And so it surprised me when my older boy became very attached to his cars despite being offered a wide variety of toys. It surprised me to see the differences in play between his girl friends and his boy friends. It didn't surprise me that people were taken aback by his long hair, but I was surprised by the extent to which people became confused, upset, or angry over it.
But nothing surprised me more than the day I said to my son, before turning him loose in the mall's play center, "if you want to play chase with a girl, you should ask her first. Lots of girls don't like to play that way."
The lady beside me gave me a curious look, and as I thought back over what I had said, I couldn't believe those words had just came out of my mouth.
Of course I should have replaced the word "girls" with "children" (hindsight is always 20/20), and yet my words hadn't been entirely without merit. We had had a run of incidents with girls - all minor, but no one likes their child to be looked at as a bully or a troublemaker. The problem was that when he played with boys, they all ran around, roared a lot, crashed into each other, and laughed like crazy. It's the funnest game in the world to them. But then he would do the same thing with girls and it would inevitably end in tears and wails of "Mooooommy, he HIT me!" or "Daaaaaddy, that boy is CHASING us and YELLING at us!"
And my boy would be left standing there looking confused and ashamed.
Now sure, there are girls who like to play rough-and-tumble like that, and there are boys who don't like it all. We just hadn't met any at that point, and it was that stretch of crying girls and glaring mothers that led to the "ask before you chase" rule. I'd like to say it resolved everything, but it's an ongoing learning experience for both of us, mother and son. When all the kids build a castle together, and the girls in the group want to play in it while the boys want to knock it down, who gets their way?
But this isn't about that. This is about the bigger picture. Is gender neutral, or are there inherent differences between the two?
During a discussion on a post over at The Parent Vortex, Michelle shared this tidbit that I thought really summed things up:
Much like race, gender is one of those things that people like to say, “It doesn’t matter!” but the fact remains that people from different races look different from each other, and people of different genders look different too. Pretending that it doesn’t matter doesn’t make those differences go away.
"Pretending that it doesn’t matter doesn’t make those differences go away."
There has been a lot of talk lately about the parents who are keeping their baby's gender a secret. If I may speak to the idea, simply for the sake of discussion and not standing in judgement of the parents, it seems to me that an attempt to raise a “genderless” child actually draws more attention to the child’s (unknown) gender. The parents want to negate the effects of gender and yet in trying to do so, they make gender a far bigger deal than it need be. It seems it would be very confusing for the child and siblings in question.
Speaking in general terms, I feel as though gender neutrality is so heavily pushed now, particularly in certain circles, that kids are actually discouraged from being interested in traditionally “gendered” activities. I question the health in that, as I feel it promotes a lot of unnecessary shame. Letting a child choose his or her activities, clothing, toys, and so on is a far cry from pushing him or her towards or away from an activity just because it considered “boyish” or “girly” – whether that activity be traditionally associated with the same sex or the opposite sex.
I actually see a strong parallel to religious fundamentalism, only instead of “avoid all appearance of evil”, there’s a push to “avoid all appearance of gender”. Instead of seeing sin in everything, they see “gender” in everything. It’s a strange paradox, that the desire to encourage gender neutrality often results in an unnatural hyperfocus on gender itself. I see it, like religious fundamentalism, leading to a great deal of unnecessary frustration and confusion for children – girls feeling like they have to apologize for liking pink and frilly things; boys who feel pushed away from traditionally “boyish” pursuits.
There is also the other side of the same coin, where children who like things that don’t traditionally “match” their sex are held up as examples in the gender versus sex debate. Mothers pat themselves on the back for accepting their “cross-gendered” five year old, usually boys who like pink or want to wear dresses. And yet for the boy who hasn’t had it shamed or bullied out of him, it’s completely normal. Lots of boys like to dress up in princess dresses. It’s sparkly and bright and fun. It’s not gender exploration, it’s just childhood. Making a big deal out of – whether to encourage or discourage it – is entirely unnecessary.
I think there is a great deal of merit in allowing your children to choose their own activities, hairstyles, toys, clothes, etc, without regard to traditional gender lines. Absolutely. My boys play with cars and carry their dolls around in baby slings. My older one has only recently decided his favourite colour is no longer pink, but it's definitely still up there. He's absolutely insistent that he's going to be a Mommy when he grows up. It's not because he's "gender confused", it's because he identifies most strongly with me and wants to be able to have babies and breastfeed just like I do. He had hair longer than mine at one point, and is currently growing it out again because he wants it long. No big deal. He’s not gender confused, he just wants long hair. My aunt who teaches kindergarten often talks about the little boys who are so excited over all the pink princess stuff they get to play with at kindergarten – not gender confused, just enjoying the fun.
Allowing kids that sort of freedom is awesome. Making a big deal out of it or hyperfocusing on the issue? Not so much.
What do you think about the topics of gender neutrality and gender differences?