Friday, August 7, 2009

Breaking out of the mold

I've been thinking a lot about social norms recently, and what sorts of expectations we project on our children from the time that they're born, or even before. I think the clearest one here is gender norms: we pick names, decor, clothing, toys, etc. based on the sex of our child. That doesn't mean we aren't open to our children expressing their gender in varied ways... but we certainly do start pushing them into a particular box from birth, based on their sex.

There's a couple in Sweden who haven't revealed the sex of their child to anyone except a few close friends and relatives who have changed the child's diaper. (See more takes on this here, here, and here.) They call their child Pop and while they are raising Pop outside of a specific gender box, they do assume that Pop will eventually choose one side of the gender binary--and they're probably right, given how deeply ingrained gender and sex are in our culture.

I can see why they're doing this, although we won't be doing the same thing with our own children. I agree that our society is overly gendered and that it shouldn't take as much work and hardship as it does to express a gender identity other than the one that you are assigned at birth. But I also don't like androgynous names very much, and know that we will choose decidedly gendered names for our own children. If we have a girl, we won't go crazy with the pink--but certainly I would pick more purple clothes for a daughter than I would for a son.

However, if I have a son who wants to wear purple, or doesn't want to be considered a son--that's fine. I guess my approach will be to assume that, like most people, when our kids are small they will be fine with whatever gender. And as they get older, if they prefer a gender other than the one we've assigned to them, I want them to know that we'll be open to that. If I have a son and he wants to wear dresses, I will definitely be OK with that. And if it goes further than clothing choices, that's fine too.

I guess what I want is for my kids to know that even though we started off by putting them in what seemed like the most logical gender box, they don't have to stay there. I don't necessarily want them to think that there are default options for everything, and if they choose something other than that, it has to be a big, shocking deal.

As another example, if we have a child who is gay, I don't want them to feel like they have to "come out" to us. I don't want to assume that our kids will have an opposite-sex partner, and that if they choose otherwise, they have to break the news to us as this big deal. I want them to always know that whatever choices they make and whatever categories they think they do or do not fit into, that's OK with us.

I guess my point is that I don't want them to feel like there's a mold they're supposed to fit into. But I also don't want to saddle them with something that will make them stand out unnecessarily in their childhoods. I want to accommodate the preconceptions of our society without necessarily buying into all of them. I wonder if that's even possible.

What about you? Do you expect your child to grow up with a certain gender? What would you do if your child rejected the gender that you had assigned to them?


  1. I think that it's ok for kids to play with opposite gender toys. I grew up dancing ballet, but was also a tomboy playing sports in school and with the neighborhood boys and my brothers friends.
    You love your kids no matter what. That is the important thing!

  2. So, part of me loves what this Swedish couple is doing. But, then the other side of me asks what's so wrong with gender? I mean, I'm one of those people who lives by the creed, everything in moderation. So ... so long as people don't go overboard with bows for girls or dirty knees for boys, then I'm ok.

    I pretty much fall into your camp, which is ... if we have children, they will have names associated with their sex. However, they will be raised to pursue what interests them and makes them happy. And if it happens to be things that are traditionally associated with the other sex, that's fine by me.

  3. I think it's about giving your kids an environment that they feel is welcoming and comfortable while getting to experience a ton. I did not grow up in a particularly welcoming household and that is one thing I stress for my daughter.

    However, on the gender side, we do tend to dress her in girlie colors but not in girlie styles (she has never worn a dress). I still get people who ask me "How old is he?" when she is wearing pants and a t-shirt that is pink with a butterfly on it.

    Go figure.

  4. I've thought a lot about the influences a parent has on their child, many that are subconcious. Things like religion, racism or prejudice, habits such as cleanliness or hobbies in one's spare time and how people react to one another are all learned in childhood, and I do not want to even nudge my child into any particular mindset or opinion, though I know that is impossible.

    I think what the couple in Sweden is doing is a bit extreme, but I too can understand why they're doing it. My brother's favorite color has always been purple, and he did "girl" things with my sister and I because we outnumbered him, though she and I frequently did "boy" things, like play with cars.

    I think it's important to allow your child the freedom to figure out what they like, and the best way to do that is to show them different toys or games without a running commentary. Of course, I have no children, so this is all based on my limited exposure to kids and memories of my own childhood.

  5. I have always thought coming out was more about realizing your preferences and being open about them rather than breaking the news to other people, though obviously I do acknowledge that in some cases it is like breaking "bad" news to people.

