaning making makes for a sad, limited existence and world indeed.
As your children wade farther out into the social current (namely if they attend school), the ignorance of others will begin its influence on your precious progeny. The foundation you give them must be strong enough to endow them with the strength of character to be true to who they are in the face of that ignorance. Will your daughter who has a natural ability and interest in math persist with her passion when her teacher calls on the boys for math and science questions two-thirds of the time? Will your son channel the empathy he received from you and prioritize his relationships over his status and stand up for a peer who is being bullied? Will your daughter play a sport in which she excels? Will your son rock his favorite nail polish?
“What color balloon would you like?”
“Oh no, pink is for girls!”
“All the colors are for everyone. Pink please.”
I am not advocating for gender neutrality. I am against gender as a limiting force in the formation of your child’s identity. In some cultures, pink is for boys and blue is for girls (pink and red are considered the colors of battle while blue represents docility and the giving of life, as represented in water). In our culture today, it is arbitrarily vice versa (though early in the 1900s the norm was for boys and girls both to wear white dresses and don long hair until the age of about 7, and as recently as the 1940s, pink was considered a color for boys and blue for girls until a clothing department store released a line of clothing with girls in pink and boys in blue). There is nothing written into our DNA, no code in the X/Y chromosomes that dictates color preference. Gender expectations are a social construction. I want all of my children to have access to the full spectrum of the rainbow on their palettes. Restricting the colors with which they can paint the world only limits what they are able to create, see, imagine, and manifest.