If I had a dollar for every person who has told me they didn’t truly believe there were real, fundamental differences between males and females until they had kids and couldn’t get their sons to play with dolls or dissuade their daughters from amassing collections of sparkly princess dresses, I’d be rich.
Left-leaning, progressive, feminist parents will say they had such grand ideas before having kids that they would create for their children a gender-neutral paradise in which neither boys nor girls would be confined to the stereotypes that so rigidly separate masculinity from femininity. But none of it seemed to work, they'll say. This part of the narrative is oddly uniform and almost always includes some anecdote about a feminist family’s young son chewing his toast (or sandwich, or saltine cracker, or cookie…) into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot it, to the utter bafflement of the parents, who thought they had done everything possible to keep both toy and real guns and associated brands of masculinity out of the house. We don’t watch TV, the parents will say. They didn’t allow toy guns, they didn’t allow violent play. They encouraged him to be nurturing. They gave him dolls. It must be ingrained, they say. Maybe boys and girls really are different. They shrug their shoulders and sigh.
My generation came of age during the rise of “girl power.” Post-Title IX babies, we were told that girls could do anything boys could do. We were taught - much more so than any American generation before us - that gender didn’t matter. For the first time, there was growing public emphasis on the notion that you could be a girl and also be an athlete, a doctor, a business-owner, a politician or a rocket scientist. We were also the colorblind generation. Post-Civil Rights era babies, we were taught that race didn’t matter either - that anyone could do anything. Years later, our girl-power, colorblind cohort has come of age and women of all races (though particularly women of color) and men of color are still dramatically under- or mis-represented in everything from sports to politics to science.
Anti-racist activists have spoken loudly and clearly on the dangers of “colorblindness” (see this, this, this, and this) - that teaching folks that race doesn’t matter, when everything around us tells us that it does, is not anti-racist at all, nor does it do anything to dismantle the institutional racism that still permeates our social, economic, and political lives. There are parallels between colorblindness and the idea of gender-neutral parenting. If our idea of gender-neutral parenting is to simply present male children with dolls and female children with trucks, provide some “diverse” clothing options, and assume that children will not absorb - or that they will be equipped to confront - any of the other cultural messages they receive about gender from movies and television, teachers, classmates, relatives, and books and toys, we have become “genderblind.” Genderblind parenting is teaching our children that gender doesn’t matter, all the while failing to name and confront the fact that gender is embedded in nearly every aspect of our daily lives.
Social norms are powerful and small children are deeply attuned to the world of the adults around them. Their brains are rapidly forming and strengthening synapses - the connections that allow them to function, but also to learn about the culture and people to whom they’ve been born. We can - and frequently do - tell preschoolers that boys and girls ought to be treated equally, and that gender doesn’t matter, but nearly everything else we do to or with children says otherwise.
Gender is a social construct, yes. It is also a fundamental element of social organization. The first thing we want to know about newborns is whether they’re male or female. Adults and children alike often refer to non-family members as “Miss/Ms.” or “Mr.” based on perceived gender. Parents typically belong to one of two groups - moms or dads. Though most adults in the United States frequently wear pants, it is not uncommon to see adult women also wearing skirts and dresses while we have strong social taboos against men or male-identified individuals wearing skirts. Similarly, while many parents dress both male and female children in pants, even parents with a commitment to gender equality might hesitate to dress a male child in a skirt. Department store children’s clothing sections are divided into areas marked “Girls” or “Boys.” In public, boys and girls and men and women do not share spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms, even though most of us do share such spaces in our own homes. While young children sometimes play on co-ed or all-gender sports teams, most youth, college, and professional sports are segregated by gender. Cis-male athletes are vastly more visible and occupy more privileged social space than female and trans or queer athletes. Children either join the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. Action movies typically feature male superheroes and are marketed to boys while fairy-tale movies typically feature hyper-feminine princesses and heterosexual romance and are marketed to girls. While women have gained much ground in terms of workplace equality outside the home since the 1970s, when it comes to division of labor at home, women still do a disproportionate amount of child care relative to men.
All of these practices convey the message to children that gender is a profoundly salient element of our social structure, and that belonging clearly to one group or the other is important. Children can recognize the kinds of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity associated with being male or female, and despite also frequently being aware of a wide spectrum of ways to be human, peer pressure and perceived adult pressure can be a powerful tool keeping the boundary between “boy” and “girl” rigidly clear - a line that even when inadvertently imposed by adults, is often heavily policed by kids themselves. We take this as evidence that perhaps there are elements of gender or sex that are essential - that boys and girls really are different.
We must stop doing this. Gender socialization starts at the moment of birth and it shapes the brains of young children as they move through their most formative years. The differences we think we see at age three, or age five, or age ten, are not biological or fundamentally related to being in possession of a penis or a vagina, but reflect the extent to which children have absorbed gender norms. If a boy refuses to play with a doll, it doesn’t necessarily mean that human males are “naturally” less nurturing than females. It may mean that he has been ridiculed - or seen other boys ridiculed - for expressing interest in dolls. It may mean that he identifies strongly with the adult males in his life and has not seen them interacting with infants as often as women.
We so readily accept that early childhood experiences account for the many differences we see between individual children, and later, adults. We acknowledge - and much early childhood research confirms - that things like screen time, being read to, being exposed to music, being frequently spoken to, having good or poor nutrition, discipline style, exercise, and play shape the developing brains of young children and can influence their interests and personalities. Why shouldn’t we assume that the gendered language and culture we’ve built around infants and children similarly shapes young brains and accounts for the gender differences we see as babies become toddlers and then preschoolers and so on?
The point is that gender socialization is extraordinarily pervasive and disrupting it might take more than simply offering our sons dolls and our daughters trucks, though that’s a good start. When preschool-age girls refuse to wear any color but pink, or when preschool boys gravitate towards all things super-hero, I don’t think feminist, binary-disrupting parents should worry they’ve failed, nor should they default to the conclusion that these differences are biologically fated. A number of resources exist (this and this are both good places to start) to help parents talk to children about the gender binary, introduce them to the notion of gender fluidity, and encourage them to explore a fuller spectrum of human expression. Binary sex and gender are all around us. Gender matters, but that doesn’t mean that we have to reinforce its boundaries.
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