    I really hate pink, so if I have a girl at some point, I would steer her away from that. Which probably means that she will only want pink clothes and toys.

    As B gets older it will be interesting to see if he is into the traditionally boy stuff. I will try to do whatever is right for him, and I will love him no matter what. My husband assumes that B will be very athletic, like my husband is, so it will be interesting to see how that turns out.

    I don't like the whole Pop thing. I am ok with encouraging kids to try both "girl" and "boy" things, but I don't like the idea of treating your kid as a social experiment.

  6. Always with the making us think on a Friday morning. ;-)

    I am definitely in the "whatever makes your kids happy" camp, and I'm not a big fan of the "all pink for girls and all blue for boys" mentality. But if I'm 100% honest about it, I think I would struggle if my child wasn't comfortable as their assigned gender. Not because I have some sort of problem with whatever decision they make, but because I don't know anyone who has been through that. And because of that I think it will be hard for me to understand. But that doesn't mean I would love my kids any less, or that I would want them to stay in the box we put them in if it means they are unhappy. Of course not.

    I don't know if you watch the Momversation blogs at all, but Bacon is My Enemy was just talking on her blog about how she tried to let her daughter know that it was totally ok if she was gay, and it ended up making her daughter feel like her mom WANTED her to be gay (like I would imagine most kids feel like their parents WANT them to be straight). It's so funny how fine the line is between showing that you are ok with whatever and pushing someone.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. I do find this stuff really interesting though.

  7. I'm for the "whatever makes my kids happy" way as well. However, I don't have kids yet and I think I would want to spoil a little girl with "girly" things because I grew up with 3 brothers so most of our shared toys were sports toys. I also have a unisex name (girl spelling, but still) and I didn't like it growing up, so again, I'd probably name a little girl something "girly."

    I don't think it really matters how much gender conditioning you do to your child because if they grow up and identify with the opposite gender when they start choosing their own clothes they will choose that gender's styles.

  8. It really does start so early on--especially at baby showers. Eventually I plan to announce a pregnancy, but not tell extended family members the gender before the shower. I just wouldn't want the poor kid to get saddled with all of the stereotypical boy/girl things from the start. That just takes some planning when you think about what to put on the registry, but I think it is a worthy hassle.

    There are plenty of adorable gender neutral things available, so as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather have those. It's more practical, too, if you plan to have more than one child.

    I would hope any child of mine would feel safe enough to explore all facets of his/her own identity, and I hope to expose them to enough diversity while they're young that they will feel comfortable exploring.

  9. This is such an interesting of the big things that surprised me with our kids is how gendered they were, right from the beginning. Or how distinct they were, in a gendered kind of way. They're still this way (and what is it with pink, anyway? Do girls choose this because they recognize and select cultural stereotypes even before they know what these are? I mean, I am not a pink person myself, and I avoided girly pink things for my daughter as much as possible--yet pink has been her favorite color since almost before she could talk). I never consciously pushed them in certain gendered directions, and even, I think, pushed a little in the opposite direction, at least in the cultural stereotypes line. Similarly, I like to think that I will be okay with whatever sexuality they grow into.

    However, I think I would still be flummoxed if they choose to change their gender. Not appalled--but flummoxed. Gender is so central to identity--more so than sexuality, I think.

  10. interesting. i'm in the "i honestly won't mind how my child chooses to express their gender and sexuality (aside from, like, slutting it up at a young age to prove a point or whatever)" although i would worry that if i had a boy who liked to wear dresses and dance ballet, that it would be harder for HIM, and i think that's what would stress me out as a parent. as we all know, there are plenty of people who AREN'T as tolerant of outside-the-gender-box thinking, so i imagine it must really hurt to watch your child be mocked / teased / rejected because of it. not that i'd try to convince him not to wear dresses as a result, but i imagine it's harder to deal with because of all the outside perceptions.

  11. This is so interesting to me. We didn't find out the sex during pregnancy, and it made people CRAZY. Literally, I had angry relatives: "How will I know whether to buy PINK or BLUE??"

    When she was born, literal MOUNTAINS of pink clothing were delivered to the hospital. MOUNTAINS. It was all very generous, but also very clear that people felt that they needed to mark her as "her."

    Madeline has dolls and cars. She has footballs and a play kitchen. We try to be "equal" in what we do with her. I think that being open to whatever she wants to pursue is the best way to diminish gender... not forcing it to be some "secret" that will eventually become the entire focus of her life/self.

  12. I think this is so, so interesting Jess. I love this topic. In principle, I support what the Swedish couple is doing, but on the other hand, how much harder are they actually making it for their kid?
    As Alice said "although i would worry that if i had a boy who liked to wear dresses and dance ballet, that it would be harder for HIM, and i think that's what would stress me out as a parent.". I agree with this. And so...aren't these parents kind of intentionally making it more difficult for their kid, just to prove a point? Who really wins here? Again, I get where they are coming from but I don't know that I could do it to my (non-existent) child, who still has to live in a society where awareness of gender/sex is so deeply ingrained.

    I also love your point about how people shouldn't have to come out, and make a big deal of it. I think if it takes THEM longer to figure it out, it might necessarily be a coming out as a turning point for them, as another commenter said. But overall, hopefully they won't feel like it will matter to you.

  13. Too bad not a lot of parents here think like you and some more people who think like you. All too conventional, my friend was basically kicked out of the house and banned from the family for being gay. That was sad!

  14. I kind of think it's terrible what the Swedish couple is doing. I'm of the belief that biology is above and beyond more powerful than one's environment, though the two definitely work together to make a whole.

    I think that if a person says "I'm not letting my little girl wear pink" then they're still forcing social constructs on a child. It's virtually impossible to live without gender roles, period. I believe they exist for a reason.

  15. Our main (very small) concession to this idea is to not buy clothing that's covered in gender typed objects - trucks and footballs and tools for boys. Tools are for girls too!
    And if Eli wants to wear boys or pink, we let him. We just kind of make all of that not a big deal at our house, I hope.
    But some of it just happens. We never bought him "boy" toys, and he developed his INTENSE love of trucks all on his own. We even tried to discourage it a bit, but no dice. The boy loves trucks. he's not interested in dolls. And eh, I am not going to fight that, you know?
    As long as my kids know that they can be and do anything they want, I'm good.

  16. gender scmender.

    whats that saying? Sex is biological, but gender is a choice?

    something like that. I honestly couldn't care less.

  17. I've always had some issues with the ethics of the whole transgender phenomenon. It seems to run counter to decades of progressive and feminist thought about gender being fluid and basically arbitrary. In that light, the insistence that you ARE a gender, even if it's the opposite of the one you were "born with," seems bizarrely reactionary and old-fashioned. On the other hand, it's easy to see why people might make that leap if they're being treated like freaks for not conforming to their expected gender roles.

    Of course if I had a child who decided they needed surgeries and hormone treatments to be happy, I would do what I could to help them, but it just seems surprising to me that this is even still an issue in the 21st century.

  18. I agree. I think of it this way: that it's necessary to make certain assumptions when we don't yet have the information straight from the source---but then later my plan is to take my assumptions from the information provided by the child, who presumably knows better than I do who he/she is.

  19. Also, I think in some cases things have swung the other way, so that mothers will say they HATE pink and HATE princess stuff and WON'T let their daughters have any of that crap. And I think, "Well, er....what about those of us girls who HATE tomboy stuff and LOVE glitter/pink? Isn't that okay for us to be that way?"

  20. One of my best friends handled a comment so well I am forever proud of him.

    A woman stopped by and cooed over he son when he was two and said, "Oh, he is going to break some young woman's heart some day!" And my friend, J., replied cool as a cucumber, "Or some young man's heart."

  21. I think the idea of this Swedish couple that they can allow their child to 'choose' his or her own gender in an environment without prejudice or direction either way is a little misguided. From what you've written, this Swedish child is not being raised in a vacuum where he/she can choose what he/she wants to be purely and without any sort of push either way. We are always products of our environment as well as our biology and leaving the choice up to your child is just as full of influence as dressing him/her in societally appropriate colors.
    I believe we need the distinctions of gender in our world and in fact we cannot abolish them . I am proud to be a woman but being a woman has nothing to do with the color of clothes I wear or the toys I played with as a child. For me, it is about female strength and character and embracing my feminine body and heart. That's what I hope to teach my daughter. She need not be ashamed of who she is as a woman. When we try to strip everyone of their gender, we loose precious and beautiful things that go along with our distinctions and differences.
    Thanks for the interesting post Jess.

  22. Swistle: To answer your question, I don't mind if a little girl CHOOSES those things at all. What I don't like is FOISTING it upon her, because that's what I'm supposed to do, you know? I'm sensitive to this because it was done to me in one of my households growing up, which is probably how we all parent -- through influences, positive or negative, of our childhood.

    But it's like anything -- you choose what values you'd like your kid to have, and you do your best to instill them, but at a certain point, you have no control. For me, the princess stuff is not something I'm cool with, because I don't dig the lessons behind it that much. I don't see it as any different than families who don't let their boys play with guns.

    I mean, you could argue that one is more damaging than the other, but it's all SOMEthing, I guess.

    I dress my kid in all kinds of stuff, btw. I got over the idea that I didn't want her to be girly at all, though I try to avoid pink. It's hard to deny that she's just so goddamn CUTE in a dress, that's all.

  23. My mom and I were just talking about how she intentionally tried to avoid any kind of gendered toys or clothing, but by the age of three I wouldn't go anywhere without a purse I'd found in her closet.

    I always wonder why people are so quick to apologize for mistaking a baby for the wrong sex. Unless the parents very clearly chose gendered clothes for the kid, babies are babies and you never know. I wish I could feel more comfortable saying "He...she? is adorable!"

  24. @Lauchlin:

    An important thing to remember is that a lot of trans folk have a hard time articulating what exactly we feel.

    For many of us, it's this inexplicable feeling that our body parts are foreign. A feeling almost exactly the same to what BIID sufferers have regarding one or more of their legs or arms. Of course, legs don't have huge social connotations like genitals do.

    So imagine if you will, that you had this inexplicable feeling of wrongness/foreign-ness to your secondary sexual characteristics (or even just some of them) and that different characteristics (or no sexual characteristics at all) felt more natural to you.

    Because of how strongly society pushes gender and sex being closely tied, most people are going to feel that and try to articulate it as them being a girl/guy/agendered/etc on the inside or having been meant to be that way.

    Those of us with a bit more knowledge of psychology and feminist theory usually recognize that it's just bodily instincts and a person's attempt to describe and understand a feeling that really isn't describable.

    I go into the misconceptions about (and misnaming of) the "brain sex" theory in greater detail here and the actual sensation of bodily dysphoria common among many transsexuals here.

    I hope they're informative. Don't hesitate to ask questions, either.

  25. I could not agree with you more. I am raising 2 boys (3 and 1) and my husband is your typical MAN who does MAN things and likes MAN stuff, so obviously our sons are BOYS because he treats them that way. I have a much more open view, my 3 year old likes to play with dolls and loves art and likes to carry around one of my purses while walking around in my shoes. Doesn't bother me one bit. I'd be lying if I said my husband was totally cool with it, but I give him credit that he keeps his mouth shut and doesn't say ANYTHING to make our son feel like he's doing anything wrong (because he isn't). My goal as their mother is to support them and love them for who THEY are and who they grow into being. I don't believe in "molding" my children into anything. Great post!

  26. I think gender identification is important, actually, and disagree with the idea of not allowing that process to happen with small children. I understand, however, the desire to let the child explore his/her own gender and make choices independent of what grownups expect, but I dont' think disguising a child's gender is the only means.


    Mom of a daughter who loves to wear tutus, play with Thomas the Train, and nurses her soccer ball back to health.

  27. I am also of the -whatever makes your kids happy- school of thought. Genderization happens so fast- not just because of parents but because of society.
    So I'll let my kids be who they wish to be. I figure acceptance is the greatest gift parents can give their kids :p

  28. My experience is that kids will be who they were meant to be. Princess stuff, pink clothes, frills - if you have a girl, she'll have those things thanks to the generosity of family and friends. Ultimately, they'll choose what they like. My oldest daughter was more of a trains/puzzles/lego kid; my son loved any kind of sports/balls; my youngest daughter is a girly-girl, loving princesses, dress-up and dolls. We didn't actively encourage any of it, but I would discourage any of it either.

  29. I gotta say, that's insane. You can encourage all the things that lacking a gender would bring about without totally confusing the hell out of the child.

  30. I agree with you- but I think I'll find it hard. I don't want to assume that my child will be hetero, because I don't really care. But at the same time, I think it'll be very hard to avoid that assumption.

    The Swedish couple's approach is fascinating, but it feels a bit too "experiment-y" for me.

  31. I took a "Gender in Society" class my last semester of college and read A LOT on this topic. After that, I would try my hardest not to force a gender role onto a child. But, I know, that with our society, it will be very difficult